Do your research – and donate!
Interview with Rutger Bregman
German (Deutsch) | Czech (Česky) | Spanish (Español)
Donating can be complete nonsense or the greatest thing you ever do in your life. You just have to look closely. Rutger Bregman, historian and author (including Utopia for Realists and Humankind: A Hopeful History) describes his personal view on philanthropy in a conversation with Effektiv Spenden.
Sebastian: Hi Rutger. Thanks a lot for talking to us and also for inspiring so many people to donate to effective charities. In our post donation survey you have been the most mentioned person with regards to the question “How did you become aware of us?” I assume at least one of the reasons for that is that you don’t only talk the talk, but also walk the walk by publicly pledging through our international partner organization Giving What We Can to donate at least 10% of your gross income to effective charities. So how did this decision to donate so generously come about?
Rutger: Well, actually, I think it all started with the realization that we, in rich countries, are very rich. Most people in rich countries have no idea just how rich they are. But, historically speaking and globally speaking, they’re very, very rich. So, for example, I just looked at the numbers, if you have an average wage in Germany, you’re already part of the richest 3% in the world. I mean, we all know about inequality, but we usually think about it from a national perspective. Well, you know, the biggest inequality is international. And I used to believe for quite a while, to be honest, that most charities are ineffective and that it’s often not very useful to donate. But as I became older, I started to worry that maybe that was an excuse for doing nothing and being lazy and cynical. And that’s when I discovered the effective altruism movement. And I was enormously excited to find out about it. That indeed you can just do your research, right? Just do the research. Of course, there are ineffective charities out there. Of course there are. I mean, there are many ineffective companies as well, right? There are companies that go bust all the time. So why wouldn’t the same be true for charities? But then there are enormously effective charities as well. And just because the world that we live in is so incredibly unequal, you can actually make a huge difference because you are part of the global elite. We all remember the Occupy Wall Street slogan about “We are the 99%”. And that may be true on a national level, but on a global level, we’re more like the 1%. And I think that gives us an enormous responsibility to do good. In fact, donating is one of the most effective ways to make a difference in this world as an inhabitant of a rich country. It’s an astonishing fact. But with just €4,000, according to our best estimates, you can save a life. I mean, saving a life, that’s probably one of the most important things you’ll ever do in your life. And I’m not saying it’s cheap, but for most of us, it’s doable if we save up the money. And indeed, the research shows us that if, for example, you donate it to the Against Malaria Foundation, we know because of very rigorous research that you save a life. I started to realize that the objections we have against this are merely wishful thinking. It’s merely excuses that we can come up with so that we don’t have to do anything.
Sebastian: Thanks for the explanation. I see it the same way, of course, but would like to dive a little deeper, because donating to an effective charity is one thing, but donating 10% of your gross income… Even though most people in Germany or the Netherlands are rich compared to the rest of the world, everyone gets used to the money they have and it’s still a challenge to voluntarily give up a significant amount of it. What do you think about that?
Rutger: Sure. Sure. So, I don’t believe that giving 10% of your income makes you a saint. I actually know some people who give much more than that, and even they are probably not saints. But look, the 10% number has a strong historical and religious basis. You can find it in many faiths and it’s called tithing, right? It is in Christianity and Jewish religion. The Muslims have this obligation to give 2.5% of their wealth, I think, which is often more or less similar to 10% of income. So many people have been doing it for a very long time already. It’s true that people today, especially in European countries, give very little to charity. I know the numbers from the Netherlands and here people give only 0.5% to charity.
Sebastian: It’s even less in Germany, unfortunately.
Rutger: Yeah. Which is quite shocking, to be honest. But again, it’s because many of us don’t realize just how rich we are. I mean, we spend so much money on our holidays, on all kinds of luxury goods, on cars, etc., many things that, if we’re honest, we don’t really need. I think 10%, if people look in the mirror, most of us will have to acknowledge that, yes, this is doable. And let me be clear here as well. I’m not talking to the people at the bottom of the income distribution in the Netherlands or France or Germany or whatever. I think this is especially a message that people at the top of the income distribution should hear. So anyone who’s above the average wage, anyone who earns, say, more than €40,000 a year. I think most people reading this interview will be in that category. They are incredibly lucky people. Incredibly lucky people. It’s just that very often we live in a bubble and we just don’t realize how unusual our lives are compared to the rest of the world.
Sebastian: Yeah, I totally agree. And you already mentioned doing your research and you mentioned the Against Malaria Foundation as one exceptionally well run organization. So how do you do your research? How did you find out about the Against Malaria Foundation?
