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in Personal Reflections

Income Ethics: A Framework for Ethical Income

Photo: Magnificence

This is the conclusion of a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics, explains why we need to define our enough, discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work (this essay). You can read the entire series on one page here.

In my life, there are many things that are important to me but nothing is as important as upholding my personal values. In reflecting on how I could uphold my values while earning an income from my creative work, I looked around to others who had chosen similar work so that I could understand how their values had influenced their income ethics. What I discovered surprised me.

Personal ethics were practically non-existent. There were no value-systems in place for handling income and the capitalist society that surrounded me even seemed to encourage a disconnect between our values and our income. This left behind a sea of irresponsible individuals who worked and lived with open-ended or non-existent income ethics.

The resulting consumerist culture expressed no expectation of us to share, provided us with no inherited sense of responsibility for giving, and did not encourage us to think beyond ourselves or towards a future where we no longer existed but where the results of our actions continued to reverberate through time.

Instead of recognizing the value of what we have now, we are instead encouraged to live in a state of fear for what we might not have tomorrow. Instead of accepting the fact that we could die tomorrow and then sharing more with those who will still be here when we’re gone, we instead choose to be selfish, egotistical, and stubborn to the reality of our mortality.

But without the help of others, there is very little we can do to change this culture. As long as the machine of consumerism stays oiled and running, there will be no societal incentive for us change.

However, if our society doesn’t expect us to be responsible, that doesn’t eliminate this responsibility: the individual simply inherits it. When we as individuals accept this responsibility, we work towards creating a society that expects us to be responsible.

It was a deep philosophical shift towards minimalism that helped make me aware of just how entrenched in consumerism my society had become and it helped me view and understand income and personal responsibility from a different perspective.

It became clear that if my society was not going to hold me responsible for using my income ethically, I needed to accept that responsibility to create and share a set of guidelines that would uphold my values.

My Ethics for Generating Income from Creative Work

  1. All non-free creative work will be made public domain within one year
  2. All gross annual income exceeding $15k USD will go to charity
  3. All expenditures will be documented and published annually
  4. At least 25% of every sale or transaction will go to charity

Each of these guidelines addresses a specific area of importance to me in relation to generating income: Freedom of art (1), defining my enough (2), transparency and accountability (3), and showing up for what matters to me (4).

Note that I’m calling these my ethics. I feel that every individual needs to recognize their enough and then work from there.

I spent weeks muddling over these points and tweaking them until my intuition told me they felt right. It wasn’t until I recognized and defined my enough that I was able to use my core values and my sense of planetary responsibility to guide the rest of the process.

I’ll go into detail and explain my reasoning behind each guideline:

1. All non-free creative work will be made public domain within one year

If I’m going to release non-free creative work — that is creative work whose access is restricted by monetary value — I want to ensure that all those who cannot afford the work, or who are not interested in supporting my work, still have the opportunity to access, build upon, and learn from whatever I create.

My personal philosophy has been heavily influenced by the hacker ethic, the key points of which are access, free information, and improvement to quality of life. An example of this philosophy can be found in the open-source community, where sharing and openness ensures that everyone can build upon previous work, thereby creating a continuous cycle of learning and improvement.

To pay-forward everything this philosophy has awarded me, I will release all non-free creative work into the public domain within one year. If you cannot afford something that I create, all you need to do is wait until it becomes free.

This guideline also protects me as an artist: As a creative worker, my ‘work’ should never stop. My job isn’t to create something and then go have it manufactured like a product and sold over and over. The digital nature of my creative work (primarily writing) allows me to do this with the Internet, effortlessly replicating and distributing my work over and over. But as an artist, that’s not my ‘work’.

When a digital artist forgets that his or her job is to produce art, they can get wrapped up in the potential of this technological machine (the Internet) to replicate and distribute their work. As a result, they might stop creating new work and instead focus on maximizing the use of this machine to generate income from existing work.

This one-year lifespan on non-free work ensures that I’m always looking forward, always focusing on creating and always treating my work as art, not spending my time tweaking existing art to maximize profit or finding ways to imitate the success of other artists.

2. All gross annual income exceeding $15k USD will go to charity

In the past year, I’ve traveled across the planet, sailed on the Pacific ocean, piloted a small airplane, watched a space shuttle launch, and trekked up into the Himalayan mountains. And I’ve done all of that and gained a lifetime of experiences on less than $15k USD. This is my enough.

