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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can a Contractarian Rationally Donate to Charity? by Benedict Hardwick.

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This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Benedict Hardwick, is one of the four shortlisted essays in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Can a Contractarian Rationally Donate to Charity?

 Charities Act 2011:

1.1 For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, “charity” means an institution which is established for charitable purposes only.

2.1 For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, a charitable purpose is a purpose which…is for the public benefit.

Although a moral theory, contract theory is concerned with rational decisions rather than “good” or “right” decisions. ‘Rational actions’ are here conceived, following Gauthier[1] (rather than, say, Scanlon) as maximising one’s own personal utility and so the theory already assumes that there are no rational justifications for purely altruistic/non-utility-maximising behaviour (“purely” because it is possible to maximise one’s utility by maximising that of someone else’s – but this is not what we would call “purely” altruistic). This is no bad thing since I believe such justifications are at best unnecessary complications and at worst demonstrably false, but that debate will not be had here. Instead I shall here show that charity, the supposed epitome of good moral action, is not good at all.

For an action to be considered rational on the contractarian view, the expected utility of that action must have been greater than the expected utility of any of the other known available options. With charitable donations, then, the utility assigned to the donated cash must be lower than what is gained by donating. But what is gained? A cynic might suggest ‘only the feeling of doing some good’, and I think a charitable person would be lying if they claimed this did not feature in their decision process but they would also claim there is more to be gained than simply that. Namely, the donation itself does more good being spent on whatever the charity does than in the hands of the donor. Here the word ‘good’ needs defining further: if it is considered to be the utility of the donor then it seems unlikely that that single donation would benefit them more than having the cash, unless the charity deals quite specifically with their needs and either the charity is very small or the donation very large. Gauthier’s contractarianism considers a ‘good’ action to be one which is part of an optimal joint strategy – a situation which can be achieved by the participants cooperating with a strategy they have agreed upon which is optimal (i.e. nobody’s utility can be increased without decreasing another’s) and which is chosen by the method of minimax relative concession. This means roughly that those who participate in the bargain receive equal benefits from it. It is therefore necessary to describe the optimal joint strategy one is adhering to when claiming that a donation to a charity does more good than, say, buying oneself something yummy.

I shall first examine the current trends in charitable donation, and find them significantly sub-optimal. I shall then suggest and compare three possible improvements and develop the most practical one – something often overlooked in contractarianism – into a system without charities but achieving the same aims much more effectively, and conclude that donating to charity moves away from this system, and instead we should not donate.

Sources of charitable donation can be divided into three groups: businesses, individuals and governments. Businesses and governments answer to the individuals, financially or electorally, and so whatever charitable trend exists among the individuals will be reflected in the other two insofar as they can both capitalise on these trends to acquire either customers or votes. This will not perfectly mimic the donation trends from individuals – some trends may be more represented in a business’s target market, or a significant section of the electorate may benefit from a charity not highly regarded by other individuals and therefore receiving fewer donations. Regardless, it is the behaviour of individuals which I think is most important in this regard, and also the most suboptimal.

There is a well known infographic (originally published on Vox[2]) which details the amount people donate to charities which fight certain diseases and the number of people who die from that disease. There is no strong correlation. Instead what is correlated, in my opinion, is how well advertised each charity is. The fight against breast cancer, the disease receiving most donations at $257.85m, is advertised as a symbol of “girl power”, with all the symbols and merchandise – including the iconic ribbon – being bright pink (generally seen as a feminine colour) and the movement is generally sold as a celebration of womanhood. Another notable charity is the ALS ice bucket challenge, which had a very popular viral meme-based campaign and raised $22.9m in the USA to fight motor neurone disease, half the amount raised for heart disease, despite the latter killing almost 100 times more people (and about 15 times the number killed by breast cancer). This research is specific to the USA and I do not claim it is conclusive – it might be, for example, that the charities donated to can treat different amounts of their disease per donation. However, it would be gratuitously generous to think that the amount actually donated to each charity (or their UK counterparts) reflects that fact in a way that means each charity is effectively doing the same amount of ‘good’.