Rutger: Well, the great thing is that you don’t have to do all your research yourself, right? So there are great institutions, especially the GiveWell think tank in the United States has done extraordinary research and does it every year basically into the question, what are the most effective charities out there right now? So that’s what I do. I also use the effective altruism funds. What you do there is you basically trust a group of experts to spend your money. I understand that maybe this doesn’t give people the warm feeling that they’re usually looking for. I sometimes have this as well. So most of my donations go to the effective altruism fund for global health, because that’s for me, that’s the most important thing. But then recently I donated to Proveg in the Netherlands. You may know them. It’s a highly effective organization that promotes plant based food, which I think is incredibly important as well. And then I immediately received an email where they were thanking me. I was like, Oh, this is great. But to be honest, I felt that donation was less important than the global health I mentioned, probably in terms of bang for the buck. Not sure. I mean, you could argue either way and you shouldn’t be a fundamentalist here. We can’t calculate everything, but we can at least ask ourselves the question, right? What is most effective? I’m not saying that we can sort of calculate how effective Amnesty International is or anything like that. But we can ask ourselves a question. That’s for me, that’s what effective altruism is all about. It’s not an ideology. It’s a question. So when we try to do good, we should ask ourselves, how do we use our limited time and resources? And because we live in such a crazy world with so much low hanging fruit, any individual from a very rich country can do an enormous amount of good. And by the way, the way I look at this is both from a perspective of obligation, I think we have a moral obligation to do this, to donate at least 10% of our income. But it’s also from a perspective of excitement. It’s just really awesome. It’s probably one of the most significant things we can do in our lives, right? Many of us have these boring jobs, right? We write reports that no one’s ever going to read. We send emails to people we don’t like, and then suddenly we realize that we’re in a situation where you actually can save other people’s lives. It is extraordinary! How many lives does, let’s say James Bond save? I know it’s more abstract. We live in a world where so many people die from easily preventable causes, whether it’s diarrhea or malaria. And we know what the solutions are and we know what the highly effective organizations are. So yeah, I just find it extraordinarily rewarding and exciting to be part of a movement that tries to make a real significant difference here.
Sebastian: Yeah, I agree. Still I thought when we launched Effektiv Spenden three years ago we also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. which is great but how come even 50 years after we achieved such an incredible technological breakthrough there are still more than 800 million people on the earth living in extreme poverty?
Rutger: So we have to make progress, right? A lot of people don’t realize that we have made progress. Extreme poverty has declined by 50% since the 1980s. You know, child mortality has declined massively since the 1980s. So many more people are vaccinated today. We’ve made such progress in the fight against malaria, mainly because of these distributed bed nets. A recent calculation was that the effective altruism movement distributed more than 400 million bed nets, which saved probably around 100,000 lives. So this very young movement, they already saved as many lives as people that live in a small city. So that is actually happening right now and people can be part of it and they don’t have to make big sacrifices to do it. I think that’s extraordinary. And it’s very different from the lives that people lived throughout most of human history. So if you lived in, say, the 17th century or the 15th century, you were not in this position. You could do quite some good. But we are in this globalized world on the top of the income distribution where we can make decisions that are not a big sacrifice to us and can make an enormous difference to other people on the other side of the globe. Yeah. To me, it’s case closed. It seems obvious.
Sebastian: I recently heard you talking about your younger self in an interview and that you haven’t always been donating 10% and that you only recently changed your diet and became a vegan. So can you tell me a little bit about the journey you made or how you changed?
