Help.

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Charity. Here is the introductory post for the Symposium. Here is a list of all posts so far.

Synopsis: Charity is mostly self-regarding. It’s not about helping; it’s about looking helpful. Optimally helpful charity would look very different from what we usually do. Such charity is probably unrelated to your personal affinities. It’s probably not glamorous or intuitively appealing.

Yet there is a compelling utilitarian case for embracing optimum helpfulness and abandoning a good deal of self-regarding charity. I suggest ways to do so.

Pure disinterest nonetheless faces limits; both self-regard and other-regard are good to a degree. Do not feel guilty about self-regard. Feel guilty when other-regard turns out to be fake. Your emotions may trick you here.

Charity is mostly self-regarding: In the best blog post ever written, Robin Hanson asserted that charity isn’t about helping. He explained as follows:

When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.

Charity serves mainly to signal within a community that the giver is charitable. The claim sounds both strange and horrible, but it’s absolutely true.

Of course, we wouldn’t call it “charity” if it didn’t at least minimally help others without a material reward to ourselves. That’s definitional.[1] But among the acts so defined, we often make choices that would be indefensible if “helping” were our primary goal. Instead we want to feel, and to appear to others, as if we were helpful.

Consider: You have probably been asked to donate food to a food bank. You might have done it. Feeding another human is a deeply intimate act, and we crave that intimacy. And it’s reassuring to be a provider among a community of providers.

Yet as Matt Yglesias notes, donating food is grossly inefficient:

America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet. Indeed, many of us don’t even have that much food socked away, which leads to us going out to buy extra food in order to give it away. But having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk.

But it’s even worse than that. All across America, charitable organizations and the food industry have set up mechanisms through which emergency food providers can get their hands on surplus food for a nominal handling charge. Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail.

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.[2]

Ignorance may be partly to blame. Not everyone knows that food banks do best with cash. On hearing it, many will give differently. But some will rationalize, and get indignant… and open their pantries yet again.[3] And in so doing, the givers of food signal to themselves and others that they are the sorts who give food. But they’re not doing as much good as they might. (Why do food banks accept it? Because a tiny, inefficient help is better than no help whatsoever. What are they going to do, turn you away?)

Or consider Alex Grass, the founder of Rite Aid. Grass made a fortune in business, not coincidentally doing the world a lot of good. He then gave millions to education and health initiatives.

Hanson finds it a sad denouement; his research and that of many others indicates that we spend way too much on health and probably also on education. We might cut medical spending in half, Hanson estimates, and get the same or even better outcomes. Yet medical charities are perennially popular. They signal fellow-feeling. They are intimate and reassuring, like food. That’s why so many can’t resist them.[4]

Optimally helpful charity would look very different from what we usually do: The Chess in the Schools program introduces hundreds of kids every year to a game that I dearly love. It propagates a wonderful bit of our cultural heritage while teaching critical thinking, discipline, and logic.

Donating money to this program would also be unconscionable. Please don’t. Some kids will never sit down at a chessboard. But it’s not because they don’t have a chessboard. It’s because at age four they will die of malaria. Contrasts like these focus the mind.

Or consider the Make-A-Wish Foundation. By the numbers, it’s horrifying: In 2009, its budget was $203,865,550, and it gave 13,471 children trips to Disney World, shopping sprees, cruises, and chances to meet celebrities. That’s an average of $15,133.66 per kid.

Meanwhile, in Mozambique, the infant mortality rate stands at around 10%. If these kids could be saved, they would be very likely to live full adult lives; young childhood is still a deadly time there, as it was for most societies in most of human history. Children in Mozambique succumb to infectious diseases that could readily be prevented or treated—things like measles, tetanus, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and the like.

That’s where VillageReach comes in:

Between 2002 and 2008 VillageReach ran a pilot program in the Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado designed to improve the province’s health logistics. This program was dramatically successful. One tangible indicator of impact is that VillageReach increased the percentage of Cabo Delgado infants who received the third and final dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine from 68.9% to 95.4%, yielding a final percentage higher than that of the average in any sub-Saharan African country. When one looks at the available evidence in juxtaposition with the cost of the program and runs through cost-effectiveness calculations one finds that under conservative assumptions VillageReach saved an infant’s life for every $545 donated to VillageReach.

So. One wish for one relatively privileged (albeit distinctly unlucky) first-world kid. Or almost twenty-eight lifetimes — fifteen hundred years of life — for children who will otherwise die. (Are they any less unlucky?)

If I’m right, we should probably be ashamed that the Make-A-Wish Foundation is even a thing. Can you imagine arguing for it in Mozambique?

There is a compelling utilitarian case for embracing optimum helpfulness and abandoning most self-regarding charity. Nearly all of it is an appalling waste when compared to what it might be.

This is not to say that you should stop giving, however. If all this is new to you, I suggest not changing anything immediately. If you are so moved, give as usual. An inefficient gift still beats nothing at all. Just consider adding something more efficient as well.

We all know that doubtful charities exist. Some are startlingly inefficient at fundraising. Others have high administrative costs. (And yet that may not be the best measure of a charity; at times, increased administrative costs yield a big improvement in a charity’s effectiveness.) And as we have just noted, some charities might pass these tests yet offer good feelings rather than help.

But there are also some excellent charities, and the Internet makes finding them easier. GiveWell is my favorite charity evaluator. Here is GiveWell’s evaluation process. This week they published a very short list of the best charities around. It’s just three names, and here they are:

#1 Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
#2 GiveDirectly
#3 Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

All have room to grow. None are glamorous. None have anything to do with me. Probably not much to do with you, either. So much the better.

The first fights one of humanity’s oldest scourges, malaria, using effective, low-cost anti-mosquito bed nets. The second is sort of like the international equivalent of giving cash to the food bank — except 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 confess a slight personal affinity for this one. I find it appealingly antipaternalistic. You may therefore discount my advice.)

The third fights schistosomiasis. It’s a horrid disease that I can barely spell, that I’m at no risk for, that has affected no one I know, and that is common in a country for which I have a frank disdain.[5]

But every December, my husband and I decide where to send our charitable contributions for the year. When he asked me my thoughts, I gave him these. I recommend them to you as well. These will help. Lots of other things won’t help as much. If you’re looking for a big change, consider them.

Both self-regard and other-regard are necessary to some degree. I ask a difficult thing. Humans find self-regard easiest. This isn’t normative; I am not urging you to be selfish. I am asserting that you are selfish. So am I.

Much selfishness is rational. Managing a self is hard work, and if we were not powerfully motivated to do it, someone else might do it for us. If they were anything like most charities, we would suffer atrociously. No one knows your own needs as well as you.

Even selfish charity is rational, up to a point. I’d certainly spend my time more wisely by teaching kids to play chess than moving to Mozambique and trying to cure the sick. I’d have fun with the chess, and it would offer (a very small) help. Long live self-regard, as long as we’re honest about it.

But: How can we make a decent society out of self-regarders?

As you all know, I think part of the answer lies in hitching our self-regard to the market process: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” wrote Adam Smith. When we work to earn our keep, we typically do that work for others, but with regard to ourselves.

That mixes self- and other-regard in ways that are hard to sort out. So do most other things we do. I don’t think I can dictate the right ratios between them or delineate the boundaries. (Hanson’s latest post on charity suggests a theory of how self- and other-regard can work together productively in helping others.) 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.

Even in a mostly selfish world, there is still benevolence, and there is still a surplus beyond what we need or even what we vaguely sort of want. And there are still great needs beyond our self-regard. Out there, we’re awful at matching the means to the ends. That means that if I’m like most people, I’ve probably gotten a lot of things wrong in this essay. I look forward to being corrected. But so much good is left undone. Isn’t it?

Notes

[1] One way of helping others — while also helping yourself — is to invest in an honest, successful business. That’s not charity, but it’s still a good thing, and if you’re certain that you can do it, then it may be a better use of your money than many charities, particularly some that we’re about to discuss.

[2] You could also take 90% and invest as per [1]. It would be better than the toilet.

[3] If you’ve grokked what I am saying here, you will also be a long way toward understanding why market institutions tend strongly toward efficiency. Giving cash gives the food bank a choice , and choices are valuable. They can buy nonperishable food, which is often cheap. Or they can buy perishables, which are only sometimes cheap, but generally healthier and tastier. They can tailor their needs to their clients’ allergies or cultural sensitivities. They can bargain hunt. They can save for future disasters. They can do lots of things with cash that you or I can’t even predict, let alone match.

Some will likely object that they weren’t going to eat the food in question anyway, so giving it to a food bank recoups the cost, at least a little. The problem is that the unwanted leftovers of an entire city’s pantries won’t add up to a nutritious or balanced stock of food. They’ll add up to a giant disposal problem. If you really want to recoup your loss, just suck it up and eat the food. Then make a list; never buy the offending products again.

[4] Is it good to keep some people around who cultivate a cheerful contempt for appearances? Perhaps in a sealed enclosure, so they won’t scare the horses? They — oh hell, We — counter an obvious bias in the rest of you. That, in turn, might cause you to think that we were… helpful! And you would love us, if only in a meta sense, and that would be meta-wonderful. In short, you should have seen the first draft of this post. And thanks, Burt and Tim.

[5] Uganda. If ever I’d wish a pox on someone’s house… but here is proof that I don’t. Please help Uganda.

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195 thoughts on “Help.

  1. Some charities, especially in the social-welfare field, get the bulk of their funding from the government, the idea being that they can provide social services more efficiently than the government itself.

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    • He didn’t really touch on that in the OP, but that’s one of the things that I really like about Bush II’s “compassionate conservatism” approach is enlisting existing community-based organizations into providing services that would otherwise come from government.

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      • The problem Will, is most social services have always come from community based orgs. Bush didn’t invent, create or do much of anything to change that. The most the Fed’s have done for charities is offer start up funding, research, organize conferences and provide grants. As some one who has worked for various social services my entire career i never say Bush’s talk change anything. If anything, we still struggled for funds just as much as before Bush 2. Most of what the Fed’s do is stuff like SCHIP, Meidcaid, EITC.

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  2. there is an intuition about charity that it is all about the giving and that what happens after that is of little concern. or at least there is little the giver can do about it. I think this post demonstrates why that intuition is wrong and that some due diligence on the part of the giver is called for in order to call it truly charitable. this post might also be a good jumping off point to argue the benefit of giving through churches to the extent church leadership performs that due diligence on behalf of of their parishioners. on the other hand I also fear this post could be a jumping off point to argue the merits of “giving” through government. I think the latter argument would not be successful but that doesn’t mean there won’t be attempts.

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  3. If you want to be effective (rather than efficient) in the area of mosquito-borne disease, I would think you might want to find out how to support ethical mosquito or malaria geneticists. And then do that. It will save zero (or not a lot more than zero) lives right now, but I think it has a decent shot of saving ALL the lives, down the road – of taking a big jump past where natural evolution can keep up – whereas mosquito nets are just part of a millennia-long arms race.

    Likewise, investing (or better yet just giving money to) people working with alternative energy, climate-restoration tech, etc. The problem is that all of this innovation is hard and thorny and fraught with mistakes, so you *might*, even if you do a fish-ton of research first, end up helping to fund a harmful innovation rather than a helpful one – which is why even people who are determined to be rational about charity use safe, proven methods that don’t actually win the game, just keep us on the field. (I suppose risk management, and humans’ crappy ability to understand and weigh risks, would be a separate post.)

