Put Yourself First

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

– Oscar Wilde

As I recently have found a bit of peace and positivity in my life, I have been thinking more about giving time and money to charity.  However I continually ponder the question: should I forgo giving in charity to invest in myself or does charity actually play a role in investing in one’s self?

Until recently, I was completely reluctant to give money or time to charity because I was so uncomfortable.  I was uncomfortable because deep down I knew I was on an unsustainable life path.  If I kept on the same path, I knew I would blow up (mentally, emotionally, physically) in a year or two.  I was taught in high school that volunteering was good, but it never made me feel very good.  I doubt that volunteering would have fixed my uncomfortable state unless it made me grateful for what I had. However, I am very willing to admit that I might be the exception.

Importantly, I do want to mention, feeling good is not the same as doing good.  Malcolm Gladwell has proposed many times that giving money to Harvard’s (insert any wealthy private institution here) endowment is reprehensible.  I could not agree more strongly; the person who gets their name on the building likely feels really good, but the morality is dubious at best.  If you give money with the knowledge that your money could do more actual good somewhere else (i.e. giving to a rich college vs. poor college), you are clearly not giving in a moral manner.  Gladwell asked the president of Stanford if there was any amount of money that he would begin to recommend be directed toward another use or cause.  The president was unable to admit that any other organization could use the money more effectively.  Even if his school was in great need and he thought that a university education was the most important thing in the world, the fact that he couldn’t admit diminishing returns is stunning. I don’t know which is worse, completely deluding yourself or having the knowledge that your giving is not primarily motivated by actually doing good in the world.

For those who actually want to do good, I would suggest not giving money to charity while you are young (or not completely financially established).  I know that various places will tug at your emotions to give, and I will admit that I do occasionally fall prey to giving out $20 here and there because I feel either a shred of guilt or empathy.  Volunteer your time and do research about various causes to determine which is most noble.  I believe volunteering can give great perspective on your personal privileges (increase happiness/utility), as well as do some good.  However, this begs the question: what should you do with your money instead?

I claim that you should invest in yourself up to a certain point (financial establishment).  I know this could easily lead to excess consumption, but if you are moral enough to plan to give your money to the “best” cause in the future you should be able to curb at least a portion of your consumption.  I do believe we are morally obligated to balance our own desires with the fact that consumption has negative externalities, but that is a topic for another article.  My vague idea of “financial establishment” is a situation in which you either have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of your probable life without further employment, or you feel confident that your probable income stream comes from a sustainable place and you are able to live comfortably for the rest of your life with this probable income.

Sustainable, in this sense, is meant to suggest that you will be willing and able to continue making money from a predictable path until you have enough money to live on for the rest of your life.  I know prediction is often a folly; however, financial establishment is a personal state of mind based on how confident you are about your future earnings. Two people in the exact same job with the exact same net worth might have very different levels of financial establishment.  I do realize that many Americans will suffer the fate of never being financial established whether through their own excess consumption or lack of opportunity, but even if all of the 50% of the workers in the US (who actually earn an income) were to give 10 dollars it would still pale in comparison to the amount that Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. plan on giving or have already given.

There is a pretty easy economic argument for why the average person should only give money to one cause or place.  If you believe it is the most noble and you cannot actually give enough individually to make a difference, then you should only give to that place until new information arises that there is a more noble place to give your money.  This of course changes when you have billion of dollars to give, as you have to do a more complex analysis of how much to give to different causes as your money will actually have a very observable impact.  I am not of course suggesting that an average person should give to only one charity your entire life; beliefs will change and causes may have enough money contributed, shifting priorities to more pressing matters (see the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge).

In summary, I am of the opinion that most people should not give to charity and that everyone (especially the super wealthy) should be more thoughtful with their giving. I am nowhere near being “financial established,” but I am in a fortunate enough position that I should give a little bit more of my time and energy into helping other people and figuring out how to help people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *