Is It Morally Wrong to Donate to Your Alma Mater?


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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210 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Dammnit, Rose. You took all my whiney ranting in response to Jason’s article and made it sound smart. You’re making me look bad! How uncharitable!

    Seriously though, great piece. There really isn’t much I can add. So I won’t even try.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Fishing philosophers, always thinking deeply and making compelling arguments. Don’t you just hate that?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        If there is one thing I feel when I think “Rose Woodhouse”, it is unmitigated hate.

        And she knows exactly why.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          The fact that both you and Rose think that these points are telling is only an indication that you have not understood me. I will try once more.

          I am not asserting that charity — still less all of human life — must always be about helping.

          Here is what I’m saying: If charity is about helping, then maximize helping. If it’s not, then you don’t have to.

          If you say that charity is about helping, but you do not use your charitable resources to help maximally, then you are being irrational. (Alternatively, you might just be ill-informed, as with the best way to give to food banks. But if we’ve gotten to the table-banging stage, we’re probably not terribly interested in finding it.)

          I observe that people don’t maximize helping, and therefore I am left with only one conclusion about charity: It’s not about helping.

          I think it’s about signaling to a large degree, and that signaling can be either to a community, or to oneself, or even to God. I recognize that that’s a claim subject to attack on all kinds of levels, right down to how we define “signaling” itself. It’s a claim, in short, that’s on much shakier ground than the foregoing. I am still inclined to think that it’s true.

          And again, I’m not urging everyone to do a Full Jesus, sell all their belongings, and give to the poor. I’m just astonished that, among a people who profess this to be their creed, so little real help is done.Report

          • Avatar Rose says:

            And here’s my point. That there’s nothing about the concept of helpful that restricts it to saving lives rather than making terminally ill children happy. I can decide to be helpful to disabled children specifically. Why does every charitable donation need to have as its end the greatest increase in utility in the world? Why can’t it be the end in which I am interested?

            Jason, I honestly don’t think it’s that I don’t understand you. I simply disagree about what the implications are of your view. Once one introduces the idea of obligations being maximal, the arguments for restricting it seem thin. You say its “If you want to be helpful.” Well, we all do, right? You don’t stop wanting to be helpful when you put your checkbook away. Why shouldn’t you keep doing it, if it is irrational when donating?

            Here’s where I agree with you. The efficiency of any charity is important. It is irrational to give to an inefficient charity. It is not irrational to give to a charity that does not have Peter Singer’s and Jason Kuznicki’s preferred endReport

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            Here is what I’m saying: If charity is about helping, then maximize helping.

            I honestly don’t see that that follows. Exercise is about keeping fit in order to stay healthy. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong or foolish to exercise other than in the way that maximizes that goal per hour spent. Calling playing bridge exercise because dealing the cards gives your fingers and wrists a workout is foolish, but that’s a much weaker claim.Report

            • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

              Removed insane typos from previous comment (typed on a phone), and agree totally with Mike that wanting to exercise (ha) a virtue does not imply wanting to maximize it on pain of irrationality. (One of Aristotle’s interesting points was that no virtue should be maximized…)Report

          • Avatar joey jo jo says:

            You create a duty that doesn’t exist Jason. I can guess where the dichotomy you are creating leads. Only give if your gift has maximum effect v. do not give at all.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              I do no such thing. I only point out that many forms of helping are much more self-regard than help.

              That’s not creating a duty. It’s just pointing out what people are actually doing. I’m not passing any judgment on them. That’s you, not me.

              Personally? I’ve said it so many times on these threads that I’m getting sick of it: There is nothing necessarily wrong with self-interest or self-regard. They may prove to be better than we realize, even.Report

              • Avatar joey jo jo says:

                Sigh. You ever get tired of blaming everyone for not understanding you? Got a mirror handy? It’s just bad faith on your part.
                You want intent to trump results. Only maiximizers are “rational”. Got it and I disagree but it’s useless to pursue this.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Clearly not the case. Plenty of people here have understood. Just not you or a handful of others.Report

        • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

          I’ve got my eye on you, Kaz.Report

  2. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “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. ”

    It’s not any less a utilitarian calculation that you decide to pursue aesthetic pleasure, knowledge, health, civility,caring for children, prevention of exploitation, etcetera. You just happen to value those things more highly than mere survival.

    The key to this discussion is to recognize that you do not disagree with Jason.Report

    • Avatar Rose says:

      Utilitarians have one end. That’s the difference.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Duck, my friend, you are on fire of late.

      The key to this discussion is to recognize that you do not disagree with Jason.

      This, this, this.

      Once we’ve chosen an end, utilitarianism is very helpful in pursuing it. If our end is “helping,” then for all those resources that are applied to the end, we must be efficient, and help the greatest number to the greatest extent.

      But we are always free to choose different ends, and in fact, I strongly suspect the world would be a terrible place if all we ever did was helping others, with never a thought to ourselves.Report

      • Avatar NoPublic says:

        Once we’ve chosen an end, utilitarianism is very helpful in pursuing it. If our end is “helping,” then for all those resources that are applied to the end, we must be efficient, and help the greatest number to the greatest extent.

        It’s a strong assertion but I see no evidence that it is axiomatic. It’s single-threaded thinking like this that leads to people saying that making a profit means, by definition, exploiting labour. Which IIRC you disagree with (and I know some folk here do, so in any case…)Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        But this begs the question , Does “charity” must = “helping”? Or, even if we agree that charity must = “helping,” if our end is in fact helping, why is it the case that our end must also be helping as you say (of which there will be a very few kinds of helping that further the end defined that way?) That will mean that all kinds of things that we might imagine are helping actually aren’t, even if we don’t claim to be doing the most possible help with the available funds. Do you claim that endowing an art museum is not “helping”? It is surely not helping the greatest number to the greatest extent per $. If it’s not doing that, it’s not helping at all?

        I guess the point is, ultimately you of course don’t want museums to stop being endowed. So what is important? Why is it so important to isolate out givers whose pure aim is undifferentiated “help” from those whose aim is “to help lift the spirit is of people in this city by endowing a museum which will be free or cheap to enter,” from those who just want want to make that endowment without any belief that it’s helping anything? Whatever moral obligation any of these givers have can’t rest on how these things are differentiated in their minds. It’s good for he person who believes that their aim is to help generically to know what actions will actually do that, but if in light of that info, their aim changes to “help in X particular way,” nothing has really changed morally or practically. So what is the force of what you are arguing? Or just: what are you arguing? It seems like finally you’re just arguing that people should be well-informed. That doesn’t translate into any imperative to help maximally with any particular pot of $.

        Ultimately it seems what’s bothering you is that some people probably think they’re being more helpful than they are. Why does that matter?

        Some givers perhaps have “helping”as a generic end, but othersReport

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          disr. last line.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          I wouldn’t mind if museums cease to exist. most of their functions are covered by schools and the internet nowadays.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Surely there are other moderately-to-mildly helpful institutions you can substitute to aid in trying to understand my point.Report

          • Kim, m’dear, I usually ignore your comments, but sometimes they are so full of resplendent silliness that they veritably cry for a reply.

            If you think that seeing “Starry Night” is the same on the Internet as it is in person, then I simply cannot relate to your viewpoint in the least. (I rather suspect that to be the case, actually.) If one does think that, then one might as well do away with tourism, since one can just as easily see what the Duomo of Milan looks like online as stroll through it one’s self.

            Also, I am curious where we should stash “Starry Night” or the various treasures and masterpieces housed in the world’s museums, what with said museums being past their sell-by date. Or is that a silly question, and should we let them crumble and disintegrate, having taken sufficient pictures to know what they used to look like? If one takes the view that marvelous things ought to be preserved for their own sake, is there a vault somewhere we can put them? Or maybe might it be nice to look at them every once in a while?Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              I have obtained more enjoyment out of Shalebridge Cradle than strolling through the Duomo of Venice, in no small part because the enjoyment of architecture is dependent upon appreciating it from multiple vantage points.

              That said, there’s a very key difference between Shalebridge Cradle and the Duomo of Venice. One exists outside of the computer, and the other one does not.

              They are both pieces of art.

              Have you ever seen Cory Archangel’s art? Is it really any different to watch Super Mario Brother’s clouds drift across the screen in person than on your computer?

              Does it sadden you to know that there are millions of pieces of art that can never be appreciated like “Starry Night” — for the sheer reason that they were never painted, but simply drawn online?

              There’s enough putzes out there who think that having something of a dead artist proves that they’re better than the rest of us, that I have confidence that they’ll be well preserved into the future.Report

              • So, your argument is that the existence and evanescence of online art means we should let real-world art go to wrack and ruin? That your preference for computer-based experience means those who would like to see the Taj Mahal or “Girl Before a Mirror” or Angkor Wat etc etc etc etc etc etc should have less opportunity to do so, because preserving them is of no value to you? That the fleeting nature of so much online ephemera obviates the benefit in keeping the Louvre in existence?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                A little known treasure is the stained glass museum on Navy Pier in Chicago. It’s totally free, but tucked back in a corner where it’s easy to miss (although it’s a pretty extensive collection).

                Seeing the images on the internet is nice, gives you a sense of what they are, and act as a sort of appetizer. Seeing them in real life is a radically different, richer, experience. We could just eliminate the pieces themselves and just save the jpegs of them, but only at the cost of diminishing the experience of many potential viewers.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                stained glass, like architecture, is considerably context dependent. I should think that you might be able to create a richer experience using (large) photographs taken at skillfully set times.
                But perhaps there’s a bit of virtue to the spontaneity of simply being there.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Go before you judge, lest you judge in ignorance.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                having perused stained glass in multiple countries on multiple continents, I think I might be able to generalize a bit. Perhaps not, but if so, it may be a commentary on the difference between “putting something in a museum” and allowing the artist to design for the place the art shall live.

                Still, any excuse to see chicago is a good one (believe it or not, I’ve never been.)Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I should be so lucky as to have my musings form an argument.

                I believe that much real-world art is overrated, and that the reasons for this overratedness (in part, cultural imperialism) will convince the government to pay for preservation and showing it off. (That said, you’ll notice I’m not arguing against the Library of Congress).

                The Louvre in particular is a sticky question, as it is a rather extreme example of cultural imperialism (as is the British Museum).

