The Record recently published a thoughtful piece arguing that the Public Interest Pledge is “no more than a symbolic gesture of penance for Harvard students who feel guilty about not doing enough.” Although we disagree with this characterization of the Pledge, we take the author’s moral licensing argument seriously, which is why we write here to defend the Pledge both as an end in itself and as a catalyst for increased and more effective charitable giving at HLS.
Despite being the richest of people in the world, the highest-earning Americans give shockingly little to charity, while their lower-earning counterparts give more. What’s more, the rich are less likely to support social services for the poor than the poor themselves are. And almost all American charitable dollars are given to domestic charities, despite America’s relative prosperity (an American living at the poverty line is still wealthier than 86.2% of people) and the fact that it is far easier to dramatically improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty.
HLS Effective Altruism—and our main project, the Pledge—is a response to these disheartening facts. We believe that, as members of the most affluent society in history (and, as HLS students specifically, persons with considerable political, social, career, and economic capital), we have both the ethical obligation and incredible opportunity to use our resources to do good. We have organized the Pledge over the past several years to attempt to instill a culture of giving to highly cost-effective, proven charities that aid the global poor among HLS students. We hope that once students experience the reward of giving to those living in extreme poverty from their summer income, they will be more likely to commit to a lifetime of such giving and inspire others to do so. Thus, the Pledge is not just an end in itself, but is also hopefully the first manifestation of a lifelong commitment to aiding the global poor.
We do not claim that giving 1% of one’s salary (during the summer or during one’s lifetime) is sufficient. A just life has many components. At HLS, our career choices and our politics get the most attention, but we often neglect discussions about whether, where, and how much to give. This is a significant oversight given the average HLS student’s sizeable lifetime earnings.
We and our partner organization, One For The World (OFTW), ask for a 1% commitment because it presents a low barrier for young people with a variety of apprehensions about where and how to give meaningfully for perhaps the first time. Moreover, the breadth of that appeal allows us to build a community of people publicly committed to giving to the global poor, regardless of their career choices or personal circumstances, leaving the conversation on how to do the most good as open as possible. We hope people will continue to give more than 1% total, and we explicitly disavow the suggestion that 1%—or any given figure—is sufficient.
Still, we know that explicit discouragement of moral licensing is insufficient to prevent it, and that good intentions can easily have unforeseen consequences. However, the proportion of Harvard grads choosing firm jobs has remained remarkably constant over the long run and in recent years. We therefore doubt that the Pledge, important though we think it is, alters many career trajectories: the economics of the legal profession (and the vast sums expended by firms on recruitment and promotion) will likely continue to draw most grads to high-earning jobs, regardless of what we do. Given this, harnessing our enormous collective earning potential and redirecting some of it to the global poor, as the Pledge does, is an extremely promising avenue for doing good.
Finally, we firmly disagree that Pledge donations amount to “no more than a symbolic gesture.” Such a characterization first ignores the fact that many Pledgers are donating from SPIF, and therefore working for good both through their summer jobs and through donating. More importantly, though, this ignores the real, significant impact that Pledge dollars given to the global poor through OFTW can have. As of today, approximately $14,458 has been pledged specifically to OFTW and its recommended charities. Although this does not sound like much to students paying more than four times that much per year in tuition, the magic of these charities is that they are extraordinarily cost-effective. If every OFTW Pledger follows through, these donations will, depending on where exactly donors allocate them, protect over 8,700 people from malaria, deworm over 144,000 children, fully fund 60 people living in extreme poverty for 1–2 years, or some combination thereof. Providing such basic, life-saving healthcare and other essential services to the world’s poorest people is far from mere symbolism.
HLS Effective Altruism is a student organization dedicated to using evidence to maximize the good we do for others.