"You ruined my life!"
“I do a lot for others, but I still feel terribly guilty, because I know I could do more.”
I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by many people in my eight years with The Life You Can Save. For instance, when I first started working with Peter Singer, I remember accompanying him to a talk he gave at Google. I don’t recall much about the talk, but I do recall this scene vividly. During the Q&A, a woman in the audience took the microphone. I remember her hand was shaking from what I assumed was nervousness but what ended up being closer to frustration and distress.
“You ruined my life!” she exclaimed.
The woman went on to explain that she could no longer spend any money on herself or family without feeling terribly guilty because she knew she should be giving the money to fight extreme poverty instead. Her reaction may have been somewhat extreme, but I knew the sense of guilt she was feeling all too well, and I have experienced it many times myself since I first read The Life You Can Save.
Peter did an excellent job of reassuring this woman in the moment. He pointed out that “none of us are saints” and that, while he gives away approximately ⅓ of his annual income, he could still afford to donate more. Peter may have handled this very difficult situation gracefully and effectively, but the fact remains that Peter’s philosophy sets a very high standard. Taken to its logical extreme, Peter’s argument is that “we must give until if we gave more, we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the bad things our donations can prevent” (Singer, The Life You Can Save, p. 184). And when our donations help prevent things like severe illness, blindness and even death, it’s clear that we have a lot we could sacrifice before we ever meet such a standard!
Of course, very few people, including Peter Singer himself, ever do meet this most exacting standard. But the truth is we don’t have to meet it to make a huge difference. And that’s why Peter and his organization, The Life You Can Save, adopt a more practical approach to giving that asks people to donate significantly less than the highest moral standard might demand. (see Chapters 9 & 10 of The Life You Can Save).
On our website, we provide a calculator where you can enter your annual income and receive a suggested dollar amount to give that is far below what that strictest moral standard might require. Indeed, our calculator only takes annual income into account and not overall wealth, which means it is more likely to underestimate what a wealthy person could comfortably give than overestimate it. For example, if you make US$70,000 per year, the suggested amount to give annually is US$700 (i.e. 1% of your annual income). If you make US$150,000, the suggested amount is US$4,760 (or 3.2% of your annual income). If you earn US$300,000, the suggested annual donation is US$19,760 (or 6.6% of your annual income).
As you can see, all these suggested amounts fall well below the highest ethical standard. And yet, virtually none of my close friends, former business colleagues or acquaintances donate anywhere close to these suggested amounts given their annual incomes and wealth.
In my experience, it seems that people can be divided into three different groups. The first and largest group by far contains people who donate very little relative to their annual income and wealth. The second group, which is extremely small, contains those people who meet Peter’s highest ethical standard. And the third group contains those people who donate significant amounts of money, but feel guilty that they do not donate more.
My wife and I belong to this third group. And it’s also the group I set out to speak to when I started writing this piece. (We’ve tried to address the first group that does not give very much relative to their income in our blogs on “common objectives to giving,” which you can find here).
A few days ago, I had planned to suggest to this “guilty” group (and myself) not to feel badly about their giving and to just try to achieve their philanthropic "personal best" by giving more and more effectively each year. I was also thinking that we ought to spend more time congratulating ourselves for what we have accomplished. This seemed fair and also the best way to motivate people in this group to do more.
But then, as I started writing, I heard a presentation by one of our recommended charities, Development Media International (DMI). That presentation derailed my thinking about the issues I was writing about and led my wife and me to do some serious soul searching. DMI is currently launching a "model project" for child survival in six African countries. The project uses radio and TV vignettes to encourage a number of parental behaviors that can save their children’s lives. DMI needs US$5 million to fully execute the project.
So what exactly about DMI’s new project led my wife Diana and I to do some more soul searching? The leaders of DMI believe that the planned interventions, which previous randomized controlled trials (RCT) have proven effective in other DMI interventions, will save a child’s life for a surprisingly low cost (for details about the project see this link).