The Virtue of Charity

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 3, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

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.)

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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.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Gantt February 3, 2011 at 4:51 am

How refreshing!

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Charles February 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

If you are the sort of person who doesn’t give to charity, it doesn’t follow that you are selfish. It could simply be that your expenses drastically exceed your income.

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anon February 3, 2011 at 7:15 am

“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. ”

Bull shit!

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PDH February 3, 2011 at 7:51 am

Good article.

I find this point interesting.

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.

It’s become fashionable lately to criticise the Bonos of the world for their charity work on the grounds that they are still enormously rich. The reasoning would be that it’s more impressive when a poor person gives what little they can afford to charity than when a multi-millionaire gives, what is to them, a pittance even if that pittance turns out to be vastly more money than the poor person gave. So, the charge is hypocrisy, basically. ‘You tell us to give our money to Live Aid but how much did you give? You could donate 90% of your money and still be considered rich.’

And, yeah, I’ve always thought it was a bit of a weak excuse. Celebrity X is a hypocrite so his argument must be false, therefore there is no need for me to change my lifestyle.

Something like Live Aid would be easily defensible on consequentialist grounds (assuming it actually helped) but it’s interesting to see how desirism might deal with it. And I agree that people failing to live up to their own standards does not mean that those standards are incorrect.

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almost.chris February 3, 2011 at 9:08 am

Bull shit!  

Interesting counter-argument. I hadn’t considered that but the point should be considered. I think this might prove a defeater for desirism.

On another point, the efficacy of various charities is a solid concern. I believe it is valid to not want to give away your money inefficiently. All the more reason to promote givewell.org at every opportunity.

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Student February 3, 2011 at 10:39 am

From things you have said here it sounds like you have a reason to do three things:

1. Praise charitable giving, and condemn selfishness
2. Keep your money for yourself
3. Give away money so as to reduce the feeling of hypocrisy caused by 1 and 2

So the “moral” thing is to give away as little as possible to reduce the feeling of hypocrisy to a manageable level, while praising charitable givers and condemning selfish people. Is that right?

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David February 3, 2011 at 10:47 am

If you are the sort of person who doesn’t give to charity, it doesn’t follow that you are selfish. It could simply be that your expenses drastically exceed your income.  

There’s a difference between “the sort of person who doesn’t give to charity” and “a person in a situation where they can’t give to charity.” Of course, ultimately it’s a spectrum, but for any given situation the person who would give more to charity is less selfish.

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Steven R. February 3, 2011 at 11:01 am

Ah, Alonzo, once again you write quite an interesting and challenging post. You know, this struggle between selfishness and charity has always been a point of disillusion for me. Yesterday I actually had this conversation with a good friend of mine.

I told her how when I pictured what I want to do with my life, I always thought of myself as having a high wage job and using most of the money buy a fairly luxurious house in the city and keep on buying art and other fancy decorations. Of how I always thought of going to nice restaurants and maybe even tour the world one day. She responded postively to all this until I returned to the whole point of the discussion. When I pointed out that I don’t need any of that and that I could reasonably live in a very cheap household with just the bare minimums, and the rest would do considerable good to helping alleviate hunger in third world nations, her first reaction (and my own too, upon realizing this) was to try and justify that sort of living.

Of course, the more and more you try, the more and more you realize it really isn’t very justifiable. Sure, you can point at all the billionaires in the world and say “hey, if they’d just contribute their money and time and influence, we could really rid the world of hunger” and thus, your ideal lifestyle is preserved…But none of it really matters, especially when you realize that whenever you use money, you are literally choosing between feeding a starving child or a canvas with some paint in it. It’s a horrifying realization. And yet, no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring myself to forego the art. Neither could she.

“Yeah, but you kinda have to help yourself too. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself,” she said. Alas, that hardly justifies a middle-class life, now does it? You can certainly live a healthy life without any of our commodities. I don’t need a plasma TV or a nicely decorated bedroom. On the other hand, those children and mothers NEED the meal.

But there’s something more. What’s the effect on myself, to leave all of these desires behind? To devote my time to helping others, really, without giving myself any break other than what’s absolutely necessary? Really, to do any less seems morally condemnable to me. After all, if we were to read about a whiteman during the time of slavery who, having within his powers the ability to fully feed and nurse back to health the runaway slave decides instead to give him the leftover scraps of his dog’s meal…wouldn’t we condemn him? Wouldn’t we say, “wow, you have a stable life, you don’t need to sell all your crops. Here you have thousands of starving people near you, why not feed them or try and free them instead of just ignoring all of it”? And yet, just thinking about tirelessly fighting poverty and disease around the world, selflessly devoting myself to their well-being just seems to be too much to ask of me. I can’t see how it isn’t the morally superior choice, but I can’t help but just say “no, it will tire me and wear me out. I can’t do this”, even when I know it’s well within my powers and I would condemn others for not doing it.