If there are billions of people on the planet who survive on $4 a day, then I can certainly find a way to thrive on $40 a day. For the foreseeable future, I see absolutely no reason for keeping more than $15k USD per year to myself, so anything I receive over that amount will go towards charitable work.

I’ve seen how money can change our perspective and quietly inject greed into our lives. When we’re poor, sufficiency appears one step ahead. When we’re rich, sufficiency still appears one step ahead. No matter what we do, sufficiency always appears out of reach and we never seem to have enough.

Instead of chasing sufficiency, we need to recognize that it’s already here; it doesn’t change or move, we do. By setting a limit for my personal income and committing myself to donating the rest to charitable work, I’m recognizing sufficiency and choosing to live within it. I’m ensuring that the more I earn, the more I’m reminded of, and contributing to, my planetary social responsibility.

3. All expenditures will be documented and published annually

With transparency comes accountability. I want to be held accountable for my income ethics. I want to hold myself accountable and I want you, and everyone who helps support me, to also hold me accountable.

By documenting and publishing my expenditures for all the world to see, I’m providing you — whether you choose to support my work or not — with a full view of where your support is going and where the charitable portion of my income is being donated.

Since the beginning of 2010, I’ve been documenting and publishing my expenses. Going forward, the frequency of these reports may fluctuate but they will always be free, always as detailed as possible, and always published at least once a year.

When I publish these reports, I don’t feel like I’m doing it to justify my expenses to you. Instead, I feel like I’m doing it to justify them to myself. In creating this transparency for you, I’m forced to be transparent with myself.

4. At least 25% of every sale or transaction will go to charity

By having a portion of every transaction go to charity, I’m ensuring that no matter what I earn, there will always be something given back. That means if I only earn $100 a month from my creative work, $25 of that will always go to charity.

Giving a portion of every transaction to charity is important because it acts as a commitment to a sustainable future. It acts as a continuous reminder of the importance of sharing and the role charity plays in fulfilling our planetary social responsibility. It’s a way of always ‘showing up’ for what matters.

(Income tax should be the answer to this, but until our leaders have their priorities straight, I’m creating my own self-imposed income tax to work towards what I feel is important.)

A Note on Charity and Charitable Work

I use the words ‘charity’ and ‘charitable work’ interchangeably throughout this essay, but since a large portion of my income will be donated I should clarify what I mean by “going to charity”

I want to dedicate a portion of my time every year to doing charitable work. However, until I’m in a financial position to take things into my own hands, I will simply make regular donations to charitable organizations. As my ability to spend more time and money on charity increases, some of the charitable income will go towards charitable endeavors of my own.

The charitable portion of my income will be kept in an interest-bearing account separate from my personal accounts (earned interest will always go to charity) and the balance of that account, as well as the donations that are made, will always be disclosed in my published financial reports.

It’s the Universe or Nothing

Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience.

If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing. – Carl Sagan

I embrace these income ethics because I feel an inherent planetary social responsibility. I feel that if I’m able to generate income — potentially large amounts of income through the Internet — then I need to commit upfront to being morally responsible with that income. It’s a commitment to myself, yes, but it’s also a commitment to you, to the future, and to the world that supports us both.

Is your work important to you? Is the freedom, longevity, and legacy of your work of any significance? What does your ‘enough’ look like? Have you made the conscious decision to live and work within your enough? Where does your excess abundance go? How do you hold yourself accountable for ensuring that your work and your lifestyle reflect your core values?

Are these questions important? I believe they are and I encourage you to accept responsibility for equality and seek to achieve balance through understanding your enough. When we pay-forward the abundance that we receive and keep the cycle of giving alive, we will fulfill our individual roles as curators of sustainability and custodians of human solidarity.

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17 Comments

  1. Raam,

    Defining your “enough” and stating your income ethics is a very admirable effort in my eyes. As you point out, few of us every give a thought to it.

    I think you are right that each of us have to define our “enough” and reflect upon and create our own set of income ethics. Your guidelines are like a springboard for the rest of us.

    It’s true that we might die tomorrow, but we might not. I see $15K was enough to move you around the world in a year and I think that’s fabulous. Is it OK to ask, what about the future? Sure, we might die tomorrow, but we might also live. Does your plan also including savings? I’m curious! Somehow, that seems more important as I get older. But perhaps I’m living in a delusion?!? Or maybe not.