    I’m quite comfortable with my selfishness, so I generally give to charities that have personal meaning for me. I’m okay with helping a relative handful of GLBTQ kids who’ve attempted suicide, or are at high risk to do so, and similar actions that add another pebble to the collective effort to change the city where I live, or the laws (or markets) of either country I call home, even if the impartial cost/benefit analysis for those choices sucks. Growing up in Canada, I assented to a cultural consensus that it was the government’s job to take my taxes and make impartial cost/benefit analyses about where they should go (and when I was younger, I felt that the then-sitting federal Canadian government did a reasonable job of it). Any leftover money was mine to do with as I damn well pleased, without regard to absolutes … but I suppose willingly-taxed citizens, secular tithing, and socialist conceptions of charity is ALSO another post altogether.

    Does Hanson talk about anonymous giving vs. public giving? I think it’s interesting to uncouple self-regard into meaning and appearance, rather than conflating them – but there’s also a conflict between “I will make THIS gift anonymously because I’m not doing it for the props” and the choice to be public in order to entail other people into supporting causes you find worthy (as you have done here).

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  4. I really don’t agree that we spend too much on health and education – but those are things that shouldn’t be funded by charitable donations anyway. They’re the responsibility of government to provide.

    I couldn’t agree more about things like Make a Wish foundation, funds to send kids to sports camp, etc, though they’re still a few steps above alumni donations. There are billions of people in the world who get less money in a week than we spend on a cup of coffee. That’s where money should be going if we truly want to help. The only Canada-focused rather than internationally-focused organizations I’d support giving money to are food banks (agreed, donating money>donating food) and shelters, which do help people who are genuinely in need, and do need support, even if there’s less marginal impact per dollar than giving to third-world NGOs.

    The challenge with trying to evaluate different charities is that, given the amount of information and accounting and reporting that needs to be done, you’re requiring then to spend a lot more on high-skilled, generally high-cost, Western-employed personnel and less on direct activities if they want a good evaluation. An NGO that keeps good records and reports of impact, demonstrates sustainable results, and has high impact per dollar is definitely a good one to give to, but there are others that may be as good with less extensive record-keeping.

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    • One of the charities that I give to regularly is a Canadian-based charity; War Child. It’s in many different nations, but not the US.
      I’ve never really looked into the stats of where all the money goes. Efficiency loss wasn’t really a concern.

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      • The founder of War Child Canada, Samantha Nutt, spoke at my department’s end-of-year event last year. It was very moving.

        It’s very hard to evaluate conflict- and peace-related charities and activities compared to, say, health ones. That doesn’t make them not worth funding.

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    • Isn’t this another proven efficiency vs. optimal effectiveness question, though? If you donate money as an alumna (or better yet, to whichever schools you think are doing the best job), and the money you donate is amplified into giving an education to someone who turns around and changes the world, instead of ameliorating it – is that really more selfish?

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      • (I feel the need to note, probably due to the signalling desires mentioned in the OP, that I have given far more money to homeless people than to any college – not hard since I have never given money to a college. But since I sell my *labor* to an elite college, rather than say, to the organizations Jason lists above, or to a homeless shelter, I have spent considerable time indulging my selfish need to understand why I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor.)

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      • I think there’s a pretty low probability of a donation to a university producing a graduate who will overwhelmingly change the world for the better, compared to the near-certainty that a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation will reduce the number of people who get malaria. You might contribute to the education of someone who will make some contribution to improve the world, but it’s an indirect and less certain means compared to improving the world yourself. (Where you give your labour is a different question, since it’s related to where your skills are best used; money is fungible, you are not.)

        It depends, I suppose, on how heavily you subscribe to the “great (wo)man” theory of history.

        An alumni donations seem to go to a new building or sports stadium or what have you as often as they go to scholarships.

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  5. Charity is mostly self-regarding. It’s not about helping; it’s about looking helpful.

    Looking helpful or feeling helpful? The former would say that being charitable is a performance put on to raise one’s prestige. The latter, that it’s done to gain the feeling of having helped.

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    • feelings are the thing, as I see it. both positive feelings of having helped and avoiding negative feelings of guilt for not having done enough. the latter also drives us NOT to actually investigate the need, since this would just make us feel more guilty, and avoiding guilt is a big part of what we’re doing with charity.

      speaking of sentiment getting in the way of rational action, my wife and I just saw a woman walking her dog in a doggie wheelchair. the amount we spent on pets that could be helping humans is at least as concerning as what we spend on Disney World.

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      • I give quite a bit to various no-kill animal shelters.
        I’ve rescued a few of them as well. One cat I saved from some mean kids that threw a pan of hot grease on it. That cat later found a happy home.
        I spent a number of hours trying to catch a cat in an old barn that was about to get blasted with a shotgun. I got her fixed and got her shots, took her to a shelter, and she was adopted out in less than a week.
        I’m sort of famous for jumping into dumpsters to snatch up a raccoon by the scruff of the neck and get them out of there.

        I see the way that animals are dumped out in the county, often in the snow.
        It really bothers me.
        I don’t mind going out of my way to help an animal, because I know that their capacity is limited. People I tend to expect for them to do something for themselves.
        Even so, I have been known to go out of my way to help someone down on their luck.
        There’s been at least twice where I pulled over to pick up a hitchhiker where the guy told me that he was praying at the time I pulled over. The one man in Iowa told me that he finally broke down and started crying because he couldn’t get a ride, and started praying out of desperation. I fed the man, then took him into Council Bluffs before I headed to work.

        I don’t feel that helping animals is harming people.
        If anything, I hope a bit of it rubs off in teaching people to be responsible pet owners, and inclines them a bit more toward humanity.

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        • Well I am with you. But we would probably have to leave cruelty out of it because I think that just overwhelms and emotions. I was speaking about people who spend money on their pets for largely unnecessary things. A few years ago pet cat my wife and I rescued about 10 years very ill and we spent Well over thousand dollars bringing her back from the brink. I think that may be not too dissimilar from spending money at Disney World As opposed to say sending money to Mozambique.

          But speaking of cruelty I think that may fall in a similar category as giving to truly needy humans. I’m not equating the two of course. I’m saying that both are moral tragedies. And when it comes to moral tragedies we do everything we can to avoid learning about them. I avoid learning about stories of cats being thrown into vats of boiling oil in China (an Internet video I saw years ago still haunts my memories) just as I do learning stories about child hunger . Two children dying are also moral tragedies but there’s something not right about sending one of them to Disney World when that money could’ve been spent saving the other child’s life.

          ( Please forgive the general lack of editing. I composed this comment using that dictation on my phone.)

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          • Not a bad typist for a phone.

            I think I get what you’re saying, and I agree (as far as I can tell).
            I think what’s tripping you up is the idea of a dollar figure.
            That numeric figure doesn’t represent the same thing across the board.

            Acts done in devotion are of a different character than acts done in love.

            I have a cat that’s 13 yrs old. She lost a tooth, and I took her in to get a perio; cost me over $300.
            There are any number of people in this area whose teeth really need a bit of work. Not even $3000 could have taken care of that, but the $300 might have helped a few emergency cases.
            But my cat is a member of the family– first, these in this household here, to the best of my ability. And that’s not about what type of cat she is, but what type of person that I am.

            Benevolence tends to expand outward.

            I could have taken that same $300 and saved the teeth of some poor homeless kids living in South America that can’t even eat corn on the cob.
            Instead, I took care of this one cat.

            First my household, then my family and my friends; then my associates and my neighbors; and only then to all of mankind.
            That same dollar doesn’t go around equally between all of them.
            Benevolence is not a function of numerics.
            Likewise, numerics are a poor indicator of benevolence.

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            • “Benevolence tends to expand outward.” Exactly, WillH. Being “social” animals, “subsidiarity” as a radiating localism—family, friends, town, country, humanity—is nothing to apologize for.

              http://catholiclane.com/subsidiarity-contrasted-with-libertarian-small-government/

              Besides, were you to let your cat suffer, or put her down for a nameless faceless “other,” and denude your own life of beauty and joy? I’m not sure I’d be comfortable around such a person who would do such things, for whom human existence is one big abstraction.

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                • WillH, the interesting thing is you’ve already derived “subsidiarity” on your own. Very cool.

                  It’s Roman Catholic via Aquinas, but via Aristotle as well.

                  http://www.cis.catholic.edu.au/Files/Murray-WhatisSubsidiarity.pdf

                  I want to suggest briefly that, in the Philippines,
                  you would do well to turn to the Greek
                  philosopher, Aristotle, and his work, The Politics.
                  Unlike modern political theorists, who viewed
                  human beings as atomic individuals and calculators
                  of self interest, Aristotle viewed human beings as
                  intelligent agents, who could discern truth and seek
                  good. His politics began with natural communities
                  – families, clans, tribes, villages and towns – and
                  recognised another form of human life that could
                  be added to these, namely political life. He
                  examined the possibilities for this kind of life
                  always keeping in mind that its purpose was to
                  bring about a better and, indeed, more virtuous life
                  for those who composed the community. The
                  activity of this life involves participating in
                  judgements both about what is best and about how
                  to achieve it. It means being active in the working
                  out of our own futures.

                  I mean, do you want a friend who treats you no better than some random guy off the street does? And doesn’t a true friend know what you need better than a random stranger? Won’t you dig deeper into your pocket for someone you know than for someone you don’t?

                  These deeper and more knowing associations are necessary for a full human flourishing. A generic benevolence toward the rest of humanity can only take us so far, firstly for our lack of passion, second for our lack of true knowledge of the other person, and third, that the well of human need can never be filled. [“Compassion fatigue.”]

                  C. 1900, Catholics such as GK Chesterton were into “distributism” as a social philosophy. I think there’s something there outside the religion part, between an Ayn Randian “radical individualism” the [g]libertarians are accused of and the coerced charity [an oxymoron, that] of the statist left—a genuine “communitarianism” charged with providing the means to equal [and efficacious] opportunity rather than the mere ends of the welfare state. IOW, teaching the man to fish rather than hitting him over the head with a haddock.

                  And of course a true “communitarianism” should have the virtue of being genuine charity, i.e., voluntary, where “society” is not synonymous with “the state.”

                  And thanks for asking.

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                  • Thank you for explaining.
                    You touch on one of the points I have long recognized about gov’t redistribution– that when compelled, the choice of good or evil is removed.
                    That is, the goodness which is removed from the individual in performance of like acts is attained only vicariously through the arm of the state.

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            • I think this is probably right, Will. so does that mean Make a Wish is nothing to be concerned about, that it’s justified because these kids are part of our American community?

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              • Personally, I think it’s ok, provided it doesn’t crowd out legitimate efforts either side of it.
                There are a number of factors to consider here:
                Relation (distance from donor to recipient), direness of need, opportunity for later redress, distribution of available resources, etc.

                I have a hard time saying that it’s a bad thing, but I’m thinking 30 trips to grandma’s house might be a better use of resources than a trip to Disney World. That said, it plays out differently if Disney were volunteering their resources as well.
                I think we have a moral obligation to help other people to some extent; that thing about the fleet of foot removing the stumbling block for those that follow behind, and all.
                As long as there’s something to go around, I don’t see it as a bad thing.
                For example, Doctors Without Borders is a worthwhile endeavor. So is improving the drinking water in the area in which I live (which is being assessed for fines by the EPA btw for having too much organic carbon in it).
                There’s no reason that the two should be mutually exclusive, either individually or collectively.