                I suppose I’d rather argue (If I might be allowed to pick my battles) that we ought to spend our charitable dollars more wisely than to support museums. That museums, rather than serving to actually display the best art, instead serve as signs that someone is “cultured” and serve as a way to inculcate obsolete methods of content creation as “ideal” (note: not starry night. pointilism, and the 1960-1970’s stuff that looks like a photoshop filter).

                This is not to say that we should not as a society support them.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          Another way to put this: if we’re not actually obligated to be maximally helpful, then why must we not say to ourselves we are being quite helpful while being not very helpful? A person who is somewhat helpful but tells himself he is very helpful is still more helpful than someone who is considerably less helpful but convinces herself she isn’t helpful at all. Is the point in all this that I am being asked to care more about vanity or self-delusion than helpfulness (even measured as a proportion of the person’s disposable income)? Maybe I feel the same way, but I don’t think anyone has an obligation to. I don’t think it can be shown that’s the “right”view.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        “If our end is “helping,” then for all those resources that are applied to the end, we must be efficient, and help the greatest number to the greatest extent.”

        Is it possible that there are other definitions of “helping” which might require different means?Report

  3. Avatar Fnord says:

    In response to “There is more than one end in life”:
    That’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that, whatever ends you choose to fulfill, there are almost certainly more efficient and less efficient ways to go about those ends.

    In response to “No principled reason to stop at charity”:
    Also true. Choosing to use resources for your own pleasure by, eg, buying a smartphone, diverts those resources away from saving lives (or whatever ends you choose to pursue), just like giving to a non-optimal charity. But the reverse is also true, then. Giving to a non-optimal charity is diverting resources away from your (altruistic) goal, just like buying a smartphone is. Choosing to give to a non-optimal charity is the same sort of decision as choosing to give less to charity in order to buy a smartphone. No one denies that buying a smartphone is a self-regarding act.

    In response to “Are you always obligated to do the best thing possible?”:
    Call it “less than perfectly moral” and “less than perfectly rational” rather than immoral and irrational.Report

    • Avatar Rose says:

      I said that efficiency is where I agree with the economists.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      “Choosing to give to a non-optimal charity is the same sort of decision as choosing to give less to charity in order to buy a smartphone.”

      Is it possible to serve multiple masters?

      Suppose I say my first priority is to cure cancer. But another, less pressing but still important priority is to support my local economy. So, I can donate to an internationally based cancer research charity that is 90% efficient. Or I can donate to a locally based cancer research charity that is 70% efficient. Is that the same as using that 20% of lost efficiency to buy a cell phone? I’d argue not.

      Suppose I say my first priority is to cure cancer. But another, less pressing but still important priority is to support research that does not involve testing on animals. So I can donate to a cancer research charity that is 90% efficient but tests on animals. Or I can donate to a cancer research that is 70% efficient but does not. Is that the same as using that lost 20% of lost efficiency to buy a cell phone? Again, I’d argue not.

      Suppose I say my first priority is to cure cancer but that I prioritize treating current cancer patients over long-term research that will largely benefit future cancer patients not yet born. So I can donate to a cancer research charity that is 90% efficient. Or I can donate to a cancer treatment center that is 70% efficient. Same as buying a cell phone? I think you know my answer.

      Going back to Jason’s point, if I simply said, “I care about curing cancer,” it’d be easy to look at the decision I’d make in these three scenarios and say, “Does he REALLY care about curing cancer? It doesn’t appear that way… he keeps choosing sub optimally.” But if you took the time to understand my nuanced position instead of just assuming that my support of cancer charities means I have a singular focus on curing the disease once and for all, you’d realize there is nothing inconsistent or self-regarding in my pattern of donations.

      And if you want to argue that I should not care about any of the things I do care about… that there is something morally problematic with me caring about my local economy to the point of caring slightly less (or, really, doing slightly less) to cure cancer, I think we get into some really ugly territory with some really ugly ultimate conclusions. Namely, Pete Seeger territory (based on what’s been presented here, at least; I don’t know the man or his research).Report

      • Avatar Fnord says:

        Sure, it’s possible to serve multiple goals. The point, then, is what’s the best way to fulfill your composite goal.

        But it requires some odd ideas about relative importance in order to square all giving patterns with that idea. To choose the Make-A-Wish foundation over deworming, you have to decide that sending sick kids to Disney World is not only as important as curing them, but several times more important. The less than optimal charities, in practice, often aren’t “slightly less” effective, they’re much less effective.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          This exactly. Plenty of people around here seem to be understanding me, and I do believe Fnord is one of them.

          I can’t answer the question of how best to serve multiple goals. It’s too damn complicated. But I can nibble at the edges of the problem, and I can point out that this or that thing seems really wrong no matter which way I look at them.Report

  4. Avatar DRS says:

    Call me crazy but it’s been my experience that 99.9% of charitable people think about the people who are helped by the charity, not about themselves. And that is the last post I will make on this subject because frankly as a non-profit fundraising professional it is actually painful for me to read these posts.Report

    • Avatar Rose says:

      DRS, I am agreeing with you.Report

    • DRS, I am genuinely confused how the above post would be painful to you, or at cross purposes to your profession. It is entirely supportive of the notion that even “sub-optimal” charitable giving or giving that is directed at an end other than the maximization of felt pleasure is morally sound for everyone this side of Jeremy Bentham.

      Why is that painful to you?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        I can’t speak for DRS but here’s why I’m All Done commenting on this Charity Issue: it’s painful to me.

        As a little boy, my parents would bring us back home every four years on furlough, where we would go around to churches and donors and give a little slide show, demonstrating what these good people were buying with their hard-earned money. Lots of pictures of sick African people being treated, the old Jeep loaded up with supplies, that sort of thing. I was expected to be on my best behaviour: I was part of that God ‘n Pony Show, too. We lived on charity. Bad as things were, we certainly weren’t rich, but we were incomparably wealthy compared to the people we were helping. It cost a great deal of money to send us to Africa.

        Later in life, I did refugee work. I had my own God and Pony show. I’m used to living low to the ground, I don’t need much. Never did. But that same gulf was there, how much better off I was than the people I was helping. In that dichotomy lay a deep hurt. I’ve seen refugee workers bent out of shape on this issue. I can’t speak to your identity as a physician and caregiver but I know my own parents, medical missionaries — would it be fair to say a caregiver shouldn’t allow himself too far into the situation he’s treating? It would seem unwise, compromises judgement.

        So DRS is doing other people’s God and Pony Shows, soliciting donations. I’ve solicited donations for solar power and well projects and I’ve delegated it to others. It hurts me and it hurts DRS to hear about suboptimality in philanthropy. If the world were anything but suboptimal, those people wouldn’t need some American family to fly all the way to Niger Republic (a very expensive proposition) to treat gangrene and kwashiorikor and schistosomiasis and malaria and complicated births and take up arms against a sea of troubles. And do God and Pony Shows and give out African carvings to important donors and smile and be the Perfect Missionary Child, then the Perfect Refugee Worker and at long last, the Perfect Donor.

        For some people, charity is writing a check. For others of us, it was digging latrines and watching our fathers dig graves. Nobody gave us any praise and thanks for doing these things, not that we need or want it. For those of us who do them, there is merit enough in the doing, the certain knowledge that we do not live to ourselves nor die to ourselves, that the world is a better place with Compassion and not Justice.

        The check writers are important. I’ve come full circle now. People who give might give more if they knew others knew, mostly because those others are donors, too. And yes, every donor should demand some accountability for his money. There are parasites out there, preying on people’s goodwill and selflessness. There’s stupid giving, too.

        Rose asks the most cogent question of all: Are you always obligated to do the best thing possible? We might deconstruct that question, examining the terms Obligation and Best. They’re both externalised: an obligation is incumbent on the obligated. But Best, well, who gets to say so?Report

        • But Best, well, who gets to say so?

          I am loath to speak for Rose, but my best guess at an answer would be “you do.”Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            With donors, sure, they decide what’s good. But with charities, they must prove they’re worthy and that’s not simple. There must be accountability. The Evangelicals are sick of being hassled for donations: in response, they began Evangelicals for Financial Accountability to answer that question: who gets to say so. $20 BN dollars now flow through EFCA non-profits.

            You can always tell when an organisation is grifting: they’re not part of an accountability structure. True, I get to say where my donations go: most charities have what is called Directed Giving: I can specify exactly where my money gets spent within that charity. It’s often hard to cover office expenses and such: General Donations are hard come by, so tight are the rules on Directed Giving.

            When Billy Graham started out, he would pass the collection plates at his rallies. One picture emerged of him passing by all these collection plates, implying he was in it for the money. Horrified, he brought in outside advice from Arthur Andersen. This is what they told him:

            Establish a board of directors.
            Have the board put you on a salary.
            Submit to yearly audits and publish the results.
            Do not have a rally without the support of local churches: let them invite you.
            Establish an incorporation for each rally: do the books after each, send the accounting to every major newspaper in America, then close the corporation. Keep your own organisation separate.
            Do not allow yourself to be found with a woman not your wife behind a closed door.
            Do not give political endorsements.

            Billy Graham broke with the colour line in the USA and he was roundly denounced for it at the time. But because Billy Graham was squeaky clean, politicians would invite him around. Arguably, in his extreme old age, he seemed to side with Romney, but he never endorsed anyone. If anything, he just quit calling Mormonism a cult.

            I bring up Billy Graham because he’s an example of how things could be done in a larger scope. EFCA grew out of Graham’s principles.Report

    • Avatar Fnord says:

      And, of course, it’s at least as easy to picture the help you’re providing by giving to Make-A-Wish foundation as it is for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative. Probably easier, since most Westerners are far more familiar with Disney World and the joy it brings children than with schistosomiasis and the damage it causes. That doesn’t make Make-A-Wish a better charity than SCI.

      Contra Mr. Kuznicki, I think the primary cause of these giving patterns (especially for average people) is ignorance, and failure to think the problem all the way through, rather than pure self-regard.Report

  5. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I don’t think it is necessarily immoral to donate to your alma mater but there is another way to look at it.