    Thank you for taking this bold step.

    • Sandra, I echo all of your comments.

      And Raam, I’m really moved that you have taken the time to explore this issue so deeply for yourself and share this exploration with all of us.

      I’m in the midst of becoming more conscious of my relationship with money (what the heck is money really?) and noticing all my fears and assumptions.

      I feel inspired after reading to continue to look deeply at these questions.

      Thanks, Jasmine

      • Thank you, Jasmine.

        I agree with your “what the heck is money really” statement: I think money has become so alien to us that we no longer question its role in our lives.

        Please see my response to Sandra: I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on the topic of savings.

    • Hi Sandra,

      It’s true that I might not die tomorrow, but it’s also true that I might not die for another 200 years provided some yet-unknown discovery that allows me to live far longer than what is currently the average.

      In either scenario, how can I foresee what I will need?

      I could live healthy and without any physical ailments and require no additional income to keep me alive for the rest of my life, or I could become paralyzed tomorrow and live the rest of my life on expensive life-support.

      Again, in either scenario my present choices are clear: Live in fear of the future and sacrifice what I have now, or live in gratitude of the now and look forward to the future.

      I understand that as I get older, some kind of ‘cushion’ (i.e., savings) will be practical. My $15k/yr actually has plenty of room for that: I spent less than $15k traveling the world, so if I tweaked my expenses a little I could easily set aside $5k/yr for savings. If I put that money in safe investments, it would grow over the course of my life.

      Again, all of this is based largely on my circumstances: I’m still young (29 years old) and I’m healthy. I intend to invest in my health more than anything over the course of my life. My skills and my income sources are also such that even if I became physically disabled, money wouldn’t be a problem (Internet-based skills and income).

      When I think about savings, I ask myself one question over and over: What am I saving for?

      I’m not going to save so that I can retire and stop working when I get older: I love my work and I intend to be doing it until I die.

      I’m not going to save for every medical ailment that might impact me: my entire life would be crippled by the fear of what might happen instead of using my limited time to enjoy and serve others with my life.

      I think of our ‘enough’ as a balloon: Expand it too much and it will pop; deflate it too much and it ceases to fulfill its purpose. In considering all the current circumstances in my life and looking for a middle ground for my ‘enough’, I arrived at $15k/yr.

      Does this make sense? I’m curious to hear more of what you think, as this is a point I’m still exploring and trying to fully understand. Thank you for asking these questions! :)

      • Hi,

        Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I really appreciate your response.

        Actually, I don’t think considering the future is necessarily about living in fear. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It can just be practical. Ideally, it’s great if we can subtract the fear. I tend not to be practical so that’s why I need to think about this. I lived hand-to-mouth on a relatively small to moderate income most of my life so I didn’t plan ahead. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake.

        When I was in my twenties, I got hit by a car on my bicycle and was in the hospital for two weeks. Life happens. I was glad I had insurance then although I don’t really like the whole insurance industry. I also had to have surgery at one point, although it’s something I generally avoid like the plague. That still costs a lot even though I had insurance.

        It’s wonderful to want to do your work until you die, but you don’t know if that will really be possible. There are quite a few assumptions in thinking that it will. It’s great that you are investing so much in your health, but karma arises from our past actions and illness does happen even to people who have healthy lifestyles.

        There’s also the question of becoming a financial burden on others.

        I don’t think it boils down to fear vs. gratitude. I’m glad you have that $5k you can save and invest. It can always be given away if not needed.

        So there are my thoughts! What do you think?

        • Sandra, Raam,

          In this moment, as I weeks later check back in and read your comments, I first could feel fear arising—not so much about having money or not having money—as feeling like, “I just don’t know. I don’t understand. I don’t have a solid framework of understanding around money and it seems to get more and more tenuous for me. And some how this isn’t okay, or it is scary.”

          Now in this moment I’m exploring, is this okay? It is okay to just be in the unknown with this at the moment. To not know if one should save or not save. To not know how much money one needs or doesn’t need? To not even know what money really is or isn’t? As I ask myself this question about okayness I can feel the fear disappear. And isn’t this what we all want? The absence of fear and a sense of aliveness in this moment.

