History of Earning to Give II

August 25th, 2013
ea, earning_to_give
Sometimes in talking to people about earning to give they say the idea is obvious: it's so simple! The thing is, no one seems to have been advocating it until the last decade or so. [1] Why not earlier? So I'm interested in the earliest discussions I can find of the idea. Here's a letter someone sent me that a recent graduate wrote Peter Singer around 1998, with Singer's responses inline:
For some time, since reading your "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" I have spared my living expenses down to about $20 per month.
[Singer: Amazing! Congratulations. (You should write an article about how to do it.)]
(This frugality owes more to the bounty of surplus food and shelter in Berkeley than to any industry on my part.) When I first reached this budget during graduate school, I was able to donate all my earnings from work to a local charity, Food First, which addresses world hunger in promoting international agrarian reform and food self-sufficiency. Since then, I have finished school and have been interning voluntariily for FoodFirst. My questions is, do you think there is greater utility in labor or capital? That is, greater good done in working freely for a philanthropic organization, or in working for pay at a for-proifit organization and donating all one's earnings to the philanthropic?

The answer would seem to depend first upon which profession one has skills for. But if one has the choice of working in either, how does one decide? By comparing the labor value of the donated work to that of the paid work? If, for instance, the work I donate to FoodFirst could be replaced by someone else's, for a small portion of a six-figure salary from a job offered me by Chase-Manhattan, then should I work for Chase?

[Singer: Yes, if you are strong enough to resist the tempation to become like your colleagues (and perhaps even influence them to be more like you.)]
I expect I derive no more personal satisfaction from working at FoodFirst than I would from working at a large financial institution, as long as I knew my time was well spent.

My concern is that few lucrative jobs break even. The extra salary won at a financial firm may well be outpaced by the damage done by the work—damage to those people I otherwise would have made donations to help. By this logic I can confidently turn down a job at the World Bank or the IMF. Do you think there are any institutions sufficiently isolated from the developing world within which one could transfer funds from the US to the developing world?

[Singer: You can also help to reform the institutions—i.e. be a Gorbachov at the World Bank. (And the WB has improved a bit in recent years.)]
Two thoughts:
  • The idea that the "extra salary won at a financial firm may well be outpaced by the damage done by the work" seems initially quite plausible, but rough calculations on relative magnitudes of the good and harm suggest it's not very likely. See Ben Todd's post, show me the harm.
  • Neither brings up replaceability, distinguishing between the good that happens because of our choices and the good that happens through us but because of other people's choices. Brian's 2006 essay is the first airing of that idea I've found.

[1] Peter Unger discusses it briefly in his 1996 Living High and Letting Die but mostly focuses on whether we have an obligation to help people at cost to ourselves. Vegan Outreach cofounder Jack Norris wrote about it as a career possibility in 2004, and then Brian Tomasik took the idea and dramatically expanded it writing "Why Activists Should Consider Making Lots of Money" in 2006. Recently the idea has been getting more coverage with 80000hours promoting it as a career option for altruists to consider seriously. More details here.

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