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The Giving What We Can Pledge: self-determination vs. self-binding

These are personal reflections and don’t reflect any official stance of CEA or Giving What We Can (I work for CEA). I’ve talked to some of my colleagues. Some of them have had similar thoughts, others haven’t.

When I was 21 (I’m now 27), I took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of my income to effective charities. This was a pretty big commitment, and worth taking some time to think about. My biggest worry was that I would regret it.

I’ve seen some discussion of this worry elsewhere by people considering taking the pledge (see point 2 in Alyssa Vance’s post). I thought it would be helpful to talk about my reasoning in case it resonates with others.

 

At first, I was tempted by the idea that regret wouldn’t matter – future selfish me is an idiot. And to the extent that I could bind future selfish me that would be just fine. But on reflection, this didn’t seem right to me – from current me’s perspective, my misanthropic potential future self would be mistaken. But from future selfish me’s perspective (I presume), current me was an ardent fool. It didn’t seem fair to bind my future self, based on my current self’s first mover advantage. I was confused. So I read some philosophy (as one does).

The situation bears a striking resemblance to Derek Parfit’s story of the young Russian nobleman (paraphrased from Parfit, 1973, p. 146):

A young idealistic nobleman knows that he’s set to inherit a large sum of money in the future. Wary of his own fading idealism, he promises his wife that he will donate this money to the socialist party to help the poor. He asks her to hold him to this promise, no matter how much his future self pleads and begs for her to release him.

Now it seemed to me that what the young nobleman does is quite unfair (particularly on his wife but let’s set that aside).

Insofar as the current and future nobleman is a single person, persisting through time, then my conception of rationality [1] says he should consider his future self’s preferences as well as his current self’s preferences. [2]

Insofar as the current and future noblemen are different people, then it seems like an unfair restriction on his future self’s choice set. I certainly wouldn’t endorse forcing people to take the pledge who didn’t want to [3] – so I wouldn’t endorse forcing future me to do something he didn’t want to [4].

But I took the pledge anyway because I didn’t think that my future self would regret it. Six years on, this has been true so far. There hasn’t yet been a point where I’ve felt even a twinge of regret, and this characterises the vast majority of pledgers I’ve talked to (I acknowledge there may be some selection effect here). If I didn’t take the pledge, I don’t think my future self would regret it either (although I’m less sure about this). [5] [6]

For me, taking the pledge wasn’t primarily an act of self-binding (restricting my future self). It was an act of self-determination (choosing which of my potential future selves actually came about). I think it changed my life in a positive way. If I hadn’t taken it, I think it’s very likely that my primary goal now wouldn’t be helping people. I hope I would have still done something a bit good – but there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t have.

I think it’s also likely that taking the pledge made me more, rather than less likely to use my career to help others. I don’t really know what it is about making public commitments [7] that changes how we view ourselves and define our life goals. But it seems to have worked, at least for me.

Three caveats:

  1. This consideration won’t apply to everyone. It depends on a bunch of psychological assumptions about me. But I think it does apply to a lot of people (notwithstanding typical mind fallacy) – so I’m happy the pledge exists, and I’m proud to work at an organisation that promotes it.
  2. It’s possible that 40 year old me might regret taking the pledge and be bound by it. But I don’t have any good reason to think this is likely.
  3. This is what I remember going through my head but it was a long time ago, and it’s possible I’ve filled in the gaps post hoc. In any case, I think this reflects my view now.
 

[1] I use this term in the weak Humean sense of instrumental rationality, meaning to act consistently with one’s own preferences (altruistic or self-interested) no matter what they are.

[2] Christine Korsgaard sums up my problem with the nobleman nicely:

“he doesn’t think of his future reasons as reasons… His efforts as a young man are dedicated to insuring that his younger self wins, and his older self loses. His soul is therefore characterized by civil war, and that is why he fails as an agent” (Korsgaard, 2009, p. 29)

[3] Although I would (in a world in which it was politically feasible and had minimal weird incentive effects) endorse a global redistributive tax, which seems a bit different.

[4] Assuming it’s not something stupid like smoking. Full disclosure: I smoke.

[5] These two statements are consistent because my two potential future selves are different people with different sets of preferences. The act of taking the pledge changed which of my future selves would come about.

[6] I think if I had pledged to give a lot more, it’s more likely that my future self would regret it.

[7] In fact, for me, it was initially a private commitment – I didn’t talk about if for a couple of years.

Comments (2)

Comment author: BenHoffman 02 February 2017 10:58:01PM 3 points [-]

This seems like it describes the most relevant considerations when thinking about how the pledge directly affects your own future actions. I think there's another angle worth considering, and that's the pledge as a report about your likely future actions.

You might be reluctant to take the pledge, not just out of a worry that you'll bind your future self to a wrong decision, but out of a worry that if your future self acts differently, people in the meantime will have made decisions based on your assurance. It's quite difficult to model others well enough to figure out whether they'll take the optimal action as you see it, but potentially easy to decide whether to believe their promises. This makes coordination easier.

A couple of years ago, a friend was considering a relocation that improved their expected lifetime impact substantially. Moving would potentially have put their personal finances under strain, so I offered to lend them a few thousand dollars if money should happen to be tight for a while. They found this offer sufficiently reassuring that they were happy to go ahead with the move without delay. I felt that the offer was morally binding on me barring severe unforeseen circumstances, but the point of my promise was neither to coercively bind my future self, nor simply to determine my future self's course of action by establishing some momentum. The point was to accurately report my future willingness to lend to my friend, with high confidence.

If it had turned out to be somewhat harder than anticipated to lend my friend the money, I would have considered myself obliged to work hard to figure out a solution. I don't think this was especially related to the fact that the behavior I was making a promise about was mine. If I ever make an assurance to someone, and they end up harming themselves because it turned out to be a false assurance, I consider myself at least somewhat obliged to try to make them whole.

Giving What We Can, for example, uses the number of people who have taken the pledge as a measurement of their impact. Giving What We Can itself and potential GWWC donors make decisions about whether promoting the pledge is a good use of resources, based on both the observed behavior of pledgers, and some beliefs about how serious pledgers' intent is. When considering publicly pledging, you should consider not just its effect on you, but that you're either providing accurate information or misinformation to those who are paying attention.

For this reason, I think that serious pledges should not be entered into unless the pledge is either easy (i.e. you predict with high confidence that you would do the pledged behavior anyway) or very important (you predict that taking the pledge gives you options much more valuable than the ones that might otherwise be available). An example of an easy pledge would be assuring a future houseguest that coffee will be available (if you regularly stock coffee). An example of a very important pledge might be marriage, in which by promising to stick with someone, you get them to promise the same to you - though many people delay getting married until the promise feels easy as well.

Comment author: JamesSnowden 03 February 2017 02:39:58PM 1 point [-]

I agree this seems relevant.

One slight complication is that donors to GWWC might expect a small proportion of people to renege on the pledge.