          I’ve lived for much of the past five years with greatly reduced energy, intense fatigue and related symptoms and I have felt so blessed that I had a financial cushion during this time. Now this financial cushion is almost gone and my health is greatly improved. I worry and have fears about lacking resources to take care of myself. And so far, even under somewhat dire circumstances at times, everything has always worked out…with a little pain and suffering in the mix.

          My basic plan is to build my trust in life and keep my eyes open and aware of how my own actions impact my community/world. To earn money or not earn money and to not take my ideas too seriously.

          I’ve not come to any conclusions, but I enjoy the company and conversation along the way.

  2. Your framework is solid. A tangible structure is absolutely necessary to merge personal ethics and income. There is dialogue to confront the limiting beliefs of monetizing artwork, but I have yet to see actionable steps in a framework for monetizing digital art with conscious intention. I love the idea of transparency as accountability. I am inspired to create a framework for myself.

    Ironically, I think a framework for ethical income would help many artists to monetize their work. I struggled with detriments of the current capitalistic system, including the self-limiting beliefs and discontent with the present circumstances of destructive patterns. By taking responsibility and setting a tangible framework, I can rest assure in monetizing, sustain myself through what I love and contribute something to the global community.

    Thanks Raam for the breakthrough!

    • Rhina,

      Your comment echos beautifully the reason I felt a need to create this framework: The detriments of the current capitalistic system work against me as an artist and without creating a system that dealt with them, I constantly felt discouraged to attempt monetizing my work.

      Creating this framework and setting myself up to be accountable for it (through transparency) has allowed me to feel like I can now work towards sensible monetization while being open to tweaking this framework, if necessary.

      Giving a portion of every transaction and giving all income over my ‘enough’ to charity also allows me to feel confident that I’m not hoarding. It allows me to feel like my life is itself a piece of art that is contributing to the welfare of our global community.

  3. I am amazed by you commitment, some people would think your crazy ($15k, public domain). I will have to do something thinking myself to find my enough and its may be harder to do when you have to convince a partner who is not as like minded financially, but this series brought up some great questions for me and I hope it keeps finding new people to inspire.

    • Katie, someone on Google+ mentioned a similar point about how finding our ‘enough’ is more difficult when we have more than ourselves to think about. Here’s what I wrote in response:

      “The complications that arise when considering others (especially others that you’re directly responsible for, such as a family) is something that I’ve been thinking about lately. It definitely changes the dynamic a bit and requires involvement from more than one person, but I think at the base, it’s the same:

      Defining enough means defining what our basic necessities are + considering what’s needed to reach our goals. More than anything, I think it’s about clarity. If we’re clear about what we need (whether ‘we’ is an individual or a family) and we’re clear about where we intend to go (as a group, each individual would need to be clear on their goals and then share this within that group), then figuring out what ‘enough’ looks like is rather straightforward.”

      It’s true that we need to take those around us into consideration, especially if they depend on us or if our lifestyle/actions affect them. However, I think it’s important to recognize that we have a lot of freedom with our own choices and that our actions often influence those around us.

  4. i can’t tell you how thankful i am for this. as a writer and someone is profoundly concerned with social and global ethics, i have been hesitant to move in ANY direction in terms of publication/ monetization. nothing felt right. yet, if i am going to be able to do any kind of work, i need to be able to devote a significant amount of time to doing so. time that is, at present, spent at a regular job in order to keep my family fed.

    i hadn’t thought before in terms of TIME. SUCH a genius idea. a year (or determined period of time) of paid product, and then make it available… whether i decide on that particular tactic, or modify it in some way, that idea was huge for me.

    i am alight with the idea of an artistic and creative vanguard working for cultural renewal and societal change. but if such a thing is to be, we have to be, ourselves, moving in a direction that is unconventional. thinking in new directions and living out in our own work, the nobility that we wish to see in the world.

    as to the discussion above, i am a single mother with a large family. we have found our personal enough number, and it is small enough to be possible for me, and large enough to no leave me constantly fretting over the basics.

    it is frightening to walk out into the unknown, and even moreso when you drag along other people for whom you are responsible. but holding to principles of integrity, transparency, and responsibility; and ideals like the open sharing of ideas is RIGHT. and the beauty of that makes the fear voice grow low and insignificant.

    i have been deeply affected by each post in this series, and am grateful for the careful consideration and long thought that have gone into them.

