What if a latte could save a life?

08 april 2015

Guest blog by Michael Nee *

Wealth is a strange thing. Too little can literally kill you, but at the same time having more than you can ever spend will almost certainly never satisfy you. And yet we live in a world where both conditions exist: thousands of people have more wealth than they can ever spend, while millions die because they lack the most basic resources. Moreover, millions have far more than they need, while billions have barely enough to subsist. A world where people can die for want of the most simple health interventions, while others feel burdened by the extent of their possessions.

Giving What We Can

Of course, the coexistence of profligate consumerism and abject poverty is neither new nor only recently noticed. However, what is new is the realisation among a small but growing group of people that individuals of even modest means have the power to do substantial, quantifiable good in the world. This movement is known as Giving What We Can, and its members believe that given their relative wealth and comfortable living standard, they ought to pledge 10% or more of their income to ending world poverty.

I first encountered Giving What We Can a little over four years ago, when I read about how Toby Ord had pledged to give away everything he earned above £20,000. I had become uncomfortable with my relationship to consumerism, and that strange impulse to purchase and possess things that I didn’t need, or on reflection even want. A couple of years later I came across David Roberts’ two posts about ‘the medium chill’, and living a life that reflects meaningful values rather than consumerist aspirations.

Then I read The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. It was quite a profound experience: I vividly remember reading just the title, and realising that somehow I had already lost the argument, before it even began. I was forced to confront the fact that although I thought extreme poverty was bad, that I endorsed the redistribution of wealth, and that I professed to believe that all lives have equal worth, in reality I did nothing to promote these values that I espoused - even though I clearly had the practical means to do so.

How could I claim to believe that all lives have equal value, when mosquito nets cost $5.30 (malaria kills 660,000 people a year, mostly children), yet I bought a latte at around the same price several times a week, whilst donating nothing? How could I claim to support the redistribution of wealth when I was among the richest 5% of people in the world (check to see where you are)? I could easily donate some of my income to organisations like GiveDirectly, who have a proven and transparent record of distributing funds to those who really need it. Yet I didn’t. I’m from a working-class background and I don’t have a particularly large income, but I was born in an advanced economy to parents who worked hard to give me a good education. By global standards, I was obviously doing tremendously well through little more than dumb luck.

Giving What We Can DublinI realised that I needed to close the gap, at least somewhat, between the values I held and the actions I took, so I began to donate 4% of my income via GiveWell. Not only did it not feel like a burden, it actually felt good, better than any frivolous purchase, and even many non-frivolous ones. I felt a connection between my deeds and my values that was deeply and truly satisfying. It was a win-win. What I did was good, and doing good was good for me. I took the pledge, and started a Dublin chapter of Giving What We Can.

Do I drink frivolous lattes anymore? No—I’ve since decided cappuccinos are far superior (it is my sincere hope that this is the most controversial part of this post). My life hasn’t changed noticeably in material terms, and I don’t live a monkish existence. I cut down a little on what I spent on unnecessary things, and this allowed me to do something far better with my earnings.

I know 10% can seem like a lot. In truth, it is a lot, which is kind of the point—what we give to others who need it far more should be substantial. But even 1-5% of your income can make a huge difference to the most cost-effective charities. If stepping off the “aspirational treadmill” and spending on something more meaningful sounds appealing, but you’re worried about the commitment, why not try giving and start out with a small amount? The experience might surprise you.

Many of us have the ability to do real good in the world, to save or radically improve the lives of others at little cost to ourselves. It’s a tremendous opportunity, and one we should take.

* Michael Nee is a UCD Philosophy graduate and effective altruist who currently works in eCommerce

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