                It seems like different people looking at things differently and having different values works out a bit for everybody somewhere down the line.

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    • I was taught that the best charity was done without desire for credit, as in Matthew 6:

      Take heed that ye do not your balms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

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    • Looking helpful or feeling helpful? The former would say that being charitable is a performance put on to raise one’s prestige. The latter, that it’s done to gain the feeling of having helped.

      Looking or feeling helpful? I thought about this, and I admit I kinda waffled. The two are so tied up with each other that it’s hard to separate them. It’s almost certainly fair to say that both are motivations, but which one is driving which, I don’t know.

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  6. I should note that one of my International Development profs took a rather dim view of NGO aid, saying that’s it’s not coordinated with country governments and that the focus should be on building capacity for governments to deliver things like health services themselves rather than doing it through NGOs, and that NGOs should focus principally on advocacy. It’s sort of the “give a man a fish” v. “teach a man to fish” argument, except that there’s the danger of a certain amount of the fishing tackle being transformed into Mercedeses or shuffled away to Switzerland and in the meantime the man still won’t have the fish. So I believe that, on the whole, development NGO work in, for example, the health sector is saving lives and should be continued, even if a comprehensive government health program is more desirable in the long term.

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    • Katherine,

      In the comment above you say healthcare and education is the responsibility of the government to provide and directly above you say NGOs should focus on advocacy and leave the hard lifting to government. Is it possible non-governmental institutions can provide education and healthcare more efficiently than government, and also avoid politics in the process? I have more faith in non-governmental institutions, but they are hampered as long as government is determined to be the ultimate manager.

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      • I don’t say that NGOs should focus on advocacy. I report that as the view of someone else in the field of international development.

        I don’t think that, on a national level, NGOs can provide health care and education better than the government, because 1) it requires far more resources than NGOs possess; for example, through tax revenues, government has those revenues, whereas NGOs are dependent on donations; and 2) government is accountable to the electorate, whereas NGO are directly accountable to their donors but not to the people to whom they provide services.

        Point 1 is the really big one. NGOs only have the money that people choose to give them. The need for health and education doesn’t shift with people’s willingness to donate. There has to be a sustained and dependable source of funding for them, and no organization whose funding is based on voluntary donations will have that.

        In addition, government has the institutional depth to provide a massive system like national education and health care that even the largest NGOs don’t have the capacity for. The federal civil service is highly underappreciated.

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  7. The comments on the self-regarding aspects of charity are very well stated. A lot of the impetus for charity is not at all altruistic and as shown, horribly inefficient.

    Which is what leads me to conclude that doing socially worthwhile things like improving the lives of those who are suffering, is to do more works like Medicare, EITC which actually bring far more benefit to people’s lives, even if they don’t provide opportunities for self-regard.

    Charity itself is a bit suspect in my view, particularly from a religious point of view. The Gospels promote charity only because when they were written, there was no other means to help others.
    When Jesus spoke critically about those who do good works ostentatiously he was referencing this tendency.
    Our contemporary vision of charity relies almost entirely on self-regard, in providing us the warm fuzzy feeling of being good. So we see the absurd inequalities where certain illnesses or causes get massive funding and others are orphaned.

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    • Which is what leads me to conclude that doing socially worthwhile things like improving the lives of those who are suffering, is to do more works like Medicare, EITC which actually bring far more benefit to people’s lives, even if they don’t provide opportunities for self-regard.

      I disagree. They do provide (liberals) opportunities for self-regard.

      They also pale in comparison to improving the quality of life in the developing world. Helping anyone in the United States, especially those who have already had long and relatively easy lives, is morally problematic if we take all human lives to be of equal worth and dignity.

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      • There’s a rationalism behind that that doesn’t comport with human nature.
        It goes back to Socrates’ line about “Those who do evil tend to do so to those near at hand.”
        It seems like the perspective of globalism assigning each one of us the same value.
        I’m not going to argue against that on an empirical level.
        Just to note that the power to do good is defined by the same limits as the power to do evil.
        In the end, there’s only so much responsibility than I can accept as my own.
        I’m finite in that regard.

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      • Doesn’t that rely on an unnecessarily economic view of human dignity, though? Quality of life isn’t a one-dimensional scale.

        Who has more dignity? The Farmer in Mozambique who makes $1 a day and eats meat once a month, but has a roof over his head? Or the homeless man in the US who makes $5 a day panhandling, and eats a fast-food burger every day?

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  8. I have to admit I am troubled by this post. I definitely agree that some charities are grossly inefficient (and your post cites excellent examples) and others are downright dubious (as in the so-called “Cause Marketing” schemes), but the idea of trying to square the circle where selfishness, by way of self regard, and altruism are either interchangeable or on some sort of floating scale muddies the definition of charity past recognition. A bakery or a butcher shop is in no way a charity. While self regard, or selfishness, is tolerated to the extent that it is an advantage to commerce, it is a strong enough character flaw in a social animal that most individuals would want to hide it and rationalize it away as a motive for charitable acts. That it feels good to be generous is still secondary to the generous act itself, yes?

    There is one sort of charity that I think does match the OP’s point regarding how efficient markets and self regard make it possible to value charity exactly like business: church mission work. Church missions have economic utility based on the value they place on new converts. Even beyond the spiritual comfort of spreading the Word, there is the financial value of both tithes and church prestige.

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    • “A bakery or a butcher shop is in no way a charity.”

      While trivially true, it is also true that being an “angel” (ie venture capitalist) to a beloved-by-the-neighborhood bakery or butcher shop, instead of say, investing that money in [evil and profitable corporation of your choice] is an act of caritas.

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      • I would argue that accepting a (possibly) lower rate of ROI to invest in a bakery or butcher shop is such a trivial sort of charity, it stretches the definition of the word past the breaking point.

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      • That isn’t to say that some businesses stay around for sentimental rather than than economic reasons. I grew up in a small town and there were a few businesses like this. But I think this is more an example of Tim Kowal’s point (below) though.

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    • these are well stated concerns that I share to a large degree. that it’s not the gift but the giving, and all that. but I think the basic idea is correct that the true spirit of charity also involves some thoughtfulness as opposed to mere sentimentality.

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  9. Suppose a patient. This patient has a terminal disease that will, in far less time than he would wish, take his life. In his remaining span of time on this side of the grass, he elects to spend some of his money taking a trip to Paris that he’d always put off when he thought his future less circumscribed. Do we fault him for spending his money this way? (You may rest assured that, should I get some catastrophic diagnosis of this kind, I will be buying my tickets to finally visit France the next day.)

    Suppose a mother. Her child has a severe illness that will foreshorten her life significantly. Furthermore, those treatments she needs to extend her life are horribly unpleasant and painful to undergo, though they are the only thing keeping her alive. Being a woman of some means, she buys her daughter a trip to a world-famous amusement park to give her a few moments of joy in her dwindling time on earth, and to give her some happy memories to mitigate the misery of her impending therapies. Do we fault her for spending her money this way?

    Suppose a childless couple. They, too, have means, and are inclined to be charitable. Let us say that one of them works in healthcare for children, and is all too familiar with the body-wracking processes that medicine sometimes must inflict on these small people. Let us further stipulate that this person has seen first-hand the hope and fortitude that a visit from a local sports hero can bring a suffering child, making the needle sticks and nauseous chemicals somehow more bearable. The couple set aside a small sum to be given to the Make-a-Wish foundation, donated annually with no fanfare. Ought they feel ashamed for doing so?

    If the answer is “yes” to the last question but “no” to either of the other two, whither the difference? What is the ontological (I tremble at the prospect of using that word incorrectly in this crowd, but fortune favors the bold) difference between money we would spend on ourselves or our loved ones and that which we would spend on behalf of strangers? When does our obligation to the people of Mozambique, referenced in the OP, kick in, such that we must justify spending our money to bring cheer to people other than themselves?

    For the record, Make-a-Wish is not one of the charities I happen to support. But I’m not sure I understand why it should be a source of collective shame.

    Or to draw from my own experience, for years I would volunteer my time in the infirmary at a camp for children and families affected by HIV. The donation of my time and the existence of the camp itself saved no lives, merely brought joy to people who’d known too little of it. Ought I look back on my time spent and feel sorry that I did not spend it in a clinic in Haiti instead? Or perhaps doing bench research in search of a cure for schistosomiasis?

    How strictly must we hold to utilitarianism before we can be assured that we are not behaving shamefully?

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    • The underlying point here is that nearly all our actions are self-regarding in a deeper sense than we realize, including the ones we do for what we call charity. Optimally helpful charity puts these to shame if our purposes are to be helpful.

      If they’re not, then they’re not. How much we want to feel okay, or troubled, by this… well, that’s not for me to decide. I’m just pointing out what I think disinterested helpfulness would look like, and noting that only some charities seem to come close. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the charity we do now, provided we are honest about what ends we’re serving.

      To illustrate, I bought Christmas gifts for most of my family today. I could have sent that money to the Against Malaria Foundation. I didn’t. And I don’t regret it.

      I don’t think…

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      • If you really were feeling philanthropic, you wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about your feelings. During the course of my career, I’ve often been in the presence of real philanthropists and their joy in giving to solve a serious problem is an affirmation of humanity. I’ve never heard any of them comment about how something looks to other people.

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        • If you really were feeling philanthropic, you wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about your feelings.

          You mean I’d just act on impulse? But what if that impulse turned out on reflection to be ill-considered? It seems to me that giving to whatever cause gave me joy in the moment might lead me to regret later on. That wouldn’t mean I was extra-charitable. It would just mean that I wasn’t living a particularly well-considered life.

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          • No, I mean you’d be so focused on the problem, the solution, and the recipients of whatever help you’re funding that thinking about yourself wouldn’t really enter into it.

            People who give money regularly have thought about it long and hard, and they don’t give “on impulse”. For the truly charitable donor, they are making a social investment, and they devote as much time to it as they would to picking out financial advisors for their retirement investments.

            Because it’s not a donation, it’s an investment – and I don’t think you understand what that means. There’s a whole different mentality to being charitable than simply tossing some money in the Salvation Army kettle.

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            • Which one is it?

              Is it

              If you really were feeling philanthropic, you wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about your feelings.

              Or is it

              People who give money regularly have thought about it long and hard, and they don’t give “on impulse”.

              I’d think you would have to pick one or the other. You can’t have both.

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              • Really? You don’t see the difference? Wow.

                Charitable people who give regularly to a particular cause do it because they agree that a particular problem exists and should be solved or at least ameliorated because of the bad impact on society. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the particular problem is homelessness. Could be any other problem but let’s pick this one.

                The charitable knowledgeable donor (CKD) will do some reading up on homelessness, talk to friends about the problem, familiarize themselves a bit by checking out websites of organizations that exist to combat homelessness. In the process, the CKD will consider the programs these organizations offer and determine which ones look like they best solve or ameliorate the homelessness problem. Do they approach things from the mental health angle to get people who clearly need medications off the street? Or are they more impressed with efforts to get young people off the streets and back into the education system or into drug rehab or into vocational training? They’ll contact the charity, ask questions re how successful the charity’s programs are, how they measure success, what a donation will be spent on, etc. If satisfied with this and after perhaps more research and definitely reading the annual report and audited financial statements, the CKD will make what will likely be the first of several donations, annually or throughout the year.