    Could it be immoral to donate to certain universities? Or to put it another way, Do schools and universities like Philips Exeter, Dalton*, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Vassar, Amherst, MIT, CalTech, etc need anymore money for their endowments? Shouldn’t they be required to dip into their enormous endowments to build another dorm. Most of these schools could probably offer free tuition for many years based on the size of their endowments.

    I am not a utilitarian. Pete Seeger takes most of his arguments too far because that is a great way to have a career in academia (if I understand his argument correctly, I am morally required to live like an ascetic and use all my discretionary income towards charity. I would just take enough for food, shelter, and basic clothing, recreation goes out the window). Somehow I don’t think Seeger lives up to this standard. However, I think a colorable argument can be made for very large donations. If someone is considering making a large donation to an educational institution, perhaps they should find one with a modest endowment because that will help the most.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      *snort* What if part of your donation to charity is making recreation free for those who can’t afford to pay for it? ;-P (Wow. yes I did really just make the argument that DVD encryption was a charitable donation.)

      It’s quite possible to have a ton of fun while giving to charity. Giving money somehow seems … soulless. And inefficient, assuming you’re smarter than the average duck.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      Er, let me just state for the record that the financial crash seriously put a dent in Caltech’s finances. I’ve been here for 10 years and the operational cash has been lacking.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      Ah yes, Peter Seeger, the utilitarian folk singer, best known for such hits as “Where Have All The Animals Gone”, and “If I Had A Hammer (I’d Euthanize People With It)” 😉Report

  6. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    A couple rejoinders:

    (1) Fine, donate to your alma mater, but Norman Borlaug is still the greatest human being that ever lived.

    (2) As for people giving when they are not observed, is God not watching them?

    (3) What make you of charity’s paradox: the more money I accumulate, the greater impact I can have on the world? For instance, my alma mater, Duke University, was built on tobacco and slave money. How much good change in the world has been effected by Duke University? What would have happened if, instead of investing in slaves, land, and cancerous tobacco, Washington Duke had instead given away all his profits? What about Andrew Carnegie? Or Bill Gates?

    It seems that the truly rational course for charity is to secure for oneself a position if power and influence first and only then attempt to change the world for the better.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Borlaug is a great example because he didn’t give money to charity (well, maybe he did, but that’s not why he won a Nobel Peace Prize), but dedicated his life to a cause that can reasonably be called charitable. I wonder if he gave to his alma mater.Report

    • Avatar M.A. says:

      (2) As for people giving when they are not observed, is God not watching them?

      If they have a magical invisible friend who’s always watching – or a magical paternal parent figure threatening a spanking at all times – maybe that’s motivation. To me it makes no difference, but I still donate when nobody is looking.

      What make you of charity’s paradox: the more money I accumulate, the greater impact I can have on the world?

      Absent those who hoard, there are more resources in the world for others. For all the “impact” of a Bill Gates or Washington Duke who finally, after becoming exploitatively wealthy, have a pang of conscience and start creating foundations or some other charitable tax-dodge arm of their self-incorporated tax shelter existence, there are thousand or millions who for decades have been impoverished or left with far fewer resources.

      As I noted below: we have a mechanism to focus efforts that doesn’t have to involve some exploitative, amoral asshole becoming ridiculously, overly conspicuously wealthy and living in a 200-room mansion with his trophy wife before finally developing a conscience and beginning to put a small percentage of his ill-gotten wealth to better use. The problem is, it involves the centralizing force we already have put in place for other things: government. And you’ll never get a conserva/tarian to understand how that works, because they’re all trying to kill government off in favor of centralizing more power into the hands of the exploitative.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        If they have a magical invisible friend who’s always watching – or a magical paternal parent figure threatening a spanking at all times – maybe that’s motivation. To me it makes no difference, but I still donate when nobody is looking.

        One thing I consistently find curious: People who claim to have such an invisible friend do not appear to be significantly more moral than people who do not.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

          Deciding not to have an invisible friend is still not the cultural norm, which means that people who have done it have usually done it deliberately.

          Deliberate people aren’t the same as the General Population.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            OT, but can one CHOOSE not to believe? Can one choose TO believe?Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              Yes. I chose to believe in G-d even if what I believe in is false. Because it makes me a better person.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              I would think so. I choose to believe that we have free will, and our choices are not completely the predetermined sum outcome of electrochemical reactions, because the alternative (which is probably more likely) seems to offer no easy way to build a functioning (or maybe more importantly, pleasant or desirable) human society around it.

              Like this conversation we are having right now could be completely random meaningless symbols. But I (think I) choose to believe it is not. 😉Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                “Because the alternative (which is probably more likely) seems to offer no easy way to build a functioning (or maybe more importantly, pleasant or desirable) human society around it.”

                Why is that, exactly?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Hey Christopher, sorry for the late reply, just saw this now. Mainly what I mean relates to the concept of justice/responsibility – though the concepts differ across cultures, most seem to hold an element of what we might call ‘free will’ as central to the system (I am sure there are exceptions but I think they are rare in the modern world, pls correct me if I am wrong).

                That is, you could have chosen to do thing A, but you chose to do thing B, so now you must be punished.

                If we accept a completely deterministic universe as the basis for a justice system, everything we know pretty much goes out the window, right? After all, a person can do naught but what he did.

                I’m not saying it would not be possible; but it would be a radical change that I have trouble conceiving of in toto and that plus its current rarity (again, pls correct if wrong) leads me to say I see no ‘easy way’ to rely on it vs. the ‘free will’ model, even if free will is largely or entirely a fiction.Report

              • Even if the universe is totally deterministic, if we can’t determine it, effectively, we have free will.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                If the universe is totally deterministic, you have no control over whether you think you have free will.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Well, sure. That’s why I said ” But I (think I) choose to believe it is not”. It’s turtles all the way down, innit?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                But to get back to my central point, what would a justice concept/system look like in a world where we truly believe that no one has any choice whatsoever in the actions that they take? Zimmerman would be on a beach somewhere, for one, no? How could anyone possibly blame him at all for what went down that night? The outcome was preordained at the moment of the big bang.

                And yes, I know we accept some of this stuff – like in the degrees of murder – if you were in thrall to a furious emotional response after you caught yr wife in bed with another man and you kill them, we go a little easier on you (we essentially think, “his choices were constrained because chemicals were flooding his brain with emotion”).

                But we accept these as sort of “mitigating factors”, not as the central tenet (it’s still murder, and it’s still unlawful, and the killer still had a choice, even if somewhat constrained or influenced by other factors).Report

              • There’s always the justification that removing someone who has committed a crime from society is enough of a reason to incarcerate as is some vague notion of “justice” or “punishment”.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                But how do you even begin to define “crime”? I mean, the reason it’s bad to kill someone is that you have removed all their future choices from them. But if neither of you ever had any choice, why should me killing you be criminalized at all? What happened, was always supposed to happen. Why remove the killer from society at all? Doesn’t this completely obliterate the concept of “ought”‘ or “better”, and leave us only with “is”?Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                “why should me killing you be criminalized at all?”

                Because I don’t want to be killed by you, and because the people who don’t want to be killed at some point in human history came to overpower the people that want to kill and created institutional and practical barriers to that effect.

                We don’t want to be killed by criminals, so we pool some money together and create the police to find and sequester criminals.

                We don’t want to be killed by the Germans, so we pool some money together, destroy them in war, and divide up administration of what’s left of their empire between other countries we trust.

                We don’t want to be killed by terrorists, so we pool some money together and create the War on Terror.Report

              • Avatar Rose says:

                Dudes, dudes, dudes. Remember your Frankfurt cases. It is at least questionable that we need alternate possibilities for moral responsibility.

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                I don’t think alternate possibilities are necessary for moral responsibility, nor do I think moral responsibility should be the primary reason to incarcerate someone.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                To Christopher – I guess I don’t understand why I in that world would or should “want” anything at all, since I have no hope at all of influencing outcomes one way or another. Maybe it’s good to be killed. Or at least, not bad, and any pain that I encounter, could not have been avoided anyway (and any effort I expended to avoid pain or unpleasantness was wasted). Maybe the Germans are supposed to run things.

                I guess what I am saying is that “choice” and “free will” seem deeply baked into all kinds of other useful concepts, and without it, I just don’t see why we should ever care.

                Maybe another tack – are there now, or have there ever been, societies which believed that all actions were completely predetermined and devoid of any human choice whatsoever (if ancient, more likely “the gods run everything” than “mechanistic”, but same issue), and how did/do they deal with the concept of “crime”?

                To Rose – I haven’t clicked yr link yet because I am guessing that it is more reading than I have time for at this second, but I will try to look later.

                Gotta run for a while – will try to check back later –Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Rose, this quote is from the link:

                In the judgment of Frankfurt and most others, Jones is morally responsible for her act. Nonetheless, it appears that she is unable to do otherwise since if she had attempted to do so, she would have been thwarted by Black’s device.

                I think this way of looking at the issue confuses things rather than clarifies them. When the writer says “she [Jones] is unable to do otherwise”, they’ve already conceded the aspect of an action which gives rise to responsibility, praise and blame: volition and intent. Preventing Jones from engaging in the event of killing White, and thereby preventing the possibility of a different outcome, doesn’t support the conclusion that moral responsibility doesn’t require alternate possibilities. Only that it doesn’t require alternate outcomes. But outcomes aren’t the sole measure of moral responsibility.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                To clarify that a bit: in the proposed hypothetical, I see two possibilities in play – that Jones kills White of her own volition, or that she kills him because the micro-chip overrides her own volition – both of which lead to the same outcome.Report

              • Avatar Rose says:

                Yeah, I hear you. Frankfurt’s point is mainly that all you need for responsibility are certain mental states (e.g., intentions), not the ability to have done otherwise. Iffy on it myself.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Frankfurt’s point is mainly that all you need for responsibility are certain mental states (e.g., intentions), not the ability to have done otherwise.

                Yes, I think that’s his point too. But he’s begging the question since his scenario permits the possibility of Jones having different intentions. In fact, I’d say he’s conflating actions with events. Maybe there’s an argument to collapse the distinction (not that Frankfurt would want to do that), but this argument seems to go through only by equating the two. Which begs the question at hand, I think, one way or the other.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                You can never ever prove whether someone intended to do something or not, so why is this always the main factor that comes up in these debates?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                You can never ever prove whether someone intended to do something or not

                Two things. 1) That doesn’t mean people don’t have intentions and act on those intentions. 2) I’m inclined to believe that it can be proven according to the methods of standard legal reasoning. People have motive, they have means, they have opportunity, there’s all sorts of evidence, etc. Intent can be shown.

                why is this always the main factor that comes up in these debates?

