By Nadira Faber
Why do humans help others even when it is costly and nothing is to be expected in return? This question has not only developed into a classic in different empirical disciplines, but is also of high interest for fundraisers like charities who would like to know how to increase donations.
How much of your money should you give to effective charities? Donors are often made considerably happier by giving away substantial portions of their income to charity. But if they continued giving more and more, there’d surely come a point at which they’d be trading off their own well-being for the sake of helping others. This raises a general question: how much of your own well-being are you morally required to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others? I’m currently in Australia giving some talks on the ethics of giving (at the ANU and at CAPPE in Melbourne and Canberra), and have been thinking about this topic a bit more than usual.
I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities. Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty. I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).
You might think that if it’s not wrong not to donate to charity, then it’s not wrong to give to whatever particular charity you choose (as long as no harm is done). I’m going to argue against this view. Very often, it is wrong to give to an ineffective charity, even when it’s not wrong not to give at all.
Like Prot – the lovable character played by Kevin Spacey in the underrated movie K-PAX – you’re an intelligent benevolent extraterrestrial who has just been beamed to Earth. Sadly, unlike Prot, you have no return ticket. The good news for you is that just moments after hopping off of your beam of light, you found a briefcase stuffed with $3 million. Being benevolent, and having concern for the inhabitants of Earth, you decide to give nearly all of this money to charity. Being completely new to the planet, however, you do not yet have any special concern for anyone here – no friends, no loved ones. Having this equal concern for everyone, you want simply to do the most good possible, and so you decide to give this money to the most cost-effective charities you can find.
Exit science fiction scenario.
One important difference between each of us and this Prot-agonist is that we do have friends and loved ones; we have rich shared histories with them, we care deeply about them, and, crucially, the level of concern we have for them is not on a par with the general concern we have for strangers. If your fiancé were drowning in a lake to your north, and ten strangers were drowning in a lake to your south, and you could either rescue the one to your north or instead the ten to your south (but not all eleven!), you’d probably head north. Whether this constitutes morally good behavior on your part is a matter of controversy among contemporary ethical theorists. But let’s assume the commonsense view that it’s not wrong of you to save your fiancé over the ten others. This degree of special partial concern is, we’ll suppose, justified.