Why I Donate 10% of My Income (And Why I’m Kind of Embarrassed to Talk About It)

In 2019, I started donating 10% of my income to charity.

I remain very hesitant to discuss this decision publicly. I worry that it sounds like I’m bragging, or that my altruism will seem performative. But I’ve grown convinced that sharing this commitment could have even more of an impact than the donations themselves. Plus, I promised this newsletter would be weekly, and I need topic ideas. So I’m forcing myself to get over my embarrassment. Here we go.


The specific commitment I made is the Giving What We Can pledge, an outgrowth of the effective altruism movement, whose signatories pledge 10% of their lifetime income to “the causes that can do the most good.” So I’m not only on the hook for 10% of all my income going forward, I also have to backfill the 10% that I didn’t donate from 2012 to 2018. (“Luckily,” I made very little money that whole time.)

The paradox of the GWWC pledge is that even though the effective altruism movement heavily emphasizes rationality and data-driven decision-making, the commitment itself—and the 10% number especially—is not really data-driven at all. It’s essentially a reasonable-feeling compromise between the most extreme form of the philosophy behind it—that you should give everything above subsistence level to those who are more in need—and what most people do, which is donate almost nothing. Plus, there’s the historical precedent of 10% as a tithing percentage in various religions, not to mention the fact that ten is a nice, round number. Everyone likes a nice, round number. There’s a reason you never hear about the Seven Commandments, or see frat boys rating women’s looks on a scale of one to sixteen.

Anyway. Peter Singer, the philosopher whose work inspired both the Giving What We Can pledge and the effective altruism movement more generally, illustrates what he considers the ethical imperative to give with the following very annoying thought experiment. You walk by a child drowning in a pond who you could easily save, but you let them drown because you don’t want to ruin your new suit, which you have for some reason decided to wear on a nature walk. Pretty much everyone would consider this behavior monstrous. (Well, except maybe the anti-natalists.) But every time someone buys, say, a second-pair of adult light-up shoes after ruining their previous pair at a concert the very first time they ever wore them (a completely hypothetical example which is obviously not drawn from my own life in any way), instead of using that money to save someone’s life in the developing world, they are essentially making the same choice.

Singer acknowledges that the end-state implications of his belief are impossible for almost anyone to live out fully (though I recommend the excellent book Strangers Drowning, about extreme altruists, to learn about a few remarkable exceptions), but to his credit he does go pretty far towards embodying his philosophy, donating 25–30% of his income each year. (Though he’s also, for what it’s worth, a notorious asshole in real life, as are many philosophers. This remains one of the most enduring paradoxes of moral philosophy.)

I find it hard to dispute the logic of Singer’s argument, especially if I think about it when I’m really high. But the truth is that my own commitment to donating 10% did not come from a particularly rational or thought-through place. I made the decision for essentially the same reason I make most decisions: it just felt right. It seems readily apparent to me that 10% of my income going to people who need it more than I do leaves everyone involved better off. Is making this kind of commitment a moral necessity, something everyone should do? I don’t know—I’m not really comfortable telling everyone else what to do, with the exception of peer-pressuring my friends to get dumb tattoos. But it started to feel very much like something I should do.

I’ve been thinking about writing something like this for almost as long as I’ve been donating, but I’ve always been too nervous. Despite having intentionally cultivated a very public internet presence, the truth is I’ve actually never been the kind of person who reveals much of their true selves to a wider audience. In a certain way, I’m actually quite private. (This newsletter is in part a push to myself to change that.)

And there’s something about public charitability that I just find, I don’t know… so gauche. The last thing I want is to come across as anything like the men (and it is mostly men) who put their names on buildings, all of whom I see as either making a pathetic, fruitless stab at immortality, or essentially just erecting a giant phallus.

But it’s become more and more apparent to me, both through research and through my own experience, that we make our moral decisions based mostly on what the people around us are doing. There’s no question that reading about the moral commitments of other people I admire—Scott Alexander donating his 10%, or Dylan Matthews donating his kidney to a stranger—heavily influenced my own thinking. Eventually, it just started to seem ridiculous that I would readily push my friends to engage in all kinds of foolish hedonism, but wouldn’t put the same energy into promoting something that could actually save lives.

Going public about this is a way to leverage my own donation power: I’m never going to start giving 100% of my income away. But I might be able to convince nine other people to give 10% of theirs.

Yours in performative altruism,

Max

P.S. I’m considering writing a sequel to this that would dive into how I decide where to donate (spoiler alert: somewhat haphazardly!) and some of the strategies I’ve developed for sticking with my commitment. If that’s the kind of thing you’d be interested in reading, reply to this and let me know, or tweet at me @maxnuss.


Read of the week: I am all about this Palladium Magazine piece on how competitive hormone supplementation is shaping America’s business titans, especially this bit (which I’d previously seen theorized in Matt Levine’s excellent Money Stuff newsletter) about the dopaminergic theory of financial bubbles—a.k.a, how they’re connected to bankers’ use of illegal drugs:

There are two bubbles that we can attribute pretty directly to the availability of exciting new dopaminergic drugs. In the 1980s, the U.S. was flooded with cocaine. The 1980s were also the era of the hostile takeover: find some sleepy old company, borrow 95% of the value of the company’s assets, buy it up, shut it down, liquidate the pension, and walk away with a big chunk. This is total cokehead behavior.

Two decades later, there was another hot net drug: Adderall. Adderall is the drug of choice for rote, repetitive tasks that still require some brainpower. And in the 2000s, the big boom wasn’t in swashbuckling buyouts: it was in complex credit derivatives.

Adderall helps people power through boring tasks, but it doesn’t help you work on the right thing. The credit bubble was predicated on the [now obviously incorrect] idea that real estate, while volatile at the level of individual houses and even individual cities, was stable at a national level.

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