                Because that’s part of the analysis of “moral responsibility”. If I strongly desire that a certain person ends up dead and have every intention of killing him but that person dies thru actions independent of my own, am I responsible for killing that person? Have I done anything morally wrong?

                On the other hand, if I accidentally drop a banana peel in the hallway and a person slips on it a breaks their leg, have I done anything morally wrong?

                I mean, I know you know this stuff, but intention appears to be a necessary condition for moral culpability, and praise/blame. That’s not to say that being morally responsible justifies incarcerating a person. On that I agree with you. The justification for incarceration requires additional argument.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Inteligence versus Extelligence, my dear. We are more than an adaptable framework to hang new ideas off of, but… that’s the more important side of brainyness.Report

            • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

              A reference to Pascal’s Wager?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                The Wager was either the dumbest or the smartest thing Blaise Pascal ever said. We don’t know what he would have written: the Pensées were meant to be a continuation and fleshing-out of what he’d written in the Provincial Letters. Pascal died before he could complete the book, all we have are fragments.

                The Provincial Letters got Pascal into a great deal of trouble. They were the sharpest and most cogent criticisms of the Church ever written. Pascal had not put his intellect in neutral at his conversion: the Wager explicitly removes Reason from the debate before the Wager itself is posed. What was Pascal putting forward? That God can neither be proven nor disproven.

                Kazzy puts the point rather obviously: we must choose either to believe or not believe. Pascal had evicted the casuistic Jesuits from their pseudo-rational perch: they never really recovered from the Provincial Letters. Pascal, had he completed the Defence of the Christian Religion, the original title for the Pensées, would very likely have given us a Thinking Man’s God, freed up from the hogwash and false piety of what then passed for Christianity.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                That God is so fucking boring, BlaiseP, that we do just fine without It.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                This. If all I had to go on for Christianity was what’s on display at Relijin Central, I wouldn’t buy any of it and strongly discourage others from same.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I’m not sure whether that God is boring, but I am quite sure that it’s not Pascal’s. I think you and I, Tom, have had this conversation before, but I’ll repeat what I’ve probably said before anyway, just in case. Pascal doesn’t think belief in God is unreasonable, nor that it is beyond reason. Quite the opposite in fact, and the purpose of the wager is actually related to that. He explicitly says that, for the sake of discussion (it’s clearly meant to be in the form of a discussion, or a dialogue) with someone who is agnostic, let’s see if we can get to faith in God through natural reason alone. And through the wager, he gets there. So even if we exclude all of the arguments and evidence that believers usually rely upon, and consider only natural reason, the sort of reason that is generally thought to lead inexorably to skepticism, we ultimately arrive at the position that faith in God is rational.

                Even as an atheist, I don’t find that boring.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Tom’s a man of faith. The Wager is taken slightly out of context and usually simplified to the point of wrongness. Here’s the original, in context.

                Pascal explicitly makes the point: If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him. Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason? Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                I was speaking of this “Thinking Man’s God,” Chris, of the philosophers, of the deists.

                “…I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of these having wronged me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful.”

                This is Ben Franklin’s autobiography. Many quoters stop at “I soon became a thorough deist,” and skip the rest.

                But if you’re giving some “maybeness” to classical theism, or even to deism, I have no wish to argue. Your comment is sound, its foot is poised to step off Square One.

                But for me, I think that God is boring, and it makes no difference to us whether that Blind Watchmaker or Cosmic Idiot/Savant exists atall. Any God who is duller than his own creation is hardly worth having.

                Rain Man.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Are you familiar, Tom, with Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                That sort of Thinking Man’s God is codswallop, Tom. Pascal’s God was a very different thing. With the Deists, we have a sort of castrated God, a useful line on a chart and we’re supposed to be the asymptotic function which never reaches that limit. In short, a Reasonable God. But in the words of CS Lewis “He is not a tame lion.”

                Pascal’s God was an infinite God. Mathematics and logic hate infinities. Pascal’s God could not be approached through Reason. Maybe you ought to actually read the Pensées.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Chris, I prefer to leave off here. This was nice. I see a day when all God’s chillun incl atheists can kick this around together here. Until that day, when the lion lay down with the ram, my beliefs remain my own. I lean toward theism, and even if I didn’t, as an apologist and not a polemicist by nature I would and will always argue for the possibility of God rather than against it.

                For what I get from Pascal’s Wager is that the latter course has far more to recommend it, regardless of its ultimate truth. As Ben Franklin wrote about the Trinity when asked about it at age 83

                “… I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”

                Franklin dies several months later, and indeed finds out whether Jesus is God with no trouble atall.

                Peace, brother.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Thx, Chris. I’ll read it post haste. Discussion some other place&time.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        There was a study published a few years ago that showed that priming God concepts led to more prosocial behavior. And another study that suggests that people who think ghosts are watching them will behave more ethically (I wrote about the second study here).

        The fact is, we’re going to behave better when we think someone’s watching, and we’re so trigger-happy with our agency concepts that gods and ghosts work just about as well as actual people.

        Also, religiosity is correlated with charitable giving.

        I don’t mean to suggest that religious people are more ethical/moral than non-religious folks, of course. I’m not sure how one would measure that.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          More ethical? Maybe by studying rates of rulebreaking (rape/non-consensual sex might make a good proxy, as it’s reasonably easy to measure. IF you don’t mind breaking HIPAA).

          More moral? That’s more difficult…Report

        • Avatar M.A. says:

          Also, religiosity is correlated with charitable giving.

          Only inasmuch as religiosity is correlated with showing up at a gathering place to have them shove a collection plate in your face multiple times once a week.Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            Fuck off, that’s not true.
            Jews don’t do that, and they show higher rates of giving than other religions. In fact, they give comparatively little to the shul (who has dues, after all), and far more outside of it.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              It’s my understanding that most contemporary temples do not pass a collection plate but do sell tickets for the high holy days.Report

            • Avatar M.A. says:

              Fair enough.

              Also correlates with showing up once a week to have someone harangue you about charitable giving and tell you about the invisible friend who’ll spank you if you are insufficiently generous.

              And your claim maybe true for Jews – I’m not sure – but it doesn’t necessarily hold in general.

              There’s also the open question of when “charitable giving” to a church isn’t really charitable. I mean, I could give money to Scientology but I know that money’s not going to do a single person a lick of good, and yet I could claim it as a “charitable donation.” The Mormon church, until the loophole was closed, rented its charitable status to high-ranking members and is far more a business than a charity, funny underwear notwithstanding.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I wouldn’t count charitable giving to a church — at least the stuff that keeps the lights on and the pastor fed, as charitable. It’s supporting an “ultimately selfish” institution.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            M.A., honestly dude, just look something up before replying.Report

            • Avatar M.A. says:

              There’s this too.

              Kim made an assertion. I pointed out a confounding variable that had impact. Turns out, the impact isn’t even enough to hold her assertion valid, as my other source showed as well.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I’m not sure what your sources show about charitable giving and religion, other than that religiosity is correlated with higher giving. But I said that. You said “yeah, to churches,” but don’t seem to have provided any data points on whether non-religious people give as much or more to charities other than churches.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Soemone should just ring Pastordan on the subject (he’s over at streetprophets). He’d know.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      “It seems that the truly rational course for charity is to secure for oneself a position if power and influence first and only then attempt to change the world for the better.”

      … Okay. Let’s go with this. You get rich by screwing over poor people in other countries. You funnel the money towards “better things” for said people. How are you really helping anything?? Are you really that much of a megalomaniac?Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

        I’m using several Microsoft products right now on machines made from metals and built on ideas originally developed by Gilded Age megarich engineers. Who got screwed over exactly?Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Okay. You’re missing my example. Which is entirely my fault.
          My example ought to be about currency manipulation, not about
          sweatshop labor.
          (excluding Iceland, fwiw)Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

            Well now you’re clearly talking about the government.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              Nope. I’ve actually got a corporation in mind (cited it in a different post, actually).
              It rather helps that it’s a little fish in a big pond, of course,a nd that the manipulation would happen without it.Report

  7. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    My alma mater has a motto for its alumni. They ask us to donate ‘time, talent and treasure’. I do all three because I believe in their mission. The ‘treasure’ I donate goes directly into the financial aid programs which help families cover tuition. My view is that the kids going through the school are more likely to be better workers someday, which means they make more money, which means they will hopefully support more charities themselves. I like to think of it as compound interest on my investment in those kid’s future.

    I will also say that from a psychological perspective, I’m quite certain that people give more when they feel an emotional conection to their charity of choice and not just a utilitarian connection of doing a net good.Report

  8. Avatar Scott says:

    Is there a difference between my undergrad and law school? I would give to the former but not the latter. Everyone has to decide what issue or cause is important to them an give accordingly. Maybe a good way to focus giving is to remove the federal tax deduction so folks will think more about what and why they are giving.Report

  9. 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.

    I agree with this, that is, I would presumptively generalize it to most givers. I do think, however, there is a certain “tragic” sense in which this operates, in that one can never be entirely other-regarding. As fallen creatures, we will use any good act to feed our own self idolatry, even if we do it so no one else notices.

    You’re not saying anything different. But it’s kind of a glass half-empty sort of thing. A skeptic notes the self-regarding nature of our charitable, even if anonymous, giving, and thereby he or she does us a service. You (and others) note the other-regarding nature of our charitable, even if anonymous, giving, and you (and others) speak the truth, too. Perhaps there is such a thing as graces. In such case, then maybe the glass is indeed half-full, with the promise of getting even fuller through no virtue that we ourselves possess.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      This is kind of how I felt about these two posts. Elegantly put.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      It is elegantly put, but I’d put it even more strongly than that. We do satisfy our desire when we help someone. But that’s nothing to tamp down – in fact, I think that’s something we ought to cultivate, to the degree that we can. Desiring to help people is a virtue.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        There’s actually a utilitarian calculus that can be made, there, in counter to Jason’s argument.

        Yes, everything would be better if people were more rational, but given that they *aren’t*, what’s the best way to get your results? Well, then you see food banks ask for food instead of cash. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, to the charity.