    • Shawnacy,

      Your passion for authenticity and change comes right through this comment. :) I absolutely resonate with what you said about needing to “live out in our own work, the nobility we wish to see in the world”.

      If we recognize injustice in the world, or if we feel that our culture doesn’t reflect our personal values, then we have a responsibility to change that culture. How? Through upholding our values and living out the change we expect to see around us.

      It can be frightening at times, yes, but in the name of integrity, transparency, and responsibility, I’d rather be scared to death than cower in fear when faced with the challenge of standing out and being true to myself.

      Who are we if we can’t uphold our own values and find ways to live, work, and exist by those values? Are we nothing more than sheep, herded by the power-hungry monsters of society? We have a right to exist within a culture that recognizes our values as a group and punishes those who seek to violate those values for their own personal benefit.

  5. Hi Raam,
    It is a long time since I read your work and you still write beautiful and thoughtful ideas.

    On the subject of Income Ethics. I think of it in a different way.

    I look at the foundation of my work being at present two things.
    One
    I act in a way in business that my income comes from Sustainable actions – meaning it has as a low as possible impact on planetary resources, for example, when I worked as a real estate agent in Canada I never posted a real estate advertisement in the newspaper nor did I do mass flyer marketing (I prefer to hike in the woods than cut them down) and yet I was able to create a healthy income by building direct relationships with people in person and by using the web and the telephone.

    Two
    I work in a way that my business income comes from Remarkable actions as much as possible – meaning that I offer services that typically would cost a lot more because I believe in under promising and over delivering in terms of the quality of my work. I want people to go ‘wow! that was great value’.

    I am sure you most likely covered this topic a long time ago (I have been a way due to illness in my family so I am not sure) to me it is not how much money we earn since we can always share our abundance but it is how we earn what we earn.

    Your friend on the journey,

    David

    P.S. I have personally moved a number of digital products I used to sell over the years to free downloadable items as a way of making my materials more accessible to others with a low resources. Items I used to sell for between 10 to 30 dollars a piece. By releasing the source of income I need to focus on creating fresh ways to support my family. This keeps me focused on creating!

  6. Raam,

    I already shared this with you, but I am posting here as I believe others involved in and interested in this discussion may benefit greatly from exploring this book as well, Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel. He brilliantly gets to the heart of the “defining enough” concept from both a global social responsibility and sustainable Earth model by breaking everything we consume and use to support our lifestyles into number of acres we take to support ourselves. And he details very specifically what you can live on within whatever framework your own personal ethical visions for the future of our planet and its people fall into…While radical, his presentation of the material allows for reasonable and realistic change within each individual’s personal life scenario. Plus there is a wonderful discussion of a study of the sustainable lifestyle and high standard of living present in Kerala that makes me want to travel there to see this example with my own eyes!

  7. At age 50, I’ve come to believe saving for the future is also part of the myth that the consumer culture has instilled in us. Raam you are right on with the question, “What are you saving for?”
    Those of my generation bought into the work to earn, delay to enjoy life. Your generation is working and enjoying at the same time. You are living your authentic lives now, not when it is time to retire. That said, there should be a savings cushion for emergencies, no different than an employed person. There will always be ups and downs in life, having ways to ride out the downs until life picks up again is important to your mental security. But the savings doesn’t have to be money. Many of the difficult times in my life were not solved with money but community who supported me and in return when my life was easier it was easy for me to give back.

    • Nancy,

      Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I’ve been asked the question, “What about your savings for the future?”, many times in the past year and I’ve never felt like I had an answer that fully made sense. I think you’ve finally completed the puzzle for me and filled in the missing piece!

      A ‘savings’ can be far more than just money. Things like our education, reputation, friendships, community, experiences, and outlook are all extremely important when we need something to fall back on. If we’re poor in money but rich in the rest of those, the money suddenly isn’t so important. However, if we burn those other things in favor of having a big savings, then even when we need something to fall back on there’s no guarantee that money will be enough.

      I’ve always felt that investing in things like my health, my education, and friendships/relationships was far more important than trying to save X amount of money. I think having an ‘emergency fund’ is probably smart, but beyond that, what are we really saving for? Let’s use that extra financial wealth to do things that increase our savings in the other realms and not place so much importance on something that’s so futile over the long-haul.