The Murky Importance of Giving: A Reading List

I have a Facebook “friend”—let’s call him Ken—who does something finance-y for the federal government. What I’m saying is, he has money to burn. Every few months, he’ll post a Facebook status along the lines of “For every ‘like’ I will donate $1 to _______ and for every comment I will donate $3 to ________.” Of course, his thousands of Facebook acquaintances are only happy to oblige. Most of my friends don’t make much more than their car insurance payments, student loans, rent and other bills; maybe that’s why Ken’s altruism seems so novel, almost suspect. In reading for this list, I discovered people who give freely, their generosity intertwined with thoughtfulness at best; carelessness, illness or guilt at worst.

1. “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving.”

Sam Kean, The Atlantic, May 2015

Giving, it seems, might become compulsive in some people because they crave the rush of dopamine that accompanies it—a rush that might be similar to the spike in dopamine levels that gets some people hooked on drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. In a real sense, pathological givers might be addicted to philanthropy.

2. “Extreme Altruism: Should You Care for Strangers at the Expense of Your Family?”

Larissa MacFarquhar, The Guardian, September 2015

The most crucial element of the system was that henceforth Jeff’s money and Julia’s money would be considered entirely separate. Jeff decided he would give away 50% of his salary and keep the rest for spending and saving; Julia would give away 100% of hers. Out of the remainder of Jeff’s salary, he allotted an allowance to each of them of $38 a week, which they would use to pay for everything other than rent and food – things such as clothes, shoes, transportation and treats like candy apples. Jeff decreed that this allowance had to be spent on these things: it could not be given away, and it could not be saved. That way, if Julia wanted to spend money on something, she would not be taking that money away from someone who was dying.

3. “Against Charity.”

Matthew Snow, Jacobin, August 2015

An anti-capitalist critique of the Effective Altruism movement, explained in #2.

4. “The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes.”

Elizabeth L. Cline, Slate, June 2012

Five tons a year. Eleven thousand two hundred pieces per day. That’s how much clothing the Quincy Street Salvation Army distribution center in Brooklyn, New York sorts regularly. But these clothes have a deadline, and their usefulness as an aid tool is rapidly dwindling.

5. “Live Aid: The Terrible Truth.”

Spin, republished July 2015

Originally published in 1986, here is Spin’s exposé of Live Aid. Thirty years later, you can still feel the urgency in these words. Tons and tons of food and other supplies were left to rot on Ethiopian docks. These resources were knowingly donated to a cruel, corrupt government perpetuating genocidal civil wars.