        The focus shifts when you start talking about how organizations ought to act, as opposed to individuals.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        If I volunteer in a way that is less efficient but makes me a better person, can this create a feedback loop that leads to more and better giving going forward? If so, why is this not desirable?Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          One can make a credible argument that all donations of *actual time* will make you a better citizen, as you get access to absorbing a lot of implicit info that you don’t get by just reading. It’s one thing to read about charities that work with disabled kids, and it’s far, far, another thing to work with disabled kids.

          If everybody donated 4 hours of their time a month, we’d have a lot more empathy and a lot less hotly-held uninformed opinions regarding the needy. Our public policy would probably suck a a lot less as a result.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Yes. Particularly if you design toilets. Learning fluid dynamics is fun!Report

      • Rose,

        I think I agree, but then I also fear that it is dangerously easy to go from cultivating a healthy desire to help others and thinking of oneself as the “Giver of Benefits, the Source of Comforts.”

        I guess I tend to overthink things like this, and I don’t mean to denigrate people who give to charity, which, with a few minor exceptions, I confess I do not do. I do suspect that the people who fall into the trap of self-idolatry probably give a lot less, and give more conditionally, than people who cultivate something approaching the true virtue of wanting to help others.Report

  10. Avatar M.A. says:

    Where I stopped caring about this was when I saw “libertarians”, the advocates of the Free Market Fairies that somehow fix everything, argue for centralized donation in order to most efficiently distribute charity and work towards medical research and other needed programs.

    We have a group that does this, of course, but it’s the one the same libertarians are always accusing of “taking money at gunpoint”, e.g. the one entity with the power to tax: government.

    Government does a hell of a lot, and tries to do it centrally. But out of one side of their mouths libertarians complain about the “inefficiency” of competing charities or of donation schemes that require 100 people to go purchase and donate food or clothing, and out of the other side they deride “government” and insist it should all dry up and go away so that “the free market” and “competition”, the twin magical faeries that supposedly sprinkle pixie dust over “competing groups” (hey, multiple charities competing!), can make everything into roses and sunshine bunnies.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Cite, please. I’m not familiar with centralized charities as a libertarian theme.

      For example:

      In a free society I expect numerous organizations would form, each serving a particular niche, to match the needs of recipients with the values of donors. (, “Circles of Support: A Libertarian View of Charity.”


      • Avatar M.A. says:

        CITE: Jason Kuznicki

        “Do you want to give food? Add up its retail price. Take that money out of your wallet. Flush 90% of it down the toilet. Send the food bank the rest. You’re still helping more than if you gave the food.”Report

        • It takes an incredibly tortured reading of that line of Jason’s to get to where you took it, M.A. Frankly, I have no idea how you got there. Nothing in that quote implies support for a centralized donation system. It simply advocates for people to give in a manner that is genuinely helpful, and does not merely have the appearance of being such.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            This. Exactly this.

            Whether or not one agrees with Jason’s argument (and I’m not persuaded by it), it can’t plausibly be described as a call for centralized charity.Report

          • Avatar M.A. says:

            Kuznicki’s argument calls for donating money to a central authority that will decide how to spend it, rather than buying specific items to donate.

            He derides charities that have “inefficient” systems of distribution, while ignoring that it’s the “market forces”, the magical libertarian pixie dust, that bring those into existence without a countervailing force to make the “more efficient” ones prevail. Susan G. Komen foundation is one of the worst out there, but also one of the biggest because they navigate the “market forces” better than the other charities that don’t frivolously waste money on hyper-branding, countless copyrights, and in many cases bludgeoning “competitors” out of existence.

            Of course he also makes this two-faced laugher of an argumet: “GiveDirectly gives small, lump-sum cash payments directly to poor households. It trusts that they know best what they need, and it makes sure the money isn’t diverted to middlemen or governments. I find this funny because that is exactly what government programs for the poor do too. Food stamps (or the modern debit card equivalents), rent assistance, and direct welfare? That’s what we have in modernity. Some of them have strings attached, many more used to be government direct cash payments that assumed the poor knew best what they needed.

            What’s the difference? None, except that Kuznicki has a ridiculous fear of the word “government.”

            My point stands. Libertarians would proudly create a thousand pseudo-governmental “charity” entities, then bemoan the inefficiency of these groups “competing” or bemoan the groups that operate inefficiently, rather than have it truly centralized and run by the entity that’d be actually accountable and changeable directly by the people, through their vote and their representatives.

            It’s stupid, but it’s libertarian, and I’m quickly learning that libertarians are more than willing to cut off their noses to spite their face when it comes to efficiency.Report

            • I’m going to side-step all the comments about libertarians, government programs (which, liberal that I am, I tend on balance to support) and pixie dust and simply say, once more, that you are totally misreading Jason’s point. He is not advocating for a centralized donation authority. He is saying that if you choose to give to a food bank, then you should give them what they actually need and what will be genuinely helpful.

              If this is the best support you can find for your arguments re: libertarianism, I would politely advise you to abandon them.Report

              • Avatar M.A. says:

                GiveDirectly gives small, lump-sum cash payments directly to poor households. It trusts that they know best what they need, and it makes sure the money isn’t diverted to middlemen or governments.

                How is this different from the same government programs that conserva/tarians deride? The same ones that are attacked for creating “welfare queens”, or are attacked because the poor might buy a pack of twinkies instead of a box of rice, a few pounds of steak rather than bulk-bin ground chuck? The programs attacked because someone who receives it might buy a pair of $200 sneakers, or a set of nicer clothes, rather than walking around in sackcloth and ashes?

                I find it suitably ironic. Kuznicki will laud a small charitable entity and encourage it to grow to pseudo-governmental size, and laud it specifically for trusting the poor to know what they need, while conserva/tarians constantly deride government for doing the same thing and insist that government put more and more strings on existing programs to help the poor or needy.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                I’d observe, again, that you seem to be confusing conservative policies with libertarian ones. Conservatives, admissably, do love to drape themselves in the flag of libertarianism (to libertarians enormous annoyance) but I’m surprised that you would fall for that branding so badly as to conflate the two.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Kuznicki’s argument calls for donating money to a central authority that will decide how to spend it, rather than buying specific items to donate.

              That’s not what “central authority” means. If there are competing charities that you can send your money/donations to, then there is no central authority.

              Of course he also makes this two-faced laugher of an argumet: “GiveDirectly gives small, lump-sum cash payments directly to poor households. It trusts that they know best what they need, and it makes sure the money isn’t diverted to middlemen or governments. I find this funny because that is exactly what government programs for the poor do too. Food stamps (or the modern debit card equivalents), rent assistance, and direct welfare? That’s what we have in modernity.

              That is a largely incorrect statement about our welfare programs. Food Stamps (now SNAP) limit what items people can buy. The very idea of “food stamps” instead of direct cash assistance is based on an assumption that we can just give cash to the poor because they might not spend it as we want. The WIC program, which I have personal experience with, lists just how many boxes of cereal you can get (and limits the types you can get), how many gallons of milk, how many dozens of eggs, and so on. And housing assistance is strictly regulated–there was a short-lived attempt to turn it into cash grant (when, iirc, Jack Kemp was HUD Secretary), but it turned out that people were staying in crappy housing and using the money for other things, so we went back to a system where it’s more tightly controlled–the money goes to the landlord whose property has qualified for the section 8 program.

              The only program that really works the way you suggest is TANF.Report

              • Avatar M.A. says:

                Hanley, but you just showed my point.

                Food stamps have become steadily more restrictive, not less, as conserva/tarians manufactured outrages about anecdotes where they saw poor people buy “the wrong” kinds of food, or buy food on food stamps followed by pulling out cash to buy cigarettes or booze.

                Housing assistance, precisely as you described. The poor found ways to get what they felt they needed more, but instead of recognizing this as an issue of differing perceived needs, conserva/tarians in government promptly changed the program to make it more restrictive.

                TANF or “welfare” has been slowly restricted with more and more strings attached ever since the “workfare”, “welfare reform” era of the mid-90s. And it came from similar sentiments again; complaints that the poor weren’t spending the money “like they should.”

                You can’t laud charities that give money and assume the poor know best what they need, while simultaneously going after the social assistance programs constantly with misery policing rhetoric. But that’s what conserva/tarians do.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Oh, lord, Jack Kemp was a conservative. And Democrats have been as eager to restrict these programs as conservatives have been–it’s a bipartisan policy preference. And libertarians are the most likely to support a negative income tax.

                You’re really not even worth responding to. Your hatred of non-liberals blinds you to the point where you can’t see the distinctions between different groups of non-liberals, and to the point where you cannot assess those groups or their different policy preferences with any degree of honesty and integrity.

                You’d actually make a good libertarian with those qualities. I can totally see you hanging out at Lew Rockwell’s site blindly condemning all liberals as Marxists.Report

              • Avatar M.A. says:

                You’re really not even worth responding to.

                Same to you, since you’re not willing to be honest.


                If looking for real-world historical scenarios, Chile is a prime example of libertarian ideas at work. Though Chile did not get rid of restrictions on free markets, it is the closest example of such a state in modern history, and, by the standards of the David Friedman quote above, is certainly subject to examination. For this reason, I will be giving examples from Chilean history when discussing the impact of policies such as the repeal of the minimum wage. The economy of Chile from 1973 to 1990 was one in which a nearly unrestrained free market was turned loose with the full support of the government. The “Chicago Boys,” a group of Chilean economists who received graduate training in the 1950s and 1960s at the University of Chicago under free- market advocates such as Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, were put in charge of reshaping the country’s economic policies. Milton Friedman, Harberger, and Friedrich von Hayek all visited Santiago- Milton Friedman would even give a master lecture on television(26) as well as a one-hour course in economics to the dictator Auguste Pinochet(27). Joseph Collins, citing Shirley Christian, states “At least fifteen Chicago Boys would occupy top policy-making positions in the Pinochet military government.”(28) Despite the authoritarian social policies of Auguste Pinochet, he gave free rein to the Chicago Boys to implement their economic ideas- possibly because he wanted to be remembered for “a historic act of national renewal, and he decided these bold technocrats held the key to a new, prosperous future that would forever distinguish his rule. In return, Pinochet was willing to guarantee protection from all political pressure.”(29). This protection from political pressure would be necessary, as the economic measures proved unpopular enough that military intervention was needed to suppress the civil unrest the measures spawned(30). The Chicago Boys, working from libertarian economic ideals, promptly implemented policies which rolled back work laws, privatized health care, drastically reduced subsidized housing, and allowed wages to plunge. When we examine this historical example, we will find that the Chicago Boys’ policies dramatically reduced the economic well- being and freedom of the poor.