My friend, she just kept on seeing how all of our justifications for not devoting ourselves to helping others were indeed just what Alonzo called them–excuses, and bad ones at that. Unfortunately, the only conclusion we reached was that such sort of charity was not in our nature. And I’m not sure how to deal with that. Here I am, thinking myself a fairly moral person, but in the back of my mind knowing it’s all a lie. I’m still at an impasse. No m atter how many times I think about my future, and the good my future earnings can do for others, I still choose the art. There’s a trace of guilt, but just the idea of having a my dreamhome is too much. I’m not sure what to make of it, although I suspect that this indecision is just denial, a denial of my real immorality.

I realize this post is huge, but I just felt it’s extremely relevant to the discussion.

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paul corrado February 3, 2011 at 11:03 am

Is giving to charity a virtue we should want Luke to value higher than content creation?

Any action that either fulfills a desire as its end or is a tool to help fulfill a desire is a good action as long as spending recourse on the desire or tool it is the best use of the resources that person has. The best use of recourse, (nob that should be turned up) is to fulfill the most desires possible but we must always take into consideration both our flawed environment and flawed genetics. Flawed only meaning, in the case of genetics, not evolved to promote the most desires but to promote survival to or past reproduction age in a different type of environment than we currently live in. Our current environment is also not geared to interact with our genetics in a way to promote more desires fulfillment in the most efficient way possible.

Acting in the best way possible would be working as an end goal to fulfill the most desires possible in all things capable of having desires. To do this we use tools to get to this place and Luxuries (these may or may not be tools) to help us act in a way that promotes more desires fulfillment in the most efficient way possible.

I am using the following terms:

tool: anything that can help us fulfill a desire. We have good and bad tools. A good tool being one that promotes maximum desire fulfillment and a bad one that does not.

Luxury: anything that is a desire in itself but by fulfilling you are not fulfilling the most desires in the most efficient way possible if we were in a perfect environment and had perfect genetics that encouraged desires fulfillment in the most efficient way possible. We have good and bad luxuries. A good luxury will help us overcome our flawed mind and environment in order to help us fulfill the most desires possible (this would also be a tool). A bad Luxury may just fulfill a desire (or not efficiently full a desire) that is a product of our flawed mind and environment and not most efficiently let us fulfill as many desires as possible.

I order to do this we must use the tool we have (our mind that has not evolved for this task) in an environment that may not promote this, so we probably should not expect perfection on the journey. If we believe the desire we have in ourselves for something we could call a luxury and it will be useful in our path to fulfill more desires this becomes a tool and not a luxury. If that luxury is not used as a tool it is not the best use of our recourse as we could have fulfilled that desire in a less resource intensive way. Just about anything that takes recourse (but does not promotes more desires fulfillment in the most efficient way possible in a perfect world) could be a a good or bad luxury Luxuries are not intrinsically good or bad but it depends on the environment they are in.

To one person a cup of coffee, a vacation, a new car, new clothing, a computer, a third computer, a cell phone, working out, eating right, educating themselves and others, going out on a fancy date, looking at art … and so on could be a good or bad luxury and this depends on the individuals genetics and environment. I can imagine each of these luxuries being both good and bad depending on the circumstance.

So is giving to charity a virtue we should want Luke to value higher than content creation? Should Luke stop providing a ridiculous amount of great content for us and spend that time working at a paying job, possibly making $10,000 extra a year and giving that money to one of the most efficient charities he can that he belies would provide the most desire fulfillment? Maybe. My intuitive guess is NO but I have not looked at all the variables and calculated them using as little bias as possible.

Should we strive to make charity a virtue in society. Probably. But not at the expense of the real goal (desires fulfillment in the most efficient way possible). I would prefer the guys at Google invent Google than work at the best jobs they could get and give all extra money to a charity that saves the most lives possible.

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paul corrado February 3, 2011 at 11:52 am

I agree that charily could be a virtue in our society but it is not a “trait or quality deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being” (from Wikipedia) in itself. Only desire fulfillment is. In relation to our genetics and our environment the idea of promoting the virtue of charily is probably a good tool.

