Charity is not (always) evil

This post is a (very delayed) response to a friend’s blog on the evils of charity. I’d recommend reading the original post by Daniel Noon here first before continuing with my response.

As someone about to spend three years studying the psychology and neuroscience of giving to charity with the aim of increasing giving, I clearly think charities are good things. However, this does not mean I think charities as organisations are perfect or that the system is flawless. Some of the points below in defence of charities only apply to certain ways of giving. That said, if you’re reading this blog and have a computer and internet and a western salary you could probably donate enough to charity right now to save someone’s life (find out how rich you are here). I think that alone means charities are something worth keeping.

So to consider Daniel’s points one by one:

The first reason to dislike charity is because charitable giving promotes immoral behaviour.

The moral licencing effect (doing something immoral after a good deed, such as giving to charity) could arguably cancel out the good deed as Daniel suggests. However, there is nothing to show these two opposing acts must be of equal importance. Imagine I change someone’s life with a charity gift which pays for a child to go to school, then don’t hold the door open for someone. Even the person who’s just had a door slam in their face would agree I’ve done more good than harm overall.

This idea that the good can significantly outweigh the bad is particularly true for the large number of charitable gifts made by direct debit. Even if someone felt licenced to act immorally after signing up to their charitable gift, many people forget about the gift being processed each month, so will continue to do good without licencing immoral acts.

There is also evidence that the moral licencing effect can be overcome if someone feels their good deed is reflective of their generous personality, rather than feeling sanctimonious and so less likely act morally in future. Most importantly, in these situations, good deeds such as charitable gifts can become increasingly frequent as the person develops an identity as a moral person. Surely this increase in morality generally is a good thing?

The second reason to dislike charity is that it is affected by the biases of individuals.

Bias in charitable giving is a huge problem, I certainly agree with Daniel on this. In fact, a key aim of my (and many other’s) research is to understand and minimise these biases. However, I don’t think the existence of bias means we should scrap charitable giving altogether.

Daniel’s idea to make charitable organisations work across race, gender, sexuality or religion could dramatically decrease the amounts given to charities. If people give to charities which represent those similar to themselves, they are unlikely to support organisations which lack this specificity. In such a situation, minority groups may lose out the most, as they arguably feel stronger connections to charities representing their interests than the majority. It cannot be assumed that because someone gives to an LGBT+ rights charity, they would equally support a general human rights charity.

Rather than denying people the opportunity to give to organisations they identify with, it may be better to encourage people to give in a more objective way. In recognition of the biases affecting charitable giving (read “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom here for a far better summary of the issue than I could give, and equally fascinating responses from a range of academics and practitioners), a movement has developed in recent years called Effective Altruism. Put simply, the aim of this movement is to do as much good as possible with the money given to charity, with the starting point that all lives are equal (some limit this to all human lives, others extend to animals too). In using rationality and academic research to judge the areas in which a charitable gift will make the biggest difference, Effective Altruism aims to eliminate much of the bias in giving. Gifts based on objective need lack the bias introduced by subjective identity motivations.

The third reason to dislike charity is because it relies on an ineffective and unaccountable system of funding allocation.

As above, I completely agree with this point in principle, but don’t agree it renders the process of charitable giving itself evil or to be abandoned. Instead, we need to work to improve the system and again, suggestions of how to do this have been given by Effective Altruism. A key issue in increasing accountability and proportional allocation in charitable giving is that very few organisations have data on the outcomes of their initiatives. This is partly due to a lack of demand from society. It is bizarre that when we buy a product such as a phone we expect solid numbers on performance to judge what we are getting for our money, but when it comes to charity we often have no idea what our money is achieving.

By conducting research on the functions and outcomes of charitable organisations it is possible to calculate which organisation will be able to do the most good with the specific donation we are about to give. If a charity is over-funded, this additional £10 is unlikely to be as effective as if given to an under-funded organisation. This monitoring is constantly updated; for example, a very effective charity, the Against Malaria Foundation is strongly promoted by Effective Altruism groups. However, it received so many donations from this promotion that each additional gift became less effective, so the same groups advised against further donations while some of this money was spent. It’s now back to being one of the top-rated charities around and you can read about the amazing impact of donations here. This monitoring also enables accountability as charities not achieving what they could or should be can be challenged.

The fourth reason to dislike charity is because it goes against democracy.

Without getting into debates about what democracy means, a key component is choice and with charitable giving, we can choose how to spend our money. Government tax often does not provide that choice, for example, my money being used to bomb Syria. Also, in the UK our votes are not equal due to the voting system.

Moving swiftly away from those issues, many charitable organisations work to improve democracy in direct and indirect ways. For example, campaigning groups like Amnesty International hold undemocratic governments to account, while other charitable initiatives allow people to participate in democracy through education and covering pressing needs. Someone is unlikely to get involved in politics and democracy when they’re working two jobs just to get by. Even if we scrapped the whole charity sector, rich people in society would still have more influence in a variety of ways and far less would be being done to help those less well-off to increase their influence.

Conclusion

I agree in large part with Daniel’s conclusion that “instead of considering charitable giving as a virtue of individuals, we should consider a symptom of a failed state”. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the UK which has seen increases in child poverty and working families accessing food banks, amongst other things, in recent years. On a global scale, we should not live in a world in which millions of people die of preventable causes or struggle to survive. However, if we all stopped giving to charity tomorrow, these issues would get far worse.

A related issue with giving to charity arises if it obscures attempts to create more systemic change to prevent suffering, such as fair wages and eliminating exploitation. However, these actions are not necessarily in competition with charitable giving and can be combined to create more certain and instant benefits to others. Charitable gifts are beneficial alongside actions towards larger scale, but harder to achieve, changes in the future. Many of Daniel’s arguments against charitable giving are valid, but should prompt improvements not abandonment of the system as a whole.

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