                Emphasis mine. Libertarianism at “work.”Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Wow, so you “prove” your point by dropping it completely and making a completely different point. Awesome.Report

              • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

                This isn’t really my post, as such. To the degree that it is, could we make an effort at civility? It does not have to be maximized :).Report

              • Avatar M.A. says:


                When libertarians were left to run Chile, their relationship to social programs was like Jason Vorhees finding himself in a sorority house. The “free market” you so worship did NOTHING to fill in the gaps.

                My point is proven. Libertarianism doesn’t work.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Because Milton Friedman spending a couple of weeks in the country — during which time he actually spoke against the violence, and held no political power at all — is the time when “libertarians were left to run Chile.”Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Just think of it as alt history.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Milton Friedman, hero to many Libertarians, didn’t really say much about Pinochet’s dictatorship and concomitant crimes, neither condemning nor praising them. When confronted by his cuddling up to Pinochet, the best Friedman could come up with was some tu-quoque about how he’d also gone to Yugoslavia (there’s a big success story, heh).

                If Milton Friedman is to be condemned for anything, it’s talking out his ass about the Miracle of Chile. Chile only managed this stunt for a few years and that only by pegging CLP to USD. It would never have worked. It was, firstly, an un-Friedman-like thing to do. Well, Chile thought it could go on printing pesos and calling them dollars, the whole thing blew up most horrid-like.

                Milton Friedman, to put it plainly, was rather like Confucius, who went around trying to get kings and princes to listen to him. Lots of people nodded politely but almost nobody took old Friedman seriously. Milt Friedman really was a most appalling crank.

                Chile did come out of the madness, no thanks to Friedman or the Libertarians, first because Friedman’s advice wasn’t taken. But the Libertarians are still trying to make a saint out of his time in Chile. Naturally you won’t agree with that. But at heart, Friedman was hanging around with evil types, you know, government bureaucrats, trying to help them come up with better schemes to distort economies. Birds of a feather… really, you Libertarians ought to give up on Friedman. He was never one of you.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                My apologies, Rose.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Respectfully, “libertarians were left to run Chile” is something of an overstatement. Libertarianism is about something rather more than just economics.

                It’s true that some libertarians let their sympathy for Pinochet’s economic reforms blind them to the realities of his political oppressions, but of course Pinochet was no libertarian, nor was there anything remotely approaching universal libertarian admiration for Pinochet. For example:

                It isn’t hard to find prominent libertarian individuals and institutions that condemned Pinochet’s government while it was in power: Murray Rothbard denounced it fiercely, for example, and the Cato Institute published a series of angry exposés. And that tradition of criticism has continued into the present. (The original has multiple embedded links demonstrating their point.)

                I would respectfully ask that you peruse the links, so that you can have a more complete perspective on the issue of libertarian attitudes towards Pinochet.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                So might we say that Libertarian economic reforms did not perform as intended? Or merely that their adverse effects were problematic to a stable society?

                (feel free to dis my premises, don’t wanna mischaracterize)Report

              • Avatar M.A. says:

                James’s argument is the “well it wasn’t REALLY libertarian” that I expected of him.

                After all, no “true” scotsman dislikes haggis.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I’m saying Pinochet was a murderous illiberal dictatorial thug, regardless of any considerations of his market reforms. Murderous illiberal dictatorial thugs are non-libertarian by definition.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Once again you demonstrate that you don’t understand libertarianism. And even though I’ve shown you evidence of libertarians condemning Pinochet, you’re going to continue to insist that Pinochetism=libertarianism.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                If a dictator recognized same-sex marriages, allowed abortion, legalized drugs, and provided a generous social safety net, but imprisoned and killed anyone who publicly criticized the government, would you say the dictator was really a liberal?

                I know that lots of non-liberals like to believe Stalin was the epitome of liberalism, and in fact some liberals initially defended him. But I know that to say Stalin was a liberal is false.

                The same dynamics are at play when discussing libertarianism and Pinochet.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                Nixon liked football.

                Therefore people who like football support domestic wiretapping.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Actually M.A. IIRC most libertarians are on the record saying that charities and markets work together dubiously at best because markets for charities can’t clear.

              But setting that aside the quote of Jason you are citing is merely an accurate observation that giving food to food shelves is highly inefficient. Consider two scenarios involving me, a food shelf, ten dollars I wish to donate and hungry people served by the food shelf. If I go out and buy X macaroni at the store for ten bucks and give it to the food shelf then eventually the food shelf (at some cost) will deliver X amount of macaroni to the hungry people. But if I give my ten dollars directly to the food shelf then the food shelf will buy macaroni at a steeply discounted rate from food suppliers and the end result is that hungry people get 10X the amount of macaroni delivered to them (and without the minor transaction cost of moving my donated boxes of macaroni).

              Jason’s explanation was that donating cash is a highly more efficient way of getting food to the poor than donating food is.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                With that explanation, I might, after all, be persuaded by Jason’s argument.

                What stumps me a bit is that I see food banks asking for donated food all the time, so it appears they want that more than money. But perhaps they do that because otherwise they won’t get anything from those particular donors–if John Doe is really unlikely to be persuaded to give money, but is likely to be persuaded to give food, then maybe the food bank just inwardly sighs and asks him for food. If it’s not the ideal donation, it’s still better than nothing.Report

              • I suspect that it also serves to establish a connection between the food bank and donors. I’ve nothing to back up my suspicion, but I’d guess that people who’ve already donated a tin of beets are going to be somewhat more amenable to giving when the same bank sends them a letter asking for cash than people who have no connection with the bank at all.Report

              • Avatar dhex says:

                think of it in terms of gateway drugs (i’m stealing this analogy from someone who used to work for god’s love we deliver, a very worthwhile charity) – first they get a taste (giving canned foods), then get a bit more hooked (donating time on weekends, helping do meal prep) and then they’ve got the giving monkey on their back.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                I think there’s a lot of good sense from all of you here.

                James, I infer that food banks are making do with what people are willing to give, rather than the more efficient gift, of equal cost to the donors, that might be given in a more economically minded world.

                Russell and dhex, I think you’re absolutely right that food donations establish a connection between the donor and the food bank. This is in fact a great example of the kind of signaling behavior that goes on in less than ideally efficient charity.Report

              • Russell and dhex, I think you’re absolutely right that food donations establish a connection between the donor and the food bank. This is in fact a great example of the kind of signaling behavior that goes on in less than ideally efficient charity.

                I see what you mean, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a signalling thing. If I were to put a few cans of food into the foodbank depository at my grocery store, few, if anyone (including the food bank), would notice me doing it. Of course, I can imagine situations in which that might not apply, and of course, if you’re referring to “self-signalling to oneself,” then I’ve misread you.Report

              • I, too, would disagree that it is “signaling.” (One of my problems with Jason’s arguments is that I think his definition of “signaling” is overly-broad.) I would describe it more in terms of establishing an affinity for the food bank. I suspect that people are more inclined to help a charity they feel “belongs” to them in some way than one foreign to their experience.Report

              • Avatar clawback says:

                My local food bank solicits food, personal care items, and cash without any apparent preference. This is because people bring food in one door, they stock it, and it goes out the other door. Not sure where the supposed inefficiency comes in. For a small organization this seems more efficient than having an Accounting Department to process donations, a Purchasing Department to negotiate with suppliers, Warehousing Operations to manage the incoming products, and of course an Auditing Department to make sure nothing is lost.

                Perhaps larger operations can justify all of the above.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Not sure where the supposed inefficiency comes in.

                The opportunity cost. Say I have $50.

                I could use it to buy fifty cans of Spam and donate them to the food bank.

                Or I could give the food bank the cash. $50 just happens to be the processing fee that a local caterer charges for them to cart away a banquet for fifty people, which was canceled at the last minute. If they don’t, the food is otherwise going to waste.

                If I opt for the Spam, its opportunity cost is… giving up the banquet. That would be inefficient, because the food would just go to a landfill, and because it’s way, way better than Spam.

                I’ve done a bit of volunteer work with a local shelter, and I know for a fact that despite its being fairly small, they definitely realized large efficiency gains by negotiating purchasing and salvage agreements with firms in the food service industry.

                Of course, if you find that improbable, I can’t really stop you. But it does happen, even at modestly sized food charities.Report

              • Avatar clawback says:

                That’d work out great if the local hunger problem is no larger than the number of late-canceled banquets. But even if you add in the amount of day-old bread and other special cases you still have hungry people. Which brings us right back to the need to choose between quickly handing food brought in and implementing infrastructure that only scale can justify.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                It was just one example, but there are lots of others out there, including negotiating special deals with merchants.

                Consider: As a consumer, you can buy in bulk very cheaply at Costco, but you probably don’t. Do you imagine that shelters aren’t buying at Costco? Or doing even better than that?Report

              • Avatar clawback says:

                My own experience, as with many other people, is with buying from the local Sam’s Club and delivering directly to the food bank in question.

                And no, I’m quite sure they don’t have the experience or infrastructure to do any better than that. They’re not Walmart.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Say I have ten hours a week available to do volunteer work, and I choose to volunteer teaching at a local, sub-par school. The opportunity cost of that is not taking a part-time job instead and spending the proceeds from that on a charity that saves lives. Can we conclude from this that my volunteer work is self-regarding?Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Walmart’s just pirated (ineffectually, I might add) someone else’s system. And that someone else donates said system to charities (as I mentioned in a different thread: a campaign to eliminate sliderules).

                It’s quite possible to arrange smarter things than walmart.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                The 501(c)(3) process gives us a mechanism for efficient, well-run charities to demonstrate their effectiveness. Such an incorporation does require regulation. Ask the people who run your food bank. Non-profit accounting is its own domain and no charity should run without a proper set of books.

