“Charity ain’t for me, I’m a hedonist, you see!”

This is a curious objection charity sometimes gets. It is curious first because the term “hedonist” actually just means “someone who tries to maximize happiness”. You can be an egoistic hedonist and care about your own happiness only; an altruistic hedonist and care about the happiness of everyone equally; or any combination of the two. Unfortunately, “hedonist” has come to narrowly mean “egoistic hedonist”. So the idea of the reply is: I’m an egoist, basically 100%, so I care about the well-being of others to a 0% degree, which is why charity wouldn’t intrinsically contribute to achieving my goals and would thus be irrational for me.

This idea is curious, too. For imagine what being a 100% egoist would imply: Say you’re secretly offered to push a button that gives you $3,400 (or even just one dollar), inflicts a fatal disease on a child, and removes any potential bad feelings you might have about it. Would you do it? Thoroughgoing egoists shouldn’t hesitate, for such agents only spend and save resources for themselves. – An interesting follow-up question is: Is there any relevant difference between this scenario and the scenario of not pushing one’s bank account button to subtract $3,400 – the approximate cost of a life in poor and disease-ridden countries – in order to prevent a child from dying? For more arguments about this real-life scenario, see the post “Saving lives through donations: A rational choice.”

Last but not least, the idea is curious because it probably assumes charitable giving is drudgery. But we’re the very richest people that have ever lived on this planet and many of us can afford giving 10% or more of what we earn without even noticing it in our daily lives. Furthermore, psychological studies suggest that charitable giving tends to benefit oneself also. Making the world a better place (as cost-effectively as possible) gives over-arching meaning and purpose to the careers we pursue, and helps prevent feelings of pointlessness. Also, it’s strategically important for effective world-improvers to consciously avoid charity being drudgery: The more burdensome charitable commitments are, the less likely people will be to stick to them life-long. And life-long commitments are crucial when it comes to maximizing world-improvement EV.


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