The Global Rich List.

I don’t know if its algorithm has recently been updated, but it popped up in my Facebook feed today with the following fact attached:

‎The world’s 225 richest people now have a combined wealth of $1 trillion. That’s equal to the combined annual income of the world’s 2.5 billion poorest people.

Which reminded me why I took the Giving What We Can pledge. I wrote an explanation a while back, but I’ve reposted it below. You can calculate your place on the Global Rich List here, and read more about Giving What We Can here.

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If you’re at Oxford, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of this already. But for those who aren’t or haven’t, it may be worth checking out this website, or this BBC article first if you want to read on.

For those of you still with me, then, it should be clear what the organisation is about. The purpose of this note is simply to make public my pledge to follow it, (that is, to donate at least 10% of my lifetime earnings to charity), and to explain why, briefly, in my own terms.

First, the purposes of going public. If I’m merely seeking praise here, it’s entirely subconscious. Of course in general I’d like it if you think good of me, but that not what’s on my mind as I’m writing this. There are, however, two purposes which I undoubtedly do intend.

First, the effect it might have on you. The whole point of Giving What We Can is not to be private in charity, and this comes not out of egoism (it would be a high price to pay for praise, at any rate), but out of the belief that seeing others giving will encourage you to do it too. I have to believe this because I know, deep down, this is what has happened to me. I’d like to think I would have grown up to donate a significant sum of my earnings to charity because, as you’ll see, I definitely believe I should, but I must accept the chances are that if I hadn’t heard of the movement, human nature as it is, I would never have done so. I know from experience, then, that giving is contagious. I think you should join me, and I hope that if you know I’ll be doing it, then that will at least make you give it extra thought.

The second reason for going public is implicit in what I’ve already said, but to draw it out: weakness of the will is real. I’d like to think I’m in control of myself, and that I can stand true to my beliefs, but I know it’s easy to kid yourself and to slip into akrasia. Letting others know, then, and a natural sense of shame, will hopefully help to keep these flaws in the cupboard.

Onto my reasons for giving itself, which are also twofold in nature. This is a strange thing to do, because I’m guessing we both think deep down that, in a sense, having lots of money whilst others needlessly fail in life, and deciding to do something about it, is a no-brainer not needing justification. Yet none of us, for whatever reason, impulsively leap at the opportunity to change things. So maybe it is in need of some explanation after all.

The first thought is a moral one. I’m skeptical of egalitarianism; I disagree strongly with cosmopolitanism. I don’t think this is an obligatory matter of justice, and I’d certainly be appalled if the state forced me to do this even if I nevertheless want to. My reason, I think, is a rather simple but powerful one: I know I could easily be tragically worse off than I am, through no fault of my own. I also know that if I were tragically worse off (and, I suppose, if I had the blessing of the power of thought as I do now), I would be amazed if those fortunate enough to be born better off ignored my plight on the other side of the world. Again, it’s easy to push this thought to one side, but in moments of clarity, when you realise what your fortunate life is built upon, I find it very hard to carry on walking with my head held high.

The second reason is an egoistic one of sorts, and through the fortune of coincidence it’s a merely academic question what I would do if this fact was otherwise than it was. But, luckily, I don’t think I face the problem of feeling that I should do this, but it will be highly detrimental to me. What I should do and what’s in my interest, don’t, fortunately, take opposite paths.

I will probably end up earning significantly more than the average person in my country, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine I only (only?) end up earning £20,000 a year. If my wife earns similarly, and I have two children, I’ll be in the top 7% of earners worldwide, even adjusting for PPP. If I donate 10% of my earnings, I would only drop to being in the top 8%. I’d go from being 15 times richer than the typical person, to 14 times richer, whilst in the process – really – saving tens of thousands of years of healthy life.

To say this will be detrimental to me is absurd. And if it ever does feel detrimental, I should only have to remind myself of these facts. We all know desire is insatiable. Whatever money we have, we’ll find a bad reason for wanting to spend it. And whilst we talk as if we couldn’t get by with less, we know that if push comes to shove, we could do so with ease. That’s why I say ‘at least’ 10%. I hope, like Toby, with experience I’ll find I can easily give more. But 10 for now will do. If you want to talk about this, please get in touch.

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Update: I’m struck by my fierce insistence in the above piece that I reject cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, and in short all the Rawlsian ingredients of a political theory I’ve grown to wholeheartedly embrace. How philosophy toys with your mind, and makes you change your deep beliefs in the space of a mere year…

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