                The big problem with unregulated charities resolves to the fact the do-gooders are lousy with money.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                most people are lousy with money. The do-gooders I know are smart businessfolk, and their charities earn money or do half a dozen other awesome things, as well as help people.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              I’m having a hard time keeping up with all of your attacks on me, but at least here I can take some comfort: You’re not attacking me at all. You’ve imagined a bunch of things, and you’re attacking those instead.

              In my original post for the charity symposium, I observed that giving the cash equivalent was more efficient than giving in-kind donations to a food bank. This isn’t a terribly controversial point or even a libertarian one, per se. Giving cash is frequently more efficient than giving in-kind, for everything. That’s also why you don’t pay the grocery store in coffee mugs or hubcaps, not even if you’re a progressive.

              But that doesn’t mean I’m calling for a centralized charitable authority. Not at all. On the contrary, I think there are many different types of charitable work to be done, different charities take different forms of specialized knowledge and labor, and there just aren’t all that many obvious ways that we can make them more efficient by lumping them together. I have no idea where you got that from, but it isn’t from me.

              This next is just abusive, but I’ll have a go at it anyway:

              He derides charities that have “inefficient” systems of distribution, while ignoring that it’s the “market forces”, the magical libertarian pixie dust, that bring those into existence without a countervailing force to make the “more efficient” ones prevail.

              Market discipline can indeed make economic activity more efficient. But that doesn’t mean that whatever is, is optimal. I’ve never said so and do not believe it.

              What’s more, there is little reason to think that an area of human activity like charity faces particularly stringent market discipline. It’s very likely, in fact, that given the sentimentality and lack of price signals in the field, we have a whole lot of inefficiency in lots of different charities.

              Of course he also makes this two-faced laugher of an argumet: “GiveDirectly gives small, lump-sum cash payments directly to poor households. It trusts that they know best what they need, and it makes sure the money isn’t diverted to middlemen or governments. I find this funny because that is exactly what government programs for the poor do too.

              Sorry, but that’s not true for a lot of welfare programs. If you wanted to argue that a guaranteed minimum income was more efficient than Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid/EBT/etc/etc, then I’d be right there with you. I’d support that immediately, on efficiency grounds.

              So for that matter would Milton Friedman.Report

              • That’s also why you don’t pay the grocery store in coffee mugs or hubcaps, not even if you’re a progressive.

                I try to pay by offering unsolicited medical advice to customers I find in their pharmacy departments. It… hasn’t worked out.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                As a side note, some regulatory environments require that food banks and such places separate “donations for food” from “donations for operation”. Food cannot be resold or used to generate revenue; even a cash donation, if given for food purchases, cannot be used to fund operations such as distribution.

                My parents are involved with a food bank that is perpetually finding itself stuck with a warehouse full of food that’s closed for most of the week because they can’t afford to pay anyone to hand out the food! Plenty of volunteers…who have jobs, and are only available late nights and weekends.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Are the people going to the food bank also people with jobs? Can they not spare some time to help?Report

              • Avatar ktward says:

                In my original post for the charity symposium, I observed that giving the cash equivalent was more efficient than giving in-kind donations to a food bank.

                I agree. Completely. So does the Red Cross, perhaps to the dismay of [now defunct] Campaign Romney.

                But this is not the overarching takeaway that I got from your post. And apparently it’s not the overarching takeaway that Rose got from your post.

                C’mon. Your post is largely about telling us how we “should” spend our charitable dollars, assuming we live in the land of objectivist/utilitarian thinkers like you because, apparently, no one else is rational and reasonable.

                I realize that the ideological authority that informs your respective positions couldn’t be more disparate, but I find it hard anymore to distinguish the crux of your arguments from that of a fundamentalist preacher’s.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                C’mon. Your post is largely about….

                And people say I’m the cynical one. People also say that I’m a Randian, which I am not. I love Immanuel Kant, he’s awesome, and David Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and Robert Nozick, and F. A. Hayek especially.

                That right there would excommunicate me from any Randian/Objectivist group around. Immediately. To say nothing of my urging people to be more altruistic. Rand hated altruism. More than anything else in the world. I think of altruism, and I wonder how I could do it better. Because I kind of like altruism.

                My post was about fitting means to ends, and how that’s really very difficult in practice, and how many people are clearly not even trying. How do I know? Inefficiency in charity, and the dogged, even hostile response to anyone proposing more efficient actions.

                But if it happens that I have proven most people to be irrational, what’s the correct response? To say that I’m a Very Bad Person?Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            FWIW, I don’t think Jason’s post can be read to argue for this central clearinghouse, but I do think it logically suggests thinking about whether the existence of a one or few such clearinghouses, if they were operated well and publicized, would contribute greatly to overall charitable efficiency/efficacy. The argument would simply be that if it were made less labor-intensive to do this kind of assessment of charities’ effectiveness, more givers would apply such a test to their giving.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              …I had this thought myself separately, is why I say this.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              That’s a question worth asking and thinking about. I tend to distrust size in organizations as a general rule; a lot don’t scale up really well in some ways. But in other ways there are advantages to scale. How that plays out with charitable orgs I don’t know, but it’s worth investigating.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                On reflection, it really wouldn’t have to be a clearinghouse; in fact I’m sure what I’m thinking of exists. Basically, just arating agency of sorts. The funds needn’t go through it (though I suppose they could…) The question is really just that of publicity or establishing cinsulting such utilities as a norm in good-doing-intended giving.

                Back at the broad level of all of this, I do think that there are some categories being mixed together here. People give to their local high school’s field hockey team, and that’s charity under most definitions. But usually those givers (I imagine) aren’t under any illusion that their giving is doing anything like the amount or kind of good that funds given to help slow malaria. These people just want their high-schools field hockey team to be well-equipped. You could call it spending as much as giving, except that a) the money is being given not spent (eventually it’s spent, but so are all charitable donations, and b) this kind of thing will always fall under the category of charity in the American context, I think. But you’re never going to convince these givers they should be re-directing these funds (you may convince them they should match these gifts with anti-malaria). These things are both charity, but they also are not both the same kind of thing, and the same rules or norms don’t necessarily apply to each.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                rating not arating or airating for that matterReport

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                There’s a substantial problem in the area of aid-coding, in that there’s just not enough information and a lot of duplication of effort (not to mention things like overhead) with charitable and developmental aid giving.

                CCAPS did a project to track adaptation aid to figure out the effectiveness of climate change adaptation aid. It’s not a direct one to one correlation with the problems of scale, but it did show a lot of inefficiencies that stem from lack of centralization.


            • Avatar Kim says:

              I believe so. I think the libertarians would do themselves more good if they would come up with better metrics, and create better marketplaces for charitable goods.

              I can handle an argument that says “we made it work for this! Now can we please try it with “Insert Governmental Function Here”?”Report

  11. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Where does giving to arts organizations come in terms of charitable giving?

    By Arts, I mean largely performance and not-education based organizations like Film Forum, NPR-esque stations (San Francisco’s local Jazz station is now non-profit because not enough people listen to Jazz for it to be for-profit), theatres (which are almost exclusively non-profit organizations). Giving to these groups is outward because it allows artists to be employed but also inward because I enjoy jazz on the radio and going to the theatre to see less than mainstream stuff.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      We call these things tax writeoffs, and a bit of vanity (assuming you do the standard and actually give them your name). I don’t think I’d use them as a reason to stop giving tzedakah…Report

  12. Avatar ktward says:

    Sadly, I had no time to comment after reading JK’s post. Which was probably best, because while my reflections were not at all ambivalent, my thoughts were jumbled and would no doubt have made for an embarrassingly incoherent comment. (Mind, not that I’m above leaving embarrassing comments. Lord knows I’ve been there and done that, and inexcusably I persist in being there and doing that.)

    Meanwhile, Rose has rescued me. (She does that a lot. Y’all should keep her. Just saying.)

    I’ll simply add this one extra thought to the mix:

    It’s long been a serious challenge, for me and my head, to interpret and understand the moralistic underpinnings of religious dogma so that it resembles some kind of rational sense. To me and my head.

    Interestingly, I find that I’m faced with the very same kind of challenge when it comes to the Randian, objectivist libertarians. (I’m not sure that all, or even most, libertarians are objectivists. I mean, that might be true. I”m simply not sure that it is true.)

    Jason’s a smart and altogether thoughtful fella, and I ever remain hugely appreciative of his views. But ironically, he’s every bit as guilty as anyone on the Religious Right in terms of vilifying the songs of others that don’t happen to march to his own tune.

    Efficiency is one thing. And it’s an important thing, no question.

    But I remain flummoxed how Jason, or anyone else, holds themselves in such superior regard that they consider themselves worthy of judging my personal priorities in terms of charity.

    I mean, that ilk of judgement is what we’ve come to expect of the Religious Right. No?Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      ” I remain flummoxed how Jason, or anyone else, holds themselves in such superior regard that they consider themselves worthy of judging my personal priorities in terms of charity.”

      If your “personal priority” is to throw money at someone holding a sign that’s vaguely related to a cause you vaguely support, wouldn’t you say that was worthy of judgement?

      If you’re a person who carefully studies the many causes available, and you selected a particular recipient of your donations based on some degree of reasoning beyond “they were the first result on Google”, and you’ve made a committment beyond “flip ’em a twenty on Paypal then forget they exist”…then Jason is not talking about you.Report

      • Avatar ktward says:

        If your “personal priority” is to throw money at someone holding a sign that’s vaguely related to a cause you vaguely support, wouldn’t you say that was worthy of judgement?

        Is that what Jason’s talking about? Folks who carry [often silly] signs? I suspect not, and that’s certainly not what informed my comment.

        However, my own charity dollars are rarely directed toward saving life. My dollars almost always go toward improving quality of life. And in that choice, Jason apparently holds me in disdain.

        The critical distinction, according to Jason, seems to lie between Saving Life and Quality of Life. Jason sides not only with the former but specifically argues against charity towards the latter. That seems like messed up shit to me.

        I’m totally on board with rating the efficiency of charitable orgs so that we all might make a well-informed choice on where to give. But I’m not on board with folks who argue they know best where I should spend my charity dollars. Especially not under the auspices of dead philosophical assholes.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          Please just consider for a moment that you might have misunderstood me. I wrote:

          I don’t think I can dictate the right ratios between [self-regard and other-regard] or delineate the boundaries… Here we have examined some instances of near-total other-regard, of near-pure help. Some of them are worthy acts, and understanding what other-regard really looks like is important in itself, just for the sake of thinking clearly about it.