                What the CKD will not do is worry about their feelings: they won’t ask if supporting this particular charity makes them look good or adventurous or anti-establishment or rebellious or any other emotion that is irrelevant to the issue and can be felt just as easily by going out to dinner at a new restaurant.

                You don’t call up your broker to buy 1,000 shares of a company’s stock just because you saw the new CEO get interviewed on television and really liked his suit and thought it would be cool to be identified with that company. For the same reason you don’t make a social investment based on your own feelings.

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                • And you don’t see the contradiction? Wow.

                  You did just contradict yourself; either philanthropy is something where you “[don’t] spend so much time thinking about your feelings” or you “think about it long and hard.” You can’t have it both ways at the same time.

                  (I could see someone arguing that some charity is the result of impulse and some the result of soul-searching, but that was distinctly not the tack you took. You insisted on both the one and the other, as blanket statements.)

                  So anyway, you can clearly talk out both sides of your mouth. But either way, you’re talking down to me, and I don’t appreciate it. If you’re ready to stop that, maybe we can have a conversation. If not, I don’t see much point in continuing.

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                    • No, I’m more than happy to discuss, if you’re willing to do so as one adult to another.

                      You can start by explaining why the contradiction I’ve identified isn’t really there. I assure you that I’d really appreciate it, and that I would be happy to learn from you.

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                    • Well, I think I’ve been quite clear. I think you’re the one making assumptions you’re not willing to let go of.

                      You did just contradict yourself; either philanthropy is something where you “[don’t] spend so much time thinking about your feelings” or you “think about it long and hard.” You can’t have it both ways at the same time.

                      The “it” I’m referring to is the cause, the social problem, the charity’s programs and proposed solution. Thinking long and hard about something is the exact opposite – in my opinion, but apparently not in yours – about simply going with your feelings.

                      There’s no contradiction there that I can see.

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                    • In either case, we’re talking about examining one’s motivations, and whether the impulse that motivates us is rational.

                      There remains a contradiction, because feelings and means-ends fitness are both at play in almost any decision to give. Or that’s what I argued, anyway.

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  10. I have worked my entire life in the non-profit sector, as a professional development officer. I raise money for charities. It is damn tough work, not least because there is a lot of competition out there for people’s attention, sometimes even from other charities, times are uncertain when they’re not actually hard, and the sum total of problems can give the most philanthropically minded the feeling that these problems are intractable.

    There is really only one conclusion I have reached: people give funds, volunteer time, in-kind services, etc., not because there is a problem, but because there is a solution. And until someone comes up with a better solution, they’re prepared to accept that the particular charity they’re supporting has the best solution available.

    Many people don’t get this – they think the public gives money because there are problems. Many of these people often run charities and can’t understand why their public awareness efforts pointing out the existence of a social problem doesn’t result in donations. They ask themselves, doesn’t the public care? don’t they see this problem is only going to get worse? And the answer is, yes the public does care and understands the problem will get worse – but the chequebook stays in the desk drawer until they hear about what the solution is.

    Charity serves mainly to signal within a community that the giver is charitable. The claim sounds both strange and horrible, but it’s absolutely true.

    No, Jason, it’s not true. It’s hogwash. I doubt if you have much familiarity with the NPO sector if you really believe that. Charities are simply that part of the community that has letterhead and supporters approach them the same way they approach other organizations in the public sphere: supporters look for practical solutions that benefit the greatest number of people or provide the greatest good, have measurable outcomes and can manage both volunteer and financial investments. People come to the NPO sector because they want results for their communities – however large that geographical area might be defined – and they are open-minded about solving problems. It’s a better world because they’re there.

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    • I’m not sure I understand how the problem/solution paradigm intersects with the self-regarding/other-regarding paradigm.

      But if you are right, then people have some downright bizarre ideas about what “solutions” are.

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        • What I mean is, I’m asking about which charities are optimally helpful to others.

          I find that many, many charities totally fail that test. They’re not even arguably close. They’re way, way, way off.

          That’s strong evidence for my initial claim, that charity is about looking good or feeling good about oneself — about passing as a helpful-seeming person within a given community. Not about being optimally helpful.

          You come along and raise the question of whether people give because they see problems or solutions. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it seems at least a well-formed question and a reasonable one to ask. But I don’t know if there is any kind of relationship between that question and the one I was asking.

          That’s all.

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            • Consider my first example — giving food to a food bank.

              Is that because people see a solution? Perhaps. But is that a good solution? Is it efficient?

              If it’s not, would you agree that we have a problem?

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              • Yes, it’s because they see a solution. No perhaps about it. People don’t schlepp packages of dry pasta to the Food Bank collection box just for the heck of it.

                The funny thing is I do see your point – but it’s just not as profound as you think it is. All this angst about good solutions…but we’ll play for a while longer.

                Food banks are a stopgap – there’s no food in the house now. Foodbanks can solve that problem now. It’s a bandaid solution, true, but bandaids are helpful and can be very important and do a lot of good. Where the problem comes in is if people think food banks are a longterm solution for underlying problems. Why is there no food in the house? What’s the social problem here? Okay, now find the organization that has a solution that it believes will solve or ameliorate that underlying social problem – that’s what the charitable donor will do.

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                • Good, now we’re making progress.

                  Would you agree that the solution of taking food to a food bank was a grossly inefficient one?

                  If so, what would you make of people who do it anyway?

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                  • No I wouldn’t agree it was “grossly inefficient”. I think you’re making a too sweeping value judgement. For some reason it seems to be very important to you to say that something is either totally good or totally bad with nothing in between. That’s not how reality works.

                    I think people who give funds and donated food to a food bank to be good people doing a good deed.

                    What “solution” are you referring to? As I mentioned up above, foodbanks so solve immediate problems: there’s no food in the house right now. The foodbank can solve that problem. It cannot solve the problem of longterm hunger or whether a particular family has problems that lack of food right now is a symptom of. But when the kids are hungry right now the foodbank is the solution.

                    You’re going to get all huffy again but I have to tell you that I find your writing very obscure. You’re very judgemental about things that I really don’t get the feeling you’re familiar with – for instance the non-profit sector. You want clear-cut boundaries and limits and I’m afraid you won’t find them in the NPO sector.

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                  • You would not agree that giving food is grossly inefficient? Have you heard what food banks themselves say about it?

                    Would you agree that if I took $100 out of my wallet, flushed $90 down the toilet, and gave $10 to a food bank, that that was grossly inefficient? What would you think of that as a “solution”?

                    Would you tell me that things aren’t either totally good or totally bad?

                    And maybe that “reality” is on the side of the guy who is flushing his money down the toilet?

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          • Jason –

            I think what’s going on is that people genuinely want to do good things. They genuinely want to make the world a better place. But they want to do so directly: donate, or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or work in a community garden, or some such. They want a sense that they’re making a difference. If you do any of those things, it’s easy to understand that you’re making a difference.

            Spending an hour on the Internet researching different NGOs and getting half a dozen different assessments of which ones appear to do better on the value-per-dollar metric and feeling like you’re in over your head in terms of knowing what’s best to do – that’s not something your average person likes.

            Also, a lot of giving is impulse. They see an organization that does good thing that they like, they decide to donate to that organization, not dive into researching whether another one might get more marginal value from their dollar.

            That doesn’t mean they don’t want to help, and it certainly doesn’t mean that all they want is to be seen helping, as you claimed in your original post.

            And people who go into non-profit work absolutely do it because they care about improving people’s lives.

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            • The nuance Jason’s shooting for is that “wanting to help” is in fact a feeling. When you want to help, and it leads you to help in a woefully inefficient fashion, you’re in fact putting your “wanting to help” in front of “helping”.

              Which, to be sure, isn’t inhuman or anything (the opposite, in fact). But let’s not kid ourselves, that’s putting yourself in front of the goal you ostensibly support… that’s self-centeredness, if not selfishness.

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              • I can see Jason’s nuance. Its a valid point and not all that useful, but still valid. But then again my personal answer is that while charities are good they have significant limits ( see my post below). Often the better solution is to have gov handle most social services functions. They hire experts ( just like charities do), can provide a more stable base of funding, can target help to the areas of greatest need instead of at the most appealing suffering and can offer far more counter cyclical help.

                It always seemed to me what was at the heart of a lot of criticisms of gov social services is that people don’t get the warm fuzzies from helping directly. But as Jason notes helping directly is often less efficient.

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                • But then again my personal answer is that while charities are good they have significant limits ( see my post below).

                  No argument here. But since this thread is about charities I just wanted to concentrate on that aspect.

                  Personally I’d say that charities are best at helping the community while government is best at helping individuals.

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  11. I worked for five great years in the local branch of large national Catholic charity. There are great things about charities and some that are inefficient and unfortunate things about them. Charities work better when you are begging for a sympathetic, preferably innocent and victimized group. Begging, by the way, is what charities do to get funds. We would joke about it and that is what it is. Charities survive by organized, often times, sophisticated begging. If you don’t have sad pix of innocent victims its a hellava lot harder to get money.

    This leads sometimes to misconceptions about who you are helping. It doesn’t pay to remind people that some of the people your charity helps do really stupid, although predictable, things. For example we would joke that every time we had the local news do a feature on one of our kids something bad would happen to them. Well one year i was asked to find a couple of kids through the part of the agency that i supervised for the local news feature. The news did the feature, the fundraisers made ready to leap into action and the next day both teens were arrested for murder. oops. The fact is runaway teens use booze and drugs, and sometimes do stupid violent things. Sad but true. I assume the fundraisers weren’t happy and we took in a bit less money then they hoped. Nothing about the crime they committed, they were both guilty, made the plight of the kids we served any less. It is inefficient and stupid to try to run a place based on praying for no embarrassing incidents. Some of you might be able to figure out where i used to work based on this, but the priest who started up the charity was accused of doing some of those naughty things a number of Catholic priests were accused of doing. That killed fund raising for years. Did that make the need of the kids we served any less. Of course not, but it certainly limited the help they got.

    It should also be obvious charities are poorly suited to provide help at some of the times people need it most. During major economic downturns charities will get less money to serve people and that is the time they usually need more money. Charities are a bad solution to providing counter cyclical aid.

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  12. All right, Jason, I’ll be nice and make it easy on you. Here’s a true example of making a “charitable” contribution for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way, and with the wrong attitude. And it has the advantage of being true. It happened in Canada, if memory serves, about a year ago.

    A classroom and teacher wanted to do something for children in schools in Africa who did not have books or paper or regular school supplies. So they ran around and got a company to donate about 50 knapsacks and then did bake sales and lemonade stands and small fundraising efforts to buy school supplies to put in the knapsacks. They planned to give the knapsacks to Air Canada (major Canadian airline) to fly to Africa to give the knapsacks to (I think) Unicef or the Red Cross. Sounds great, right? Kids doing hands-on philanthropy, right? Warm fuzzy hugs all around, right?

