Is It Morally Wrong to Donate to Your Alma Mater?
New York City Police Officer DePrimo (pictured) was a hero last week, when a tourist from Arizona snapped a photo of him after he went into a nearby store to buy boots for a homeless man and knelt to help put them on. The boots cost $100. The store manager, when he realized why DePrimo was buying to boots, discounted them to $75. Was he a hero? For that amount of money, he could have saved someone’s eyesight or dewormed 150 schoolchildren.
The utilitarian Peter Singer has created a website and book that capitalizes on the ideas he wrote about in his famous article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” You have an obligation, he argues, to always donate what you can to save a life. A life must come before all other creature comforts. The website, The Life You Can Save, helps you find charities that save the most lives for your money.
I had planned to write this post even before co-Leaguer Jason made the most forceful version yet of the view I wanted to argue against. The view is this: when giving to charity, you have an obligation to maximize your donation so that the greatest number of lives are saved. It is either irrational or immoral (it is variously stated) not to maximize the life-saving of your donation. Similar arguments found here and here.
Here is where I agree with Jason, et al. It seems like a good idea to check up on where the money for your chosen charity goes. And other than that, I disagree with them. There is no rational or moral obligation to ensure donations maximize live-saving. It is perfectly fine (morally, rationally) to donate to your alma mater.
I was advised by my co-Leaguers that I ought to read Robin Hanson on the topic of charity. So I read around a bit. Here he argues that the most effective charity is to pursue your selfish choices, but just shade them a bit in the direction of making the world a better place. No objection there. It’s just a false dilemma. Can’t you do that and donate to charity?
Here he suggests that one effective charity idea might be that people act as if they are in need of help, take note of who helps, and a random large prize is distributed to a few of those who helped. One problem with this: extrinsic rewards seem to remove intrinsic motivation (apologies for paywalls). When the rewards are taken away, there is less motivation than there was initially. So unless we keep paying people to be Good Samaritans, they may lose interest.
Here he argues that donating to create hospital wings and academic halls are “wasteful signals,” and it is sad that the founder of Rite-Aid pissed away so much money on such projects. Jason suggests similarly, “Charity serves mainly to signal within a community that the giver is charitable. The claim sounds both strange and horrible, but it’s absolutely true.” His evidence for the claim of signaling is that most charity is what he terms “self-regarding,” i.e., not maximally effective for human life-saving, but instead directed toward some end that the giver likes. However, that is quite different than serving mainly as a signal. I can give anonymously to an Irish setter rescue organization.
This study suggests that people do indeed give more when being observed. So there is definitely some signaling going on. However, they gave when they were not observed, which suggests charity is not mainly a signaling activity. (It is worth noting, as another count against Hanson’s charity rewards idea that people were less likely to give if the received a financial incentive when they were observed, more likely to give if they received a financial incentive while unobserved.) But again, plenty of people gave privately and with no incentive.
I rarely tell people when and where I give to charity, and I don’t imagine I’m the only one who does this. I am indeed satisfying my own desires in doing it. But my desire is other-directed, not self-directed. I want to help someone else. The fact that it is self-regarding does not rule out that it is other-regarding. It’s self- and other-regarding. But it is not mostly signaling, and not purely selfish.
So here is why I think there is no obligation to maximize charity:
There is more than one end in life. As my co-blogger Russell suggested in the comments on Jason’s post, my problem with utilitarianism has always been that there are many, many ends worth maximizing. Happiness and continued life is undoubtedly one of them, maybe the most important. But surely aesthetic pleasure is worth maximizing. And knowledge. And health. And civility. And caring for children. And prevention of exploitation. Etc. These utilitarian calculations of where donations should go assume that there is must be only one end you can pursue, and that is life-saving. I think it is both rational and moral to pursue other ends as well. Obviously, I will not convince the whole hog utilitarians, but most people are not whole hog utilitarians for a reason. If it is rational and moral to pursue other ends, why shouldn’t you donate money to maximize knowledge, aesthetic pleasure, prevention of exploitation, etc?
No principled reason to stop at charity. Another point Russell was getting at in comments. Let’s say you do think that it is only rational and moral to pursue life-saving before all other ends. If you follow this line of reasoning, there’s no strong reason it should only apply to charity. And then you should always give more. This computer I’m typing on? It could save many lives. Your smartphone, your shoes, your car. Are lives not worth more than they? How can you ever buy such items? Famously, Singer argues you should give until you are living at the point of marginal utility. Jason answers this line of argument by saying money earmarked for charity is different. In the comments on his post, he writes:
The underlying point here is that nearly all our actions are self-regarding in a deeper sense than we realize, including the ones we do for what we call charity. Optimally helpful charity puts these to shame if our purposes are to be helpful.
If they’re not, then they’re not. How much we want to feel okay, or troubled, by this… well, that’s not for me to decide. I’m just pointing out what I think disinterested helpfulness would look like, and noting that only some charities seem to come close. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the charity we do now, provided we are honest about what ends we’re serving.
I’m not entirely sure why charitable giving should be disinterested. I think it fairly obvious that governmental benefits should be disinterested. But not charitable giving. What makes it bad that you want to maximize a specific end or other that isn’t life-saving? Again, doing such doesn’t make it all about you. Your desires are still other-directed. But presumably you have some beliefs about how the world can be made better, and you want to effect that change. And again, since there are multiple desirable ends, why shouldn’t you do it?
If your purpose is to be helpful, it is still perfectly rational to donate on non-utilitarian grounds. I don’t think anyone who donates to an art museum is under the illusion that she has saved a life, or done something better than saving a life. She just believes she has made the world better in one of the ways she thinks the world can be made better.
I don’t see how one must use utilitarian principles only for one’s charitable donations, but not for the other decisions in one’s life. Let’s say you decided to donate $100 to charity, and believe you must maximize your charitable donations. But you could save twice as many lives by donating $200. Why don’t you? How can’t you?
Are you always obligated to do the best thing possible? Let us suppose that donating money to save lives is best both rationally and morally. Then I question whether we are always obligated to do the best possible thing we can, such that we are actually irrational or immoral if we do something that’s pretty good, but not the best. One can almost always be a bit better morally. Does that mean one is always immoral? Irrational? I am certain I could be doing something now that is more moral than writing this blog post. Something that could be making the world better than this blog post is making it. But does that make it irrational or immoral to write this blog post? Why must my charity donation be to the best possible charity, or else be irrational or immoral?
It is of course not the case that there is no such thing as an irrational charitable donation. Were I to give to Kim Kardashian to help her recover from her divorce, that would be problematic. But I think there are multiple ends that most people other than utilitarians would agree are worthwhile.
When I decide to give to charity, I am not deciding that this money is earmarked for the greatest increase in felt pleasure by all beings, or in the achievement of the best possible state of affairs. Sometimes I feel that since I have special knowledge about an area, I am more familiar with the needs of a group. I often direct donations toward groups that help the developmentally disabled in one way or another. I donate to support groups for parents of the developmentally disabled who don’t have money, because I know what it’s like to raise a developmentally disabled child, and can imagine the difficulties without money. While scholarships don’t save lives, they improve certain people’s lives and increase the knowledge in the world. That may not be the most possible good, but it is good. And isn’t that good enough?