In fact, there is good reason to think that people don’t donate for rational reasons. Most people, I suspect, don’t research in depth all the charities they could donate to in order to find the best ones. Their decisions are based on limited knowledge, often given to them by the adverts they have seen for various charities – not all of which advertise in the same way/on the same media. This advertising itself can misrepresent how important the cause is, indeed they will all try to represent their cause as more important than it is. Many charitable adverts are designed to evoke sympathy, and some causes are more easily disposed to this than others. Consider, for example, the animal charity adverts depicting starved abandoned pets with shaggy fur – these provoke our sympathy far more than the charity actually benefits anybody, to the point where an advert from Enable Scotland in 2007 claimed that animal charities receive twice as much funding as charities for disabled people[3]. Other causes simply use fun adverts, such as Movember or the ALS ice bucket challenge, and people spread information about the charity and donate to join in the fun – and better still, to feel that they are doing so “for a good cause”.

This is clearly not the best way for donations to charity to be decided. The problem with the current situation is a lack of information not available but known to the donors, and the lack of understanding the place of charity within an optimal strategy. This optimal strategy will be one where donations are proportioned between charities according to the utility gained by the people they help with those donations. How much a charity causes an increase in utility of the public I shall call the ‘goodness’ of that charity. Therefore, to improve this system we need a reliable way to determine which charities are doing the most good. There are three ways this might happen (a combination is also possible but likely to involve unnecessary costs):

  1. The charities themselves advertise exactly how much good they do with their donations. This is more than simply making the information publicly available, but instead this information is entirely what their advertisements consist of.
  2. Charities make their information publicly available and the people donating do more research than they currently are and decide which charities are most worthy of donations.
  3. A third party is appointed to research charities and causes, and publishes a list of charities and the proportion people should donate to each.

At present, we seem unable to decide between these three, with some people doing detailed research themselves, some listening to charity campaigns as if they were simply advertising their ‘goodness’, and some journalists investigating charities and causes and publishing their findings. The result of this indecision is the sub-optimal mayhem described above. The first option is the most optimal but least practical. Charities have the easiest access to the relevant information so could advertise it most accurately and with the least cost. However, they wouldn’t: they have a vested interest in favourably misrepresenting their ‘good’ and so there would have to be laws and investigations to make sure they are being honest about their claims – much as there are now – and this would greatly reduce the efficiency of this system. The second option is slightly more practical in that charities would have to be watched less closely, but less practical in that we would have to trust the public to research charities and donate accordingly, which they currently fail to do, and there is no reason to suppose they would not continue to fail. The third option, though requiring more investment, is much more efficient because it would not have to make up for charities being dishonest or rely on the public not being lazy, instead it would rely just on the third party doing what they are paid to do – which they would because that is what they are paid for!

This option is not totally reliable though since it still requires people to read their report and donate accordingly. Instead, a better solution might be for all donations to be made to that third party itself, and let the party pass on the donations to charities in proportion to their findings. In fact we can take another step, and incorporate charities into the party – that way they would not have to conduct research into the charities separately but could just do the work directly. At this point, the party would have a lot of power and would need to be investigated itself to make sure there is no corruption and it is still serving its function. But no more so than any government body for example, and having a centralised system would make it much easier to research than a medley of charities, as would applying and enforcing the same legal requirements of publishing spending and activities that we require of government bodies. Incorporating this body into the government would allow it to be funded by taxation rather than donations which would be better because the latter, even after all the advertising is removed, still rely primarily on sympathies and not on rationality.

There is a degree to which we are currently unsure how far down this road we are heading: the government currently funds charities and gives start-up grants for new charities, it tackles some causes directly (eg NHS research/foreign aid/benefits) and leaves others almost totally up to the charities themselves. In fact, at the moment, charity provides an excuse for the government not to act. Instead of spending a large amount of money on research to combat heart disease, the government can spend a small amount of money helping charities advertise their cause and receive donations from the more sympathetic civilians, and donate a small amount themselves, and then avoid being blamed for not helping enough. If we, the civilians, stopped donating, this would increase pressure on the government to create such a “charitable body” as I have described and thereby make the whole process much more reliable and more useful, instead of relying on guilt-inducing advertising campaigns. Each time you donate to a charity instead of buying something yummy, you are taking a step away from this solution, and are therefore doing less good than that donation is worth in yumminess.

[1] Morals By Agreement, David Gauthier, OUP 1987



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