Rutger: But look, my last book, Humankind, was a book about fundamental human decency. It was an argument where I tried to convince people that humans, deep down, are not monsters, that we have evolved to cooperate and to work together. And there’s a huge amount of scientific evidence that points in that direction that clearly we’re not angels, but we are, what some scientists call, a product of survival of the friendliest. You know, that’s really our secret superpower, our ability to cooperate on a scale that no other animal in the animal kingdom can do. But then after I’d finished it, I started to worry that maybe this view could also be an excuse for people an indulgence, where they say, “Oh, you know, I’m fine, the world is fine, I’m good. I’ve evolved to be good. Well, let’s just enjoy life” right? But the thing is, the people I admire in history, they haven’t just been talking about how we need to change the system or whatever, but they’ve always also been doing it. I think it’s incredibly important to actually practice what you preach. There’s now this discussion going on amongst progressives and people on the left like, “Oh, we shouldn’t talk about individual change because that’s neo-liberal. We should all talk about system change”, but obviously we need to do both. And if you look at the most impressive reformers and prophets and campaigners and activists throughout history, they all did it both. I’m now reading a book about Anthony Benezet who was one of the most important abolitionists, he’s called the father of abolitionism. You know, he led the fight against the slave trade and slavery in the 18th century. If you would have said to him, “Oh, it’s all about the system. It’s not about the individual”. He would have said, “You’re a hypocrite.” Of course, it’s also about the individual, because he knew that he would be much more convincing if he actually did what he preached. Because human behavior is contagious. We’re not individuals, we’re not lone atoms, but we influence each other all the time by our behavior. It’s just contagious. I think that giving can be like that as well. That’s why I think it’s important to be public about your giving, not to show off and you need to be a little bit careful there. But that’s also why I signed the Giving What We Can pledge to say. Look, people, if you like my work, this is what I find really important. And it has made a big difference in my life to donate at least 10% of my income to highly effective causes. And I think that actually, you know, as a best seller author, you can go a little bit higher than 10%, but 10% is a good place to start.
Sebastian: You just mentioned a systemic change so I have to bring up your famous quote you made in Davos a couple of years back: “Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion.” So isn’t donating bullshit as well, and shouldn’t we just all lobby for a stricter tax code or enforcing the tax code.
Rutger: Yeah, well, look, most billionaire philanthropy is bullshit. It’s absolute, utter, total bullshit. Most billionaires spend their philanthropy on silly art museums or they give it to their alma mater or university or something like that. They donate 150 million to Yale University, a university that’s already incredibly rich. That’s the kind of philanthropy often also used as a way to distract people from their corrupt business models or to dodge taxes. That’s the kind of philanthropy that I strongly dislike. But that doesn’t mean that in general, I’m against donating and philanthropy. Not at all. Of course, pay your taxes first. That’s where it starts. But after that, rich people still have a lot of money and they don’t need all of it to spend on themselves. So after that, yes, you’ve got to think about what are your philanthropic obligations. And as I said, it’s not just about obligations. It’s also just exciting, right? Getting rich is one thing, but there are a lot of rich people in this world. And trust me, I’ve met quite a few of them and many of them are not all that impressive. You know, you can start a company, you can sell it and cash out and then spend it on silly things. I recently was talking to a billionaire who had this stupid plan to buy a yacht, and it’s, like, so pathetic, right? It’s just so sad. Like, do you really need that? Do you have such a tiny ego that you need to fill the hole in your soul with the big yacht? I think it’s just incredibly pathetic. I think it’s much more exciting to think about how you’ll be remembered and what genuine differences you can make in this world. And there, you know, philanthropy obviously plays an enormous role, especially if you’ve been lucky enough to get rich, sell your company for a lot of money, etc.. So, yeah, that’s my view. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I just get really angry when people use their philanthropy to distract other people from their tax evasion and their corrupt business models.
Sebastian: Besides Covid the climate crisis is hitting closer to home, we are killing more animals than ever before, there is war in Europe again… and while all of those things are terrible in itself, they all also contribute to the number of people in extreme poverty rising again. Still, in your book “Humankind: A Hopeful History” you kind of insist that people are decent at heart. If so, how come the world isn’t in better shape? How do you manage to stay optimistic?
Rutger: Well, humans have an extraordinary capacity to dilute themselves, obviously, and to close their eyes. We all see ourselves as moral beings, right? Not a saint, but in general, we like to see ourselves as basically good or as “Im Grunde gut”. But obviously, yeah, we have ways of lying to ourselves. I’ve been researching the fight against slavery last year, and it’s it’s very difficult for us to really understand just how normal slavery was throughout most of human history, right? If you were to have stood on a street corner in 1750 and said, let’s abolish slavery, nine out of ten people would have laughed at you and the 10th person would have said, Well, I agree with you in principle, but surely you realise that that’s not possible. So that is a striking fact about humanity. We often look at the world like this, right? We find it hard to see reality as it really is. But again, that’s what I like about the effective altruism movement. It has encouraged me to basically stop reading the newspaper, to zoom out and to look at what the world’s really biggest problems are. And a lot of stuff that we worry about on a daily basis, it’s maybe not the biggest problem. People sometimes think like, oh, climate change is going to cause a lot of damage in the future and people are going to suffer in the future. But people are suffering today, right? As I said, millions of people are dying from causes that are easily preventable. I just became a father. And just the realization that so many parents still today lose their children before they reach the age of five because of simple things like a lack of access to antibiotics, vaccines, anti-malaria bed nets. These things are happening today, and we have the solutions. We know what to do about them. So I’ve always liked the phrase of Hans Rosling, the statistician, who said that the world is in a bad state, but it’s getting better. It’s just really bad, especially if you compare it to how it could be. We’re so incredibly rich. We have the means to solve so many of our problems, just so relative to our ability to what we could do about the world’s problems. Yes. I mean, historians will be horrified by our apathy, but then at the same time, this is in a way exciting as well, because if you wake up and you just realize how much low hanging fruit there is, you can make an enormous difference.
