The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
For today’s post, I want to write on the virtue of charity.
It would be an awkward virtue for me to write on because it is a virtue that I do not have. An examination of my household budget would show that I give almost no money to charity.
Yet, I do not deny that it is a virtue. The desire to give to charity is a malleable desire that people have reason to promote by praising those who act charitably and condemning those who – like me – are selfish.
You have little reason to grow a community so that you are surrounded by people like me in this regard. I stand by while people are fighting for their lives in the face of poverty and disease – at least, when they are not my immediate neighbors.
That is not what a good person would do.
Even I have reason to praise those who are charitable and condemn those who are selfish. I just happen to be one of those people I have reason to condemn – and self-condemnation is not a welcome thing.
So, why don’t I just do better?
Well, I try, from time to time. But, like diets and exercise, these resolutions are easily broken.
Even a person who resolves to do better will act so as to fulfill current desires, given his beliefs… and will backslide when the will to succeed is not there.
Certainly, I comfort myself by noting the effort I have put into studying ethics and advancing propositions that I think will make the world a better place. I resolve to leave what wealth I have left when I die to charity, and ask myself if there really is much of a marginal benefit to my own charity after the billions donated by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett and their friends.
Gates and Buffett recently made a round of calls to the wealthiest people on the planet, convincing them to donate billions to charity. My contributions seem insignificant by comparison. Heck, they are insignificant – except to those few lives that can be saved. To them, it is highly significant.
And I protest other people creating a need to be rescued. You pull a child off of the track to prevent it from being hit by the train and, on the other side of the world, somebody places two more children on the track in front of yet another train. There are intentional actions behind this need to rescue in many cases. STOP IT!
There is also the unfortunate fact that a huge amount of charitable effort is wasted or, what is worse, does significant harm. I have no doubt that a lot of religious and political charity – all aiming to make the world a better place – is well intentioned but ultimately destructive.
We can seriously question whether the person who makes significant contributions to a cause while adopting absurd and irrational claims about its worth is actually all that charitable.
A truly charitable person seriously worries about whether he is helping or hurting, because he cares what the answer is. The person who does not seriously question this does not seriously care.
Ultimately, these points that I raise in my defense are excuses. None of them disprove the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who are more generous than I am, and condemn those who, like me, tend to be selfish in this way.
I also want to add that, to a good person, charity is not a ‘sacrifice’ of any kind.
Some people like big, expensive vacations and that is where they spend their money. The good person likes big, expensive contributions that do real good in the world, and that is where they spend their money.
To these people, the large charitable contribution is no more of a sacrifice than the expensive vacation. Instead, these two equally large expenses fulfill different desire sets. The difference is that people generally have reason to praise and promote the former desire set, and have reason to condemn the latter as selfish.