    Wrong. Turns out they made some major mistakes:

    1. Air Canada doesn’t fly bulk cargo like this for free just because you ask. Not that they’d asked, of course. They just assumed.
    2. Unicef and/or Red Cross doesn’t accept gifts of in-kind products for distribution. They’re not set up for that kind of thing and accepting in-kind gifts from out of the country tends to annoy locals because it disrupts the local economy.
    3. African children 0r at least these paricular African children didn’t use North American style school supplies largely because they didn’t have North American style classrooms. They didn’t feel that they were deprived and there was more than a little bit of insulted feelings all around.
    4. Apparently this effort also violated school policy as well as school board policy about using school property for non-school-related fundraising no matter how well-intentioned. Pedantic perhaps, but the policies are not secret and available to anyone who cared to ask.

    and this brings us to point #
    5. At no point during this three-month-long process did the teacher (I’ll give the 10-year-olds a pass here) bother to check out if the donations were wanted or needed, if it was possible to distrubute them or to deliver them to the right country, or whether school policies permitted the activities.

    This is charity for all the wrong reasons – no effort to identify a solution, a misunderstood “problem” that turned out not to really be a problem at all and a LOT of wasted energy. Teacher should have had her butt kicked around the block for being dumber than dirt.

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    • At least she cared! At least she tried to help! What would you have her do? Say “screw you, I’ve got mine”?

      If everybody acted the way you want them to act, would anybody ever help anybody? Maybe you should put more thought into how important motivations actually are and a little less into the whole “will this work?” cynicism.

      “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

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      • It’s not cynicism to support causes that have good programs rather than bad ones and to expect to see measurable outcomes that prove the programs work. Good charities do that everyday and there’s no lack of them. What are you so aggravated about?

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        • It’s not cynicism to support causes that have good programs rather than bad ones and to expect to see measurable outcomes that prove the programs work.

          That’s also what I’d argued for in the post. Why are we disagreeing, then?

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                • You describe yourself as an authority. That’s great, I like learning from authorities.

                  But you offer an argument that is neither supported by evidence nor even internally consistent. And you demand that I accept it, because you are an authority.

                  Meanwhile, other authorities are offering reasoned argument and empirical evidence to support it. They’re not relying on a bare assertion of authority.

                  It’s not a tough call which one I’m choosing. (Note that these other authorities haven’t always or perfectly agreed with what I set out in the original post, either — I’m just pointing out a fairly stark difference in the methods of argument being used.)

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                  • If we are to accept your conclusions about the motivations for charity, you might at least admit other people reach different conclusions. You say it’s mostly self-regarding, which leaves you the proverbial Two Steps Mister so you can say it’s not entirely self-regard. Just mostly.

                    When DRS describes a CKD, there’s no dichotomy. What is your point, exactly? The Bible describes the self-interested donor with considerable scorn. You’re the one who wants it both ways: DRS describes taking all the sad-faced children’s pictures out of the equation and looking at philanthropy as a hard-nosed value-for-money proposition.

                    Some of my own philanthropy is on-the-spot needs analysis. Some is regular support for a cause. They’re two different problem domains. Why are you trying to create some false dichotomy? At a mechanistic level it doesn’t matter why a donor gives. If the donation solved a need, all this crap about Self-Interest is nonsense. Let a big donor have his name on the side of some hospital wing: he’s solving a problem on behalf of others.

                    You’re the one saying philanthropy is mostly self-interest. It’s not. It’s what the wealthy and poor alike do in the face of need, the poor are givers, too: they support each other. Some of it’s smart giving, some of it’s stupid. But to come around and say this is mostly self-interest is patently absurd.

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                  • If we are to accept your conclusions about the motivations for charity, you might at least admit other people reach different conclusions. You say it’s mostly self-regarding, which leaves you the proverbial Two Steps Mister so you can say it’s not entirely self-regard. Just mostly.

                    As I wrote, we wouldn’t call it “charity” if it didn’t help others without a material reward for ourselves. But within that universe of possibilities, we exercise some completely indefensible choices — if what we really intend is primarily to help others.

                    If we intend to put on a good show while helping others, those choices become a lot easier to explain.

                    DRS describes taking all the sad-faced children’s pictures out of the equation and looking at philanthropy as a hard-nosed value-for-money proposition.

                    On the contrary, she proposes jettisoning the concept of efficiency entirely. She appears to find it atrocious that I even bring it up.

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                    • On the contrary, [DRS] proposes jettisoning the concept of efficiency entirely.

                      Here’s what DRS wrote on that:

                      I wouldn’t agree it was “grossly inefficient”. I think you’re making a too sweeping value judgement. For some reason it seems to be very important to you to say that something is either totally good or totally bad with nothing in between. That’s not how reality works.

                      Seems to me she’s conceding that efficiency is a part of the calculus an individual could use to determine which orgs to donate to, but it’s not the only variable worth considering. Or more importantly maybe, the only variable that people ought to act on.

                      Your argument seems to be not that people are donating out of self-regard, but that people are doing charity wrong. But that presupposes a specific and very narrow view of charity. For example, it seems to me that your view would require individuals to research all the charity orgs that exist only if they chose orgs that maximized outcomes, according to a specific metric, would their donation not be self-regarding.

                      Personally, I don’t know why engaging in even that practice couldn’t be viewed as self-regarding. It allows someone to say that they’re a better donator than someone else. (According to the efficiency metric, say.)

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                    • If you’re cheerfully accepting a greater than 90% loss when a much smaller loss is easily possible, you have abandoned the search for efficiency.

                      What you call your actions is hardly relevant, and what you profess your intentions to be matters even less.

                      Your argument seems to be not that people are donating out of self-regard, but that people are doing charity wrong.

                      Not precisely, and it’s important to be clear on the difference. My argument is that if helpfulness is why we do charity, then we should see people favoring charities of a certain type.

                      But we mostly don’t see that.

                      So givers are probably acting out of a combination of motives, of which helpfulness is only one. I find it very likely that self-regard of some sort is making up the balance, because people demonstrably do give to things for which they personally have an affinity of some kind, while (it appears) avoiding things for which they do not.

                      I go on to argue that there isn’t necessarily or always something wrong with that. In fact, as I write, it’s a good thing we are often self-regarding. It’s just that it’s certainly not “helpfulness” alone that motivates most of the actions we call charity. Particularly given the rampant inefficiency at helping that’s exhibited by both givers (the food bank example) and charities (the Make-A-Wish Foundation).

                      For example, it seems to me that your view would require individuals to research all the charity orgs that exist only if they chose orgs that maximized outcomes, according to a specific metric, would their donation not be self-regarding.

                      Personally, I don’t know why engaging in even that practice couldn’t be viewed as self-regarding.

                      Bingo! You’re entirely right; see my fourth footnote, in which I anticipated you and noted the conflict you describe. The desire not to appear self-regarding is also a self-regarding desire. One that I’m guilty of indulging in.

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                    • But within that universe of possibilities, we exercise some completely indefensible choices — if what we really intend is primarily to help others.

                      To my reading, you’re begging the question a bit.

                      Are some of those indefensible choices that people donate causes purely to generate publicity for themselves by meeting a non-existent need, slapping a wing on an already-gigantic hospital? I’m with you on that. That people often give thoughtlessly, with no attention paid to how well the charity actually meets the needs of those it purports to serve? No arguments here.

                      My dissent comes when you present some needs as self-evidently more worthy of being met than others. That it is shameful to, say, donate to a charity that merely makes ill children happy when there are mosquito nets to be bought. That this really shouldn’t even be thought of as proper charity. And that’s where I disagree. If the world is bettered by the selfless actions of a disinterested person (and I happen to think a world in which a dying child is made happier can be considered better), it’s proper charity, even if a different disinterested person might choose to spend their money or effort on another cause he finds more compelling.

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                    • Jason,

                      The desire not to appear self-regarding is also a self-regarding desire. One that I’m guilty of indulging in.

                      If so, doesn’t the “self-regarding” part of the argument drop out as irrelevant since all charitable actions can be viewed as self-regarding? And if that’s right, then doesn’t your thesis reduce to an argument that most people are doing charity wrong?

                      ANd if both of those are right (we’re now up to three conditional!), then aren’t you really making a normative argument about the best way to use dollars/time/effort insofar as a person’s goal is to help others?

                      If so

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                    • The desire not to appear self-regarding is also a self-regarding desire. One that I’m guilty of indulging in.

                      If so, doesn’t the “self-regarding” part of the argument drop out as irrelevant since all charitable actions can be viewed as self-regarding? And if that’s right, then doesn’t your thesis reduce to an argument that most people are doing charity wrong?

                      Perhaps. But we can still ask about which charities are maximally helpful to others, recognizing that the self-regarding component of charity can sometimes get in the way of that, and that sometimes a tradeoff exists between helping others and looking or feeling good oneself.

                      That would be enormous progress, even if we were rather proud of our having attained it.

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                    • My dissent comes when you present some needs as self-evidently more worthy of being met than others. That it is shameful to, say, donate to a charity that merely makes ill children happy when there are mosquito nets to be bought. That this really shouldn’t even be thought of as proper charity. And that’s where I disagree.

                      I think that’s a potentially fair disagreement to have, but it’s one about ends, not about means. One might decide (just for example) to prefer — oh, picking this one out of thin air –to prefer liberty, rather than life itself. Just throwin’ it out there.

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                    • That would be enormous progress, even if we were rather proud of our having attained it.

                      Ahhh. I think I’m getting what you’re arguing now. Is it this: insofar as our self-regard runs crosswise with the ostensible purpose of charitable giving, then we need to reflect on the role self-regard plays in the process? Our self-regard needs to be put on trial, so to speak. Is that it?

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                    • Heh. That’s the great thing about being The Great Individual. You don’t have to see yourself in other people. I wish I was so enlightened. Just thinking of all those things I’ve been depriving myself of all these years, why it’s so depressing I just can’t cope. Those wretched refugees: why don’t they solve their own goddamn problems? Let the vultures eat them, that’s how nature copes with this problem.

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                    • Ahhh. I think I’m getting what you’re arguing now. Is it this: insofar as our self-regard runs crosswise with the ostensible purpose of charitable giving, then we need to reflect on the role self-regard plays in the process? Our self-regard needs to be put on trial, so to speak. Is that it?

                      Yes. That exactly. It’s an open question what the results of that trial will be. I don’t have a good answer there.

                      I’m very pleased indeed that I’ve gotten the point across. It’s a subtle one, with far-reaching implications, only a few of which I can feel at all confident in.

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                    • I don’t know about throwing “Fraternity” out the window, but I can tell you the brothers just threw what appears to be a TV out of theirs.

                      Those Sigma Chi’s start drinking early on weekends.

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                    • Évelyne Thomas, talk show host and model of Marianne for French civic ceremonies, infamously commented that she loved liberty and fraternity, but didn’t approve of equality. Making people the same just wasn’t for her.

                      I agree.

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                  • There’s no material reward for charity. Who is this “we” and what are these “indefensible choices”? You’re backpedalling pretty fast here. Now here is what you did say:

                    Charity serves mainly to signal within a community that the giver is charitable. The claim sounds both strange and horrible, but it’s absolutely true.

                    It is strange and horrible, but you’re the only one who’s saying it’s absolutely true. Here you have left off your mingy mostly and gone straight to Rand-ian Selfishness, with a baroque and deeply offensive twist.