Sebastian: Yeah, I agree. Yeah. Just a small anecdote. I’m also a father. And as stupid as it sounds but breastfeeding made my wife and me think again about how we actually get cow’s milk. I mean it’s obviously not made for humans but for baby calves.
Rutger: Yeah. Good example. Well, there was recently a poll in the Netherlands where they asked people. If they knew why cows get milk and around 40% of people didn’t know that cows have to be pregnant and to get pregnant over and over again to keep on giving milk. We’ve become so detached from some fundamental facts about the world we live in. Again, this is also the case that we don’t realize how rich we are. All right. We have no idea. The median wage in the world is $6 a day. We have been making progress, but the vast majority of the population is still very poor. And, yeah, that’s. That’s why there’s so much low hanging fruit and we could really make a difference.
Sebastian: Yeah, definitely, I remember it was about 20 years ago. So I was in India for an internship and was visiting a museum and I wasn’t really impressed. It was kind of boring. I saw that in Germany already, like I mean how people used to farm in the Middle Ages. But then someone took me aside and told me that it’s not a historic museum, but a display of how people currently farm in this area. Again, that was like 20 years ago and a lot has changed since but for me it’s still a powerful reminder of just how poor people in some parts of the world still are and how rich I am.
Rutger: And you got to say to yourself. It’s not about me. It’s not about how I feel. It’s about what I do. It’s about what I can contribute and the effects of my actions, that’s more important. And if you do that in the long run, you’ll feel great about yourself. Don’t get me wrong. I find it enormously gratifying to be a part of this movement. And in a way, there’s freedom in it as well. To live a life that’s different from how people usually live their lives and not just follow your basic incentives, like, “Oh, let’s get a second car. Just like my neighbors, oh, let’s buy a holiday home, just like some friends of ours.” I mean, humans are often a little bit like sheep. We just copy each other and we don’t really think about what we’re doing. And I think that real freedom sometimes lies in binding yourself and thinking deliberately about how you want to live your life. And that’s what the Giving What We Can pledge is also about for me. For me it’s all about freedom, about living a life that I actually want to live instead of just thoughtlessly doing what all the other people are doing or. And spending it on bullshit that I don’t need.
Sebastian: I also thought about these studies saying once you’re part of the middle class in a rich country, more money hardly contributes to being happier, maybe a little bit, but the returns are diminishing. But I feel like Effective Altruism is the first community I encountered where people act on it. I mean a lot of people know it, but still spend the next dollar on themselves because they think they are the exception and even more money really will make them more happy.
Rutger: People have so many opinions, but there are so few people who actually act in accordance with their opinions and values. There was this survey amongst philosophers, and it turns out that ethicists, moral philosophers, people who specialize in studying morality, how we should behave, they don’t make different decisions than the rest of the population. So they’re indistinguishable pretty much from the rest of the population. On average, they’re, you know, just as likely to be vegetarian or to donate much of their income as anyone else. And then you spend your whole life studying morality. I find that rather depressing, right? So again, this is what I love about the effective altruism movement is that these people actually practise what they preach. And it’s not like they’re walking around in rags. They’re not like these monks who’ve completely abandoned their own lives and all their luxuries, etc.. But, you know, on the margins, they do much more than what other people do. And of course, people can decide for themselves how far they want to go, whether they want to donate their kidney to a stranger, I haven’t. But I find it really gratifying to know that I do more, quite a bit more than average. And still it doesn’t really feel like a big sacrifice.
Sebastian: So when I try to pitch donating 10%, I often say the following: It’s true that Covid and the current inflation are also hitting many people in rich countries right now, but if you look at long-term trends or even just the last decade, real wage growth in Germany has often been well above 1%. This means that the last time many people lived on 10% less was often less than a decade ago. How bad was it really? Did we really suffer because we were so poor compared to today and had so little to consume, had to live with the iPhone 4 instead of the iPhone 14? Well, I didn’t.
Rutger: I can’t agree more.