          And you write:

          However, my own charity dollars are rarely directed toward saving life. My dollars almost always go toward improving quality of life. And in that choice, Jason apparently holds me in disdain.

          Please consider that this isn’t a choice I am condemning in all cases. In fact, I recommended one such act myself — that my time might be well (and self-regardingly) spent teaching chess to kids.

          How on earth do you suppose I’d give myself a pass for that, what with you thinking I condemn all acts that don’t work to save lives?

          That said, in some cases, favoring comfort or quality of life does seem indefensible to me. In other cases, not necessarily. And I can’t quite say where to draw the lines between them, or why they are where they are.

          So I’m hardly going to be the one to judge you in particular harshly about your own line-drawing. All of us do it, all of the time.

          You approach me expecting to see a Randian. Why, lord only knows. I was that way for a while, I feel like I understand Randianism very well. But I also left it behind a long, long time ago.

          Now, I know lots of Randians, and your idea of their philosophy isn’t remotely what Randians are like, but that’s neither here nor there. Both your idea and actual Randianism are far removed from what I’ve been up to here.

          The philosophers I most had in mind here weren’t Randians at all. They were David Hume and Derek Parfit, particularly the latter (who is still alive!), with his idea that self- and other-regard are both ultimately incoherent philosophies.Report

          • Avatar ktward says:

            Indeed, I might very well have misunderstood you. But I am doing my level best to try to understand you. Please know this.

            You refer to a Line, nebulously, yet this very Line formed the basis of your post– a post altogether bent on laboriously drawing The Line: “This kind of charity is Good, That kind of charity is Not Good, maybe even Bad.”

            But, why do you get to draw The Line at all?

            This seems to me the crux of Rose’s rebuttal. None of us get to draw The Line for someone else. In fact, doesn’t that suggest there exists no Line? (Sorry. This is getting bendy-spoon Matrixy.)

            Perhaps you’d be okay with my charitable choices because presumably they make your Exception List. But apparently there are folks who make choices in charitable giving who don’t make your Exception List. Why don’t they make your Exception List? Evidently it’s not because they do a crappy job of researching charities, but because they give to charities that don’t meet your ideological criteria for Saving Life. Have I misunderstood you here? (Or maybe you’re simply diving into a level of navel-gazing that confounds me. Y’all have a penchant for that. 😉

            Now, I know lots of Randians, and your idea of their philosophy isn’t remotely what Randians are like, but that’s neither here nor there. Both your idea and actual Randianism are far removed from what I’ve been up to here.

            If you say so. I might suggest that you can’t possibly have a well-informed idea of my take on/experience with Randians based on the handful of comments I’ve left here, but as you wisely suggest it’s not at all a point worth arguing.

            Nevertheless. somewhere along the line I got the impression that you were a fan of both Rand and objectivism. Clearly, I got that wrong. You have my genuine apologies. I won’t mention it/her again where you’re concerned.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            But, why do you get to draw The Line at all?

            In the practical sense, I get to draw the line (for myself) because I’m forced to take actions, whether selfish or altruistic, whether well-considered or ill. I trace out a squiggly, spidery, very imperfect line. With every action I take. So do you.

            In the philosophical sense, the line drawing is vastly harder. I can infer that a line exists, sure, but I won’t necessarily ever have all the information needed to really draw it properly. These are hard questions, and they involve local knowledge that I do not have. As a Hayekian, I know that I need to back off when those types of question come up.

            The reason I said you didn’t get Randian philosophy is because Rand didn’t care for utilitarianism or altruism. I was recommending utilitarianism as a way to be more effectively altruistic, and I thought that doing so would often (though not always) be a good idea.

            I’m fairly sure she would have flipped her lid at that. Though not for reasons that anyone has so far articulated.

            Anyway, I’m happy to put all the tension behind us. My apologies as well.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      But I remain flummoxed how Jason, or anyone else, holds themselves in such superior regard that they consider themselves worthy of judging my personal priorities in terms of charity.

      Without exception, I believe every single person who has disagreed with me has proposed (1) that I’m making this personal and (2) that I am judging them negatively.

      Challenge both those things.

      As to (1): I provided no data on your personal charitable giving, I have none, and even if I did, I would consider it rude to bring it up. I’ve given you lots of data, but it’s been about aggregates. Not about you. If you’re feeling guilty after reading my posts, that’s also entirely your problem. Not mine. I have no idea whatsoever why you might feel this way, because I know nothing about your giving.

      As to (2): I have said again and again that there is nothing necessarily wrong with self-regarding charity. In many cases, it’s obviously best. It’s only in some cases where it seems monstrous. I can point out some things that seem really really bad to me. I can point out some that seem good.

      I cannot point out a boundary or principle to separate them, and if you can, I’m all ears. Until then, I’m asking that we not make any major changes to anything, simply to consider (all of us, myself included) how we might be more helpful.

      More altruistic, and more effective at it. I suspect that the boundary, if there is one, lies in that direction, not in the direction of more selfishness. And if that makes me a Randian, then I give up. Because everything makes me a Randian, apparently.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Morality on this subject would seem to have three axes:
        1) Why this, and why not that?
        It would seem rather monstrous, perhaps, for you to spend 20 dollars on a 4 oz. bar of chocolate, when that same twenty dollars would save 20 lives. Particularly if none of your money was going towards saving those people (yes, at a certain point, you do get to say: “I did enough!” and have some fun with your life)
        2) Don’t give to line your own pockets, or to actively grift from society.
        I’ll do the people who do this the courtesy of not calling them sociopaths, in the name of accuracy.
        3) Don’t give to charity that actively impedes solving the problem.
        Komen, need I say more?

        If you have done all of these, I feel like you’ve moved from a neutral morality to a marginally positive one. Even if you spend the rest of your money saving cats.Report

      • Avatar Rose says:

        Without exception? Where did I say that?Report

        • I share your perplexity. My own objections to his arguments stem from:

          1) A disagreement with regard to those means he believes maximize good outcomes, and

          2) My belief that his definitions of “self-regarding” and “signaling” are overly broad.

          I do not take his criticisms personally, and do not feel judged by him. Nor do I believe that I have made it seem as though I do.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Neither to I, but he is getting an awful lot of that.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              He is, though it should be noted that, with the exception of ktward, he’s getting it from the people who have, as of late, seemed to take anything said by a libertarian here personally.Report

              • Well, I can’t speak to most commenters. But Jason is my good friend, and I know him well enough not to take his criticisms personally. I do have some disagreements with some of his arguments, but that’s hardly because I feel like he is judging my personal charitable giving.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Hm. His thesis on self-regarding charity is very personal, yes? And very subtle, if you ask me. I can’t fault people for not recognizing the objective, non-personal point being made.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I suppose I’ve been reading Jason for too long, because I didn’t see it as personal at all. I know he likes to talk about signalling, and that he thinks of it as a general human behavior. I assume he thinks of it as something he does as well, in fact. In that sense, perhaps it is personal: we’re all human beings, even Jason, so when he writes about human behavior, he’s writing about each of us, and himself.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          Rose, you’re right. You didn’t say that. My apologies.Report

      • Avatar ktward says:

        I suppose my comment implies I take this personally. In truth, it’s hard not to feel a sting from your post because you seem to hold in such articulate disdain the very kind of charity that I, personally, engage in.

        But I’m pretty sure you didn’t have me in mind while penning your post so it’d be silly for me to seriously take it personally. And I don’t.

        But Rose already did the heavy lifting on why I think you’re so very wrong.Report

      • Avatar ktward says:

        As to (2): I have said again and again that there is nothing necessarily wrong with self-regarding charity.

        This SO made me chuckle. I suppose it’s horribly chickish of me, but my knee-jerk was, “If I have to explain to you why this comment is so immediately worthy of derision, then there’s no point in further convo.”

        Fortunately for me (and maybe for you, but I suppose that remains to be seen), I’m not a knee-jerk kind of gal.

        If you’re feeling guilty after reading my posts, that’s also entirely your problem. Not mine.

        That’s a weird response. What is it about my comments that implied I feel at all “guilty”? Defensive, maybe. But guilty? Whatever weird shit is going on, it’s entirely at your end. Not mine.

        I cannot point out a boundary or principle to separate them, and if you can, I’m all ears. Until then, I’m asking that we not make any major changes to anything, simply to consider (all of us, myself included) how we might be more helpful.

        In all honesty, I’m not sure what you mean here, specifically relative to your post. But minus any context, it sounds okay so I’m probably more or less with you.

        Look., I’m not a Randian. So I’m entirely comfortable with the idea that my inclinations, charitable and otherwise, are not some Freudian-like subconscious reflection of the ugliest parts of my id. Which is to say, my charitable contributions simply reflect the personal values by which I conduct my life. There’s no cigar here.

        Jason, it seems to me that it’s the Randian/objectivist ideology to which you cling that compels you to craft this all into something more complicated and, indeed, sinister. This is the same kind of manipulation the Religious Right engages in, yet ironically you typically hold them in contempt. Not trying to offend … just throwing out some food for thought.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          I’m not a Randian either. I wish you would quit insisting that I was. Particularly given that it is readily apparent to me you haven’t the slightest idea what Randianism entails.

          In particular, it is disdainful of both utilitarianism and altruism. I’m suggesting that utilitarianism might lead us to be better altruists. And for that you call me a Randian. Hah!Report

          • Avatar ktward says:

            I will quit. My mistake. You’re not a Randian. Happy now?

            But it does strike me as odd that you’re so … animatedly defensive about it. Especially while in the same breath accusing me of not having “the slightest idea what Randianism entails.”Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              Odd? Suppose I called you a Republican.


              And when you denied it, I called you a Republican again.

              And then I complained about how odd it was that you were “defensive.”

              Would that be odd? Or would it be actually sort of understandable?Report

  13. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    This may not be the right place for this comment, but I hope Rose is understanding of why I place it here.

    Is not the purpose of charity to create a world in which charity has become unnecessary?

    (My sentiment was earlier stated, much more eloquently, by Chinua Achebe as “While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”)Report