                    DRS attempted to show, that for whatever reasons the giver gives, however much gratitude he might expect in return, it is not about the giver but the receiver. This point was completely lost on you. You won’t accept it, it’s Randian Theology with you, that whatever is done in the name of one’s fellow man or kitties in shelters or saving the wild spaces, it’s always about the Individual. And for you, it seems clear, it is about you.

                    You erected a false dichotomy and now you’re being called to account for it. I’ve given money in Salvation Army kettles, knowing it’s an efficient charity. But I’ve also given money to Salvation Army for Katrina relief on the basis of same.

                    Now you are contradicting yourself. You cannot now say the philanthropist gives only to be seen giving. Many charitable donations are done anonymously, as with the Salvation Army kettle. Churches collect donations in the plate: most churches provide envelopes in the pews so checks can be hidden from everyone else. I have no clear idea how you’ve reached such conclusions about philanthropy. They’re bizarre and ugly.

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                    • I never once said that the philanthropist gives only to be seen giving. The false dichotomy you describe is one that you would very much like me to have asserted, because (I gather) it would be fun to argue with an idiot.

                      But it’s not a dichotomy that I have actually asserted.

                      For the set of all charity, some consideration is given to helping others. We wouldn’t think it counts as charity otherwise. No one would.

                      For almost all charity, however, I think the primary consideration is to indicate that one is a member of a given community in good standing, who is a helpful sort of person. That’s a signal that can be given both to the community and to oneself, much like voting for a given political party or candidate.

                      Were it not so, I don’t understand how so many minimally helpful charities could continue to exist. (Of course, it’s possible that some other reasons could be found for them, but I haven’t come up with any. Except ignorance, which I did discuss in the original post.)

                      I still believe all of those things, which, again, in one form or another I asserted in the original post. I don’t think I’ve abandoned any of them. (If I have, please be more specific, with side-by-side direct quotations if possible. But I assure you that it wasn’t intentional.)

                      And finally, it’s odd you would say that I was being Randian here. After all, I suggested exactly how best to be altruistic. I urged people to follow that suggestion. I find it a morally compelling plan, and I am currently researching how best to follow through with it in our own household.

                      Why am I still researching? Well, some things on this thread have prompted me to reconsider the efficacy of the three charities I recommended, on the terms I set forth. Also the fact that none of them is in the Combined Federal Campaign does throw a bit of a wrench into the works, as that’s been our usual method of giving.

                      But if I were a Randian, I wouldn’t be trying to be altruistic at all. I’d be urging people to avoid these charities instead.

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                    • Mainly. But it’s absolutely true that it’s mainly. Also, the desire to appear altruistic is why people are altruistic. You have argued yourself into a self-referential position beyond hope of rescue.

                      How do you know what prompts me to give? You don’t know why I give. How could you? The American society is the most philanthropic in the history of the world. You do not speak for me, you don’t speak for anyone beside yourself. The very idea that you’d attempt to speak to anyone’s motivations beyond your own is condescending twaddle.

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                    • Charity serves mainly to signal within a community that the giver is charitable.

                      My initial reaction to this comment was that the conclusion that people are mainly signalling is based on a model presupposing (among other things) perfect information. It seems to me that a person could be accused of acting purely out of self-regard by donating to charity X only if that person knew that donating to charity Y would achieve better outcomes for the same contribution.

                      Frankly, I don’t think most people spend a lot of time researching this stuff, so even if there was perfect information on charities, the idea that people are aware of it seems descriptively inaccurate.

                      But even then, making a rational distinction between X and Y would require that all the relevant variables that go into making a choice between the two are similar (or identical). But most people, it seems to me, have an initial inclination to (eg) help sick kids in Africa, or send sick kids in the US to the Super Bowl. That’s the idea that motivates them to act.

                      I don’t think it’s a particularly bad thing to ask people to justify – to themselves, of course, not in public – why they’re making the choices they do. Especially given the empirical evidence re: efficiency Jason provides upthread.

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                    • How do you know what prompts me to give? You don’t know why I give. How could you? The American society is the most philanthropic in the history of the world. You do not speak for me, you don’t speak for anyone beside yourself. The very idea that you’d attempt to speak to anyone’s motivations beyond your own is condescending twaddle.

                      I don’t know a thing about your giving. Even if I did, it’s quite possible that you give both with an appropriate regard to others and with an appropriate regard to yourself. I mentioned one example of an appropriately self-regarding charity in the original post, and there are certainly others.

                      The post wasn’t about you, so please stop taking it personally. I couldn’t have written it about you, because I don’t have the data I need (nor frankly do I even want it).

                      The post is about charity in the aggregate, and there we do have data. What I see of it leads me to object in certain ways. That’s all.

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                    • I think some of the stickiness in this thread is that folks think you’re demanding a public accounting from folks to justify their benevolent actions (how dare you sir!), rather than suggesting to them that perhaps they might engage in some reflection about how well their intentions are being realized as outcomes.

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                    • Where’s this data which Absolutely Demonstrates that most people signal their charitable instincts? You are still wrapped around the axle of your own argument: if altruism is a noble sentiment and is widely viewed to be such, it makes far more sense to ascribe acts of charity to a demonstration of solidarity with a good cause.

                      It’s just petty snobbery to think someone gives, however publicly or privately, for personal gain of some intangible sort. I give because the Fraternity you so genially despise is more important than my own selfish needs. I see myself in others. Don’t you tell me what’s possible. With that you cross a line, ascribing motivation to me. I’ll tell you what I feel about it and you’ll take it at face value and for crissakes quit condescending about it all.

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                    • I think some of the stickiness in this thread is that folks think you’re demanding a public accounting from folks to justify their benevolent actions (how dare you sir!), rather than suggesting to them that perhaps they might engage in some reflection about how well their intentions are being realized as outcomes.

                      Yes. And what they would do well to realize is that I don’t have anything specifically against selfishness (or altruism, for that matter). I don’t think either one of them could or should exist alone, and I don’t think they are even all that easy to untangle in the complex web of intentions that motivates our actions.

                      All I’m trying to do is to ask what an optimally helpful act might look like, identify some real-world acts that are especially efficient at helping others, and ask whether they perhaps ought to be more popular.

                      That said, I would find great value in some primarily self-regarding types of charity, like teaching kids to play chess in my free time.

                      An altruistic use of that free time might be taking a job at McDonald’s, then sending all the money to the Against Malaria Foundation. I don’t do so, and I don’t suggest that anyone else do so, either. Life’s complicated that way.

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                    • Perhaps Jason might engage in some reflection about how others view themselves in context, for those of us who have not yet abandoned Fraternity believe others matter as much as ourselves. Beliefs do lead to intentionality: he’s just projecting his own ideas about the Self onto mostly everyone else’s intentions.

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                    • Jason, that was not your point. This was your point: Charity is mostly self-regarding. It’s not about helping; it’s about looking helpful.

                      Looking helpful, eh? Why don’t you just help yourself here and come up with that data you were talking about?

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                    • Let’s examine just how tough I’ve been on Jason. Allow me to restate his thesis as I understand it.

                      Charity is about looking helpful. There is a case for optimum helpfulness, if only we would listen to Jason and not our own hearts or the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Self-regard is a fine thing, he would tell us, but mostly it’s self-regard, a point I’ve asked him to prove.

                      Several questions are begged at once: we often (notice how he is forever leaving himself such Two Minutes Mister weasel words, lest anyone take him to task) make indefensible choices by seeming to help. Giving your food to Food banks is inefficient, we are told. People aren’t hungry, MattY would tell us. I help homeless people. They don’t come into the food bank because they have no facilities with which to cook food. To help homeless people, you get them a place to store and cook that food. But then again, those kids in Africa with schistosomias, they aren’t homeless. Homeless in America means a long fall to the sidewalk.

                      But most egregiously, he says we’re all selfish. It’s about there where I have to start laughing. Jason’s speaking for everyone who reads this. It’s all about the Market Process – well, that’s just him speaking.

                      Calling me out for demanding some data to support his position that we’re all selfish, well, that data is not forthcoming nor will it be forthcoming. It’s just Jason projecting his usual Libertarian thinking upon everyone else.

                      If anything, I haven’t been hard enough on him.

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                    • People aren’t hungry, MattY would tell us.

                      Is that honestly what you think he was saying? I’m astonished that someone could read with such poor comprehension.

                      Now, I’m not an ideological fellow traveler of Matt’s, of course, but we’re on friendly terms. Perhaps we could have a Marshall McLuhan moment, in which I invited him over here to tell us just what he really believed?

                      I’m pretty sure he’d say yes. And I’m dead certain that if he did, he’d say that of course people are hungry, that’s why giving cash to food banks is so important. Because it helps them more. Of local charities, a cash contribution to a food bank is probably one of the better ones you could perform. The need is real, the accountability is usually pretty decent, and there is little inefficiency, because that cash gets leveraged by the special deals they have with folks in the food industries.

                      Your other misunderstandings are equally blatant and equally inexcusable. But that one I’m going to point out because it’s an insult to someone who isn’t even here. And that’s pretty low.

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                    • America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet.

                      Now explain that, Jason.

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                    • Explain how there can be no famine, but also people who don’t have enough to eat?

                      Easy. Bad luck, for starters. This isn’t a contradiction, it’s just a plain fact. Some people hit hard times, even though the crops haven’t failed.

                      In a situation like that, giving cash is more efficient, and Matt’s asking us to do so. He’s not asking us not to give.

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                    • Bad luck. I see. Nothing to do with living rough. You completely ignore the point I’m making about shelter and food preparation or hygiene, but if I dared to say anything about how an American homeless family is really no different than the refugees I’ve worked with all my life, you’d tell me that was an argument from authority, wouldn’t you?

                      This is all theology to you. You and the folks who think Jesus rode dinosaurs, not a bit of difference between you, really there isn’t. But they know homeless people when they see them and they give out of the goodness of their hearts. You can worry about schistosomiasis, I worry about it too.

                      There’s no convincing you. The gist of your argument was that we’re all selfish. Well we aren’t. You’re just projecting.

                      And where’s that fucking data?

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                    • Mr. Farmer, BlaiseP’s act is his own, no clone he. I give it a pass. At least when I read him, I know it’s him, not just some interchangable Borg. I don’t ask for much.

                      As for JasonK’s argument, it’s proven quite sophist-proof. At some point, responding further just gives the sophists more chance to bury it under bullshit.

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  13. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

    The key word there is “thoughtful” – that kind of implies that the citizens have put some consideration into the change they’d like to see.

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  14. With most of your post, I couldn’t agree more. So don’t let the following convey the incorrect impression that my opinion of your larger point is anything less than total agreement.

    There are, however, some issues I would correct.

    First, when Dr. Hanson talks about how we spend too much money on medicine, he’s talking about the wealthy (at least from a global perspective). Medical charity, by and large, is frequently a clearly evident and highly efficient way to help people. There might be some 1st world medical charities that so the sort of inefficient spending that Hanson talks about, but his criticism certainly doesn’t apply to most third-world medical charities. I mean, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) is a medical charity. Other medical charities have also been rated well by GiveWell, including Doctors without Borders.