Sebastian: So my next question is for people who have been inspired by your writings to do more good and what other books or videos of podcasts or whatever could you recommend? What inspired you?
Rutger: Well, I would obviously really recommend people to do a bit of research on the effective altruism movement and maybe join a local chapter, maybe at their university if they’re a student. I think it’s really great to meet other people who are like-minded and who can inspire you and give you the energy to keep going. That’s been enormously worthwhile for me. You can read some of the classics: I love all of Will MacAskill’s work, Doing Good Better, and his recent book, What We Owe the Future. Julia Galef has also written this really nice book, The Scout Mindset that I could recommend, sort of about the mindset of people in this movement. Sometimes people can get the impression that, “Oh, so you know what all the effective causes out there, right? And you are very dogmatic about that.” That’s not the case at all. Effective altruism is a question. It’s not an answer. It’s all about continuously asking yourself the question, is this the best use of my time, resources and money? That’s what it’s really about. And I think intellectual humility is a really important value, and I think that’s also quite present in the movement. So maybe those are some books to start with. Have they been translated into German?
Sebastian: Doing Good Better has, The Scout Mindset by Juila Galef has not, but What We Owe the Future is about to be translated, at least that’s the last thing I heard. And actually, we are just in the process of helping out with translating the updated version of The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer.
Rutger: That’s a great book as well. Yeah, yeah, but I guess we need a new book. Maybe I should write it.
Sebastian: Please do.
Rutger: In a way it’s not that difficult, is it? Once you realize that you are part of a small, small minority of incredibly rich people. And that, you know, both historically and globally, you’re part of a very lucky elite. That’s it. Then I think you have certain responsibilities. And once you take up those responsibilities, you’ll find out that it’s quite exciting to actually do it. And it’s much more rewarding than, I don’t know, buying another iPhone, even though the other one was perfectly fine.
Sebastian: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I feel like we are still in the early stages of effective altruism and also the effective giving movement. When I talk to people, most still have never heard of it and for many it just clicks once they do. They were kind of on board already and just needed to hear about the fact that there are some organizations working in that area already. So I think at least in Germany there are still a lot of low hanging fruit so to to speak. People who just need to hear that they are not alone and encourage them to act on their beliefs.
Rutger: So yeah, well, I think what really helps is that you shouldn’t make your giving private, you should make it part of a public activity. In my experience for a long time, I didn’t. I almost didn’t do any philanthropy because I was like, Oh, I’ll figure that out later. It’s only when I actually started talking to people about it and made the public pledge to donate at least 10% of my income that it became part of my life. So now every year after I’ve done my taxes, because it starts with taxes. What are my tax returns? Then I calculate what my gross income was in that year. I take 10% and I know just how much I have to donate. And then my wife does that as well. We add it up. We have our collective income and together we decide where we’re going to donate. And so we have these discussions amongst ourselves. What do you think is most important? What do you think is most effective? What are you passionate about? But is the thing you’re passionate about, does it also have good funding opportunities that truly make a difference? What research paper that you read, what did I read, etc. So we have this discussion and then we make our decision. And then when someone is at the door, you know, from some kind of charity and says, “Oh, become a member of this or that” and has some kind of nice PR story. I don’t feel guilty at all when I say no, sorry, no time, because I already feel confident about what I’ve done and what role philanthropy plays in my life. So I highly encourage that. People it’s just like it should be your yearly homework just after you’ve done your taxes. First, pay your taxes and then you decide where your 10% goes.
Sebastian: Yeah. Sounds like a plan. Hopefully a lot of people will follow suit. Rutger, thank you so much for your time and for talking to us.
 ↑ Currently it is not possible to donate directly and tax deductible to the „Effective Altruism Funds“ from Germany or Switzerland. However, we at Effektiv Spenden offer „Spenden-Fonds“ („Donation Funds“) in the areas of „Armut bekämpfen“ („Fighting Poverty“), „Klima schützen“ („Climate Protection“), „Tierleid verringern“ („Animal Welfare“) and ”Zukunft bewahren” („Safeguarding the Future“) which are tax deductible in Germany and Switzerland. The donations generated in this way are then donated by us once a quarter in consultation with usually the same international experts that also advise the Effective Altruism Funds. In this resƒpect it is also possible to donate to the „Effective Altruism Global Health and Development Fund“ mentioned by Rutger, as the money is distributed there in the same way as from our „Spenden-Fonds: Armut bekämpfen„. You can select this fund like the other funds through our donation form.
 ↑ This is a picture taken on the way back from said museum, showing agricultural equipment that was still in daily use in 2003.
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