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paul corrado February 3, 2011 at 3:10 pm

And I agree that people failing to live up to their own standards does not mean that those standards are incorrect.  

the fact that we are humans that have not evolved with the correct brain and are not living in the correct environment to “live up to our standards” must be taken into consideration in the expected application of our standards, not on a meta level (the standards are the standards, the goal is the goal) but on a day to day applied level. We have to use what we have been given and in the environment we are in and these are not evolved or designed to best implement our standards.

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Michael Thackray February 3, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Can we define charity?

Because if I were Alonzo I’d expand it encompass the donation of insights and knowledge to anyone who cared to listen that help people have a better understanding of the world around them to enable them to make better decisions.

I’m remain pretty unassuming in this area, because identifying generousity in people can be a very tricky thing. I have friends who don’t donate to charity per se, but if someones’ short on cash, or is in need of money or a favour there the first one there.
Then others who have like 5 sponsor children but then wouldn’t give you the time of day….

Alonzo frames it interestingly, but I think it deserves more analysis.

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Henry February 3, 2011 at 8:51 pm

When I was the member of a UU church, I spent some time as the member of the church council in charge of fundraising and stewardship. I had a LOT of conversations with members about charity, the impulse for charity, etc., and discovered that our congregation had a lot of very charitable members, although most of their charity was going to secular causes like feeding or housing the poor, the arts or public radio and disease research or prevention. I was frustrated about that at the time, but today I’m glad for it because of the way most tax-deductible religious donations go to pay for evangelizing the faith rather than helping those in need. Here’s a blog post I wrote on Think Atheist about this topic:

Imagine receiving this pitch from the American Cancer Society:

“Donate $100 today, and $15 of it will go directly to cancer research and to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients! Better still, $50 of it will be used to pay a lecturer who holds weekly meetings to explain why cancer is bad, why donating to the Society is good, and what cancer patients did to give themselves the disease! The other $35 will pay for our building, our other staff, general overhead, fundraising costs and for spreading the good word about the value of being against cancer.”

Would you send money?

Whenever I see debates on the topic of “Is religion a force for good in the world?” or something similar, the skeptical side usually stipulates to the point that people who are motivated by religion perform acts of charity, and the argument either goes in the direction of comparing people’s motivations for acts of charity or in the direction of a blame game for various evils.

The point that never seems to be made is the actual financial cost of religious charity. Religion uses its tax exempt status and position in society to drain billions of dollars away from much more effective secular charities each year. Religious giving is much more of a Ministers Jobs Program than a means of helping the poor, sick or disadvantaged.

Very few churches make their budgets available for inspection, so we have to rely on surveys, but from what I can tell, church budgets are the mirror opposite of the budgets of secular charities.

Your Church put out a report in 2002 showing that for the churches surveyed, the average expense on “outreach” was 15%. In his book The Almost Church, consultant Mike Durall says Protestant denominations spend 10 to 29 percent of their budgets on outreach, with a national average of 16%. One of the best known consultants on church administration, Lyle Shaller, recommends churches budget 15% for outreach.

A somewhat contradictory viewpoint comes from a chart by LifeWay Research, which shows that churches on average spend 5% on “missions and evangelism”, so unless a good portion of the 9% that goes to “other” is charity, their figures are much worse than Your Church reported.

http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/images/lwcI_research_chart_577x433_Avera...

As for secular charities, a quick perusal of GuideStar or Charity Navigator will confirm for you the rule of thumb for non-religious non-profit organizations that no more than 15% of revenue should be spent on overhead, and 75%-85% of the budget should support the organization’s mission. (There are wonderful details at http://www.coststudy.org, and in this report: http://nccsdataweb.urban.org/kbfiles/525/M&G.pdf)

I know reading budget statistics is boring, but the point seems really compelling to me. If you donate $100 to an average church, $15 will be used for charity. If you donate $100 to an average community service nonprofit, $85 will be used for charity. If your goal is to help the needy, your money will go 5 times farther with secular charities than it will with churches.

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Adito February 3, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Henry,

We need a lot more then those kinds of numbers to know if a charity is doing what it’s supposed to do. The fact of the matter is that a well funded infrastructure is absolutely critical and actually getting things done without one is very difficult. The main question you should ask yourself before giving money to a charity is “does this group regularly meet its goals?” It’s easy to throw money away on plans to fix a problem that never reach fruition. We need to pay attention to results, the percentage of a donation that goes directly into relief efforts is just a distraction by comparison.

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Vlastimil Vohánka February 4, 2011 at 8:30 am

Luke,

Have you blogged on Singer’s arguments (esp. that we should donate extremely — indeed, until we reach the level of the poorest — to eradicate the world hunger)? (He defends a weaker position in his latest The Life You Can Save: we should donate at least certain percent of our income).

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