    Second, and more of a nitpick, the charitible cost of saving a life third world life is now probably closer to $2000 than $500. Part of this is that, even just in the last few years, a lot of low-hanging charitable fruit has been picked (which is a good thing, on balance). Also, GiveWell have recently reevaluated their assessment of VillageReach’s effectiveness, and found that it was probably not as effective as they initially thought (not that it’s a bad charity, just not quite as good). http://blog.givewell.org/2012/08/01/givewells-issues-log-villagereach-analysis/

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  15. In general, I think this is a great post and one I wish people would read and seriously engage.

    I don’t think here’s anything wrong per se with consumptive charity – but I think it’s important that we appreciate it for what it is, instead of treating it as some kind of martyrdom to donate money to such organizations or endeavors.
    Further, the extent to which we genuinely seek to achieve a sort of utilitarian maximization of good with donations is really dependent on how much we’re willing to consider the points raised.

    During the aftermath of Fukushima, a little while back, my employer spent tens of thousands of dollars donating stuff to kids who had been evacuated to temporary shelters. Then we spent thousands more on making feel-good videos touting ourselves as if we had solved world hunger. I found all of it revolting – the way we puffed ourselves up and never considered the real plights of millions of other kids in Southeast Asian nations we had no intention of helping at all.

    I see in the comments above some discussion of social insurance or other government policies as if they’re a sort of charity substitute. I find that deeply problematic – mainly that they serve a completely different function than most of what we think of as charity – insurance is exactly the right conception – we choose to divert or defer a small amount of the fruits of our productivity in order to provide for the unfortunate circumstances that will certainly befall some through no seriously predictable or moral function.
    Certainly, at some level, they obviate some charitable work (ie there will be fewer destitute people in need of meals at soup kitchens or beds at homeless shelters), but their function is not charity at all, nor should they be!

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  16. The Optimally Helpful Charity model does not bode well for the Arts. If we’re to be ashamed that the Make-A-Wish Foundation exists, then the Friends of the San Diego Symphony organization is a fishing travesty.

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    • There is a bit of apple/oranges things going on there, though.

      If you want to help “The Children”, your choices include malaria research and helping pay for John Cena to visit a children’s hospital.

      If you want to help “The Arts”, Friends of the Symphony is likely to be vaguely helpful in that regard.

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  17. Jason, I fully agree with the procedural part of your post. Efficiency really ought to be a primary driver in charitable giving, and it clearly is not.

    However, I think you’re making an error in that you think that everyone really ought to be able to both realize this and calculate for it accordingly. This is leading you down one path and DRS down another and you’re both talking past each other.

    The impulse to give isn’t that tightly coupled to rationality. So I don’t know that your conclusion that people give to signal community membership is correct; people give to give. They certainly get different types of feedback that probably encourage giving to communities with which they’re familiar, but that’s not necessarily *why* they do it. The casual link isn’t that direct. They donate cans to the canned food drive because someone they regard as a reliable person tells them, “Hey, we’re having a canned food drive at our church, can you help out?” The impulse to give is engaged, they give a couple of cans.

    People – most people, anyway – give not because they’ve made a rational, ethical judgment that they have an obligation to charity, nor do they give to any charity because of a rational estimation of efficacy. They give because they feel an obligation (which can come from community pressure, a feeling of self-regard, self-interest, self-centeredness, or a rational, ethical judgment, just to name a few… but probably most often a confluence of these factors, really).

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  18. IMO, we will need an international government that taxes rich citizens to give to poor citizens to solve the problem of truly awful international poverty. Individual acts of giving are -as the post points out- often not targetted at the neediest. We need experts who deterimine a plan to best spend the whole pool of charity money, but this will require turning the charities into one big super org., not a bunch of org.s that compete for your love and cash. And only a governmental body can require charities not to compete for your cash. Also, the level of cash we will need to solve poverty at its worst at international levels will require more than people are willing to give charitably, so some form of progressive taxation on the wealthy of the world will be required.

    A good start would be a financial tax on international financial transactions by banks. Also, we need international laws that take money to forgive debts to poorer countries. Finally, al major military players should enter into a treaty that states for every USD they spend on defense -as determined by an independent arbiter- they spend 20 cents into a pool that goes to solving world hunger, curable diseases like malaria.

    That cash spent on world poverty would actually make countries safer than spending the same cash on missiles. (Also, it would make poorer people and poorer places better off, and maybe more able to buy goods and serbices from wealthy country.)

    None of this is likely to happen any time soon, or ever, if you are cynical.

    In the mean time, moving 10 percent of military spending on weapon systems to “defense by charitable giving and the creation of safe, pro-American places” seems plausible, if enough Americans become bleeding heart liberals.

    I also like the international financial transaction tax and international debt relief. And double foreign aid, tomorrow, and take the cash out of defense.

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    • IMO, we will need an international government that taxes rich citizens to give to poor citizens to solve the problem of truly awful international poverty

      I don’t think so. We will need to eliminate global trade barriers in order to solve the problem of truly awful international poverty. And this can be done without an international government. As we slowly absorb and integrate countries into a web of increasingly interlinked free trade zones the poorer countries will industrialise rapidly and quickly normalise trade relations with the rest of the world. Africa and India are basically the last under-industrialised places in the world. Indochina is finally etting its ass into gear. China is well on its way to digging itself out of horrible poverty. Some parts of India are better off than others, but there are lots of backward places. There are also a bunch of places in the middle east, but I am hoping that the Dubai model will catch on. Africa has still too many roving bandits for there to be any kind of sustainable and pseudo-benevolent stationary banditry in the near future. But, if it can spread from North Africa and the Middle East down, there may be some hope of other countries following suit once they see the potential for profit.

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      • In the long term trade might do it. (Not so sure about the poorest places, though)

        I mean in the next 20-30 years, we can improve the situation of the world’s poor with some kind of international organization that has taxation powers (maybe of financial transactiosn), but it won’t happen. I get that.

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        • Of course, in the long run we’re all dead, and so are a couple generations of 3rd world folks.

          The long run looks good, but we can better the time period between then and now with a “one world government” of the sort that haunts conservo-dreams.

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        • I’m actually fairly optimistic about poverty reduction in the next 50 years. I expect to see significant reductions in extreme poverty in most reasonably stable areas over the next 50 years. China has a lot of investments all over the African continent. I wonder when multinationals from other countries will follow suit? Maybe in the next twenty years? And if the war torn basket cases can stabilise in the next 25 years, we may just see the end of serious global poverty in my lifetime.

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          • Previously I’ve mentioned Rwanda as an example of how progress is being made — and the troubling side-effects.

            Africa suffers from irrelevant borders. Long ago, Nelson Mandela proposed a United States of Africa. Until these wretched regimes come to realise they’re best-served by something of that sort, I don’t look for much progress.

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            • I don’t know, I’m not even sure if the united states is best served by being the united states. What if New york, Virginia, ohio etc all were different sovereign nations? I know that US won’t be able to be a superpower, but whether that is good for the rest of the world, I doubt that all this being a super-power has really benefited the american people (rather than the military industrial complex). But other than national defence issues, what would it be like if they each had to fend for themselves, depending on eachother only through treaty and agreement?

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          • Thereis good and then there is better than good.

            Past experience leads us tobelieve that the world poverty is slowly receding. That is good. I am arguing that with more investment/charity, we can do better than good.

            We are talking past each other here.

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            • Past experience also leads us to believe that charity has an abysmal track record with eradicating poverty. Charity seems to work best to alleviate suffering and assist with combating disasters or other types of shocks.

              Trade is by far the most reliable source of investment, and the most efficient we have. Trade liberalization + productivity gains across most sectors are responsible for the great progress we’ve made against poverty over the last century or so.

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            • Also, states and redistribution don’t scale well. Even if we had the political will to set up a redistributive state, it would be a logistical and organisational nightmare of immense proportions. Redistribution can do a fair bit of good at small levels of organisation. City states usually are able to manage this fairly efficiently. When you get countries the size of the US, you already face significant logistical and organisational difficulty, even if you’ve had a a few hundred years to develop some kind of institutional homogeniety. At the global level, the difficulties would be monstrous. It would be terrifyingly inefficient and be unable to respond to the needs on the ground.

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              • Not necessarily. It depends also on what type of redistributional program you have. One of the most effective and efficient government agencies on a global basis is the U.S. Social Security Administration. That’s because its task is really quite straightforward: Receive money, cut checks. Throw in a little bit of administrative work to make sure dead folks aren’t still getting checks, and that’s the gist of their job. That scales up pretty nicely.

                Of course not all redistributive programs aren’t that simple. But one of the arguments in favor of shifting to a negative income tax is that it in fact is that simple. (Which may not outweigh downsides of the NIT; I’m just repeating one of the arguments in favor, not making an argument in favor.)

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                  • It’s almost all about the baby boomers, America’s largest generation. They’re living longer than any previous generation, so they’ll be receiving SS longer than any previous generation, and there’s more of them. Consequently the payer-in to recipient ratio has shrunk. When the baby boomers begin to die off we’ll have a more stable equilibrium (although birth and immigration rates will still matter). Until then, it’s relatively easily kept fairly solvent by tinkering with eligibility age, benefit amounts, COLA calculations and the like. The only thing that makes that difficult is that old people vote like demons.

                    In a nutshell, the worries about SS are really overblown. It’s not a dire problem. It’s the Medicare prescription drug plan that’s a dire problem.

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  19. Last point:

    The U.S. needs to donate as high a percentage of total GNI, as the wealthier socialist countries:

    The U..S is 19th in contributions to official developmental assistance (ODA) as a percentage of GNI, at 0.21 percent, way behind Sweden (1 percent!) Norway, France, and the U.K.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_governments_by_development_aid

    We goive a lot, but with great wealth, comes the great responsibility of giving the most.

    Imo

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            • That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Europe’s not so big on private charity. Nonetheless, as you say, we really are the biggest givers. Government giving always comes with strings, always with some political end in mind. It’s always the worst-administered money, too.

              Well, maybe the UN is worse. I have reasons to think so. But it seems to me American aid to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have gone down the rat hole. We’re probably better off to quit handing out any money at a government level, but that’s just me talking.

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              • Blaise, is the evidence you are citing here and elsewhere about total giving (including time), including giving to local charities? Or is it only about international donations?

                I have no doubt that the U.S. gives a lot to charity -more on average than anywhere I’d bet- but not necessarily to international aid. This is especially true if you count church donations, IMO.

                The numbers I cited on wikipedia are about international aid, by private citizens and government.

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        • Yeah, but if you just add some of the European countries together to get a population sample similiar to the U.S., you see that wealthy European countries do more than the wealthy U.S.

          Add France, the U.K, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, etc., or something like that, to get a population of wealthy countries that totals something near 300 million people total. Then compare.

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        • Yes, JB, we still have voluntarism instead of outsourcing mandatory “charity” to the state.

          This is really what’s bubbling under this whole discussion, not Yoga for the Indigent.

          http://theatheistconservative.com/2012/07/18/whos-buying-the-wine/

          “I am quite convinced that the OECD functionaries have proceeded under the fixed ideological beliefs that global social happiness and economic prosperity can only be achieved when individuals subordinate their economic freedom and liberties to the interests of the collective, a utopian view of society. They are wrong. The state of the world proves otherwise.””

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  20. I just don’t think people have the time to figure out how best to maximize overall human happiness with their donation. Givewell helps, but most people won’t know to look there or to trust it.

    If there are competing experts, with competing recomendations on how best to maximize human happiness with a donation, people will give up and just “go with their gut”, which will result in donations to whoever has the best ads.

    Ultimately, taxation and government spending doesn’t have this information problem.

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  22. Is this post not the epitome of making the perfect the enemy of the good?

    There is nothing shameful about the existence of the Make-a-Wish Foundation or the people who donate to it. You speak a good amount about the ends that folks seek. Suppose my end is to improve the quality of life of sick American children? The MAWF seems to do a good job of that, no? What should it matter to me if there are sick children dying in Africa? My end is otherwise. You might disagree with my ends but that starts us down a very hairy road, especially when talking about folks doing charity work. You have more of a case in pointing out folks who take actions that do not actually serve there ends (i.e., folks that send clothing to struggling nations that often do more harm than good because of their impact on the local economies) but little case in pointing out charities that seek different ends.

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    • Teaching Chess in Mozambique.

      Kazzy, giving you what I want to give instead of what you need. Not charity atall, is it? I receive this as JasonK’s core argument.

      His illustration is the Givewell thing, an attempt to get empirical about effective [real] charity and feelgood “charity.” I don’t think we literally have to storm the offices of Make A Wish to get Jason’s point. It’s just an illustration. If you have 100 bucks and want to get all Kantian about it, the reasonable thing it to send it to a Givewell-approved Africa-oriented charity, most bang for the buck in alleviating human suffering.

      He’s not saying that you shouldn’t clean your pantry out of all the canned goods you bought 20 of half price in 2008 but you only ate one and it tasted like shit so why not give them to the poor.

      I don’t think Jason’s saying that. But even if he is, it’s not letting the perfect be the enemy of the perfect as much as not letting the shitty be the enemy of the mediocre.

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      • But I don’t see giving to the MAWF as shitty. Or mediocre. Your decision to do so creates a social benefit. We might disagree on the value of that benefit but it’d be hard to argue that it doesn’t exist.

        Jason’s point seems to be that donating elsewhere could cause an even GREAT social benefit and, thus, we should consider the gap between the ideal social benefit and the realized social benefit as some sort of social cost. I don’t know that this logic holds. Some people would not donate to other charities if MAWF were suddenly gone. They might view the social benefit of MAWF’s efforts as the ideal one; we are talking about things that are largely intangible.

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        • Oh, Make-A-Wish is certainly mediocre, measured against actually saving lives–JasonK’s point.

          Just be aware of that, that sending cash to faceless Africans and actually saving their lives doesn’t yield the pleasant buzz of paying for an American cancer kid to go meet Chase Utley. Or better yet, contributing bigtime and hanging out with him yourself.

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          • But what if I don’t care about saving lives but DO care about making sick American kids happy? Does that make me a bad person? Does that make me better or worse than someone who donates no money to charity?

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            • No, but I think you owe it to yourself to be honest about the ends you desire and should be willing to stand by your actions. You’re stacking the deck for yourself quite heavily by comparing yourself to the person who does nothing – is that the best you can manage? In a way, it leans quite heavily to Jason’s argument -you’re more concerned with the regard than with the outcome!

              If making sick American kids happy makes you more happy than sick African kids, so be it, stand up and say so! I am choosing this because it is pleasing to me!
              Such a decision is yours alone – no one is telling you it’s not. No one is arguing to outlaw the Make-a-Wish foundation, no one’s even arguing that we should ostracize those who divert resources to it.

              What Jason is arguing, as I see it, is that a lot of what we claim to be charity is really self-interested – we strongly tailor our actions related to ‘charity’ to things that please ourselves – to the point that we’re perfectly willing to get far poorer outcomes for the recipients as long as it maximizes the positive feeling on our own end.

              I think TVD has grokked Jason’s argument quite well – and if he has not, I’m misreading exactly the same way.

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              • But I think that is a really perverse sense of “self-interest and “pleasure seeking”.

                (This is all hypothetical, by the way…) I have a strong kinship to my fellow countrymen and women. I have an affinity for children. I lost family members to cancer. I’ve seen firsthand the toll that cancer treatments can take on a child.

                All of this makes me feel a particular way about the MAWF. this feeling motivates me to support it. I don’t develop warm fuzzies because of an inflated sense of self. I feel good because I see that there is less bad, more good in the world because of my donation.

                If, after making my donation, I stand up and say that I have eliminated the greatest evil in the world in the most effective way, sure, call BS on that. But if the only conclusion I draw, privately and without fanfare, is that I did something about a problem that bothers me, is that really self-serving in any sort of meaningful way? Not any more so than not giving away all your money and possessions outside of what you need to live. And, sure, in a way, that is self-serving. But I just don’t think it is meaningful to call it as such because it doesn’t really tell us anything.

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                • But I think that is a really perverse sense of “self-interest and “pleasure seeking”.

                  One of the problems with moral nihilism is that you can’t make meaningful distinctions between the merely kinky and the downright perverse.

                  If you want to appeal to deontological definitions of the above, I’m going to smile and nod and compare your deontology to someone else’s and ask why I should use yours instead of theirs.

                  If, instead, we want to fall back on utilitarianism, we can then start digging into the weeds of utility and ask about happiness units and compare the happiness units provided by Grandpa Walt over here to the happiness units provided by “being able to die in middle age vs dying as a child” over there and all of the attendant kinky questions that follow in the wake of making distinctions.

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                  • You’ve completely lost me. Can you break it down more simply?

                    If we are hung up on my use of the word “perverse”, I mean that Jason is using those terms in a way that almost no one else uses them. So, while he may be technically accurate in his usage, his usage is such that he either confuses people or renders the concept of “self-interest” as meaningless. Or both.

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                    • More directly, if we are going to define “pursuing one’s self-interest” as “doing what one thinks is right based on one’s own sense of right, itself informed by parts of the human condition such as emotion or a lack of omniscience” than there really isn’t much value in describing ANYTHING as “self-interested” because basically everything is. I don’t think that is helpful or instructive. I think it may appear so to Jason because his worldview appears slanted towards just such a mindset, but I don’t think it does anything to improve the nature of charity, which is why I assume was his goal.

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                    • I think it’s more that he’s asking us to look at how most of us use the terms in question and notice how, technically, what we do and what we’re communicating we’re doing aren’t exactly lining up.

                      And, of course, whether that’s an indicator of us lying to ourselves or, more interestingly, some other weird social dynamic.

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                    • Let’s think of it this way…

                      By Jason’s definition, damn near everything we do is self-regarding. Every breath I take, every bite I eat, everything I do is basically self-regarding. Okay. Fine.

                      So, no matter HOW I spend my money, I’m likely to be self-regarding. I can choose to spend it on pizza and Doritos and be self-serving. Or I can choose to spend it on charities that might be sub-optimal but DO do a great deal of good AND they make me feel warmfuzzies. Am I equally self-regarding in both scenarios?

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                    • Or I can choose to spend it on charities that might be sub-optimal but DO do a great deal of good AND they make me feel warmfuzzies

                      I think that Jason is merely pointing out that the “DO do a great deal of good” is likely to be less than true, if we really start looking.

                      If we start looking at exactly how much good is done by sending a child with progeria to EPCOT, are we likely to come to the conclusion that it was a “great deal”?

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    • I think his point is that “the quality of life of sick American children” contains a large amount of self-regard, that most altruistic ends (including those he suggests) also contain large amounts of self-regard, and that nothing is so altruistic as to not require careful self-scrutiny.

      I admit I’m cheating, because that is my pre-existing assumption when I see “by Jason Kuznicki” in the byline: the ultimate thesis of the post will be that (almost?) everything one does should be subject to careful self-scrutiny for best results. Half of me agrees with him; both halves deeply enjoy the different ways in which he makes the argument.

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        • Generally, when I find myself responding as if I had been personally attacked, I try to remember that we’re all carrying a fish-ton heavy load of baggage, and probably not trying to hit each other over the head with it.

          The idea that every fishing human being on the planet lacks in self-scrutiny is an old and extremely orthodox belief (canonical in many philosophical traditions including our own), not some weird new idea Jason is applying against the overwhelming mainstream of historical usage. I only agree with it half the time, as I said – but that half of me appreciates being nudged and reminded, rather than seeing such reminders as aggressions. I don’t experience being confronted by a perceived universal-including-the-writer condition as a presumption (even if I disagree with the writer’s universal), and I would hate to think that statements that rely to some degree on ironic self-deprecation will be read by smart, thoughtful people as unalloyed self-congratulation instead.

          Ambiguity, irony, allusion, suggestion don’t always indicate a lack of clarity, or of good faith; sometimes they are the most honest way to speak.

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  23. “One way of helping others — while also helping yourself — is to invest in an honest, successful business. That’s not charity, but it’s still a good thing, and if you’re certain that you can do it, then it may be a better use of your money than many charities, particularly some that we’re about to discuss.”

    umm… this is bullshit. To take a hypothetical, say I invest in a currency manipulation scheme, wherein I enrich myself at the cost of people in the 3rd world. Is it a good thing, removing dollars from the pockets of the poor?

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      • umm… because it’s legal? because nobody’s forced to do business with it?
        I’m not talking loan sharking here, or anything that you could reasonably argue is “immoral” for the “You Killed Your Customer” Award.

        I’m not the one arguing that markets are mystical faeries that make everything better.

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        • “Honest” and “legal” are not the same thing. They’re not even synonyms. We argue on the blog all the time about perfectly legal yet lamentable business practices. At any rate, I think what Jason is asking of his readers is to imagine a business they would take to be honest–i.e., that plays by the rules and does not try to evade or manipulate them, even if legally–and consider whether investing in it compares to giving to a charity in terms of how much those dollars wind up helping people. It’s a point that raises some concerns, and I don’t fully agree with it (I don’t think Jason does exactly, either), but it’s meant to get the reader to think more critically about how we give.

          As to the latter point, self-regard is fine. The problem of whether there is in fact such a thing as altruism or whether even the most seemingly selfless acts really cause the actor to reap enormous internal satisfaction has been with us for a long time. The exercise, then, is to train that internal mechanism to discriminate among our “charitable” impulses and actions and to withhold that internal satisfaction in cases where our “charity” does little good. The hope is that, having so trained ourselves, we will be more effective at helping others, which is the stated purpose, after all. The argument isn’t perfect. What if I’m willing to give a few bucks to this inefficient charity that’s right in front of my face now, but having remembered this essay I decided to go home and research more efficient charities instead, which I never get around to doing after the charitable impulse fades? But it beats sticking our heads in the sand.

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          • http://www.vbce.ca/
            Okay. So what’s dishonest about this? Bear in mind we’re dealing in a milieu where this shop is just a bit player, and that the currency manipulation is going to go on regardless.

            Unless you find the whole concept of “dumb money” abhorrent, and would condemn Romney and all the hedge fund traders as “stealing money from pension funds”…

            Even so, you’d have to go a bit farther to find the entire idea of currency exchange to be immoral.

            To do so, you’d have to basically say that using specialized information to make better decisions than your competitors (including the aforementioned citizens of these countries) is immoral.

            Do you consider the act of attempting to extract added value from a market to be immoral?

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            • This changes the subject. You talked about “invest[ing] in a currency manipulation scheme, wherein I enrich myself at the cost of people in the 3rd world.” In my book, that’s not “honest.” At the very least, I don’t see any indication this is the type of business Jason was asking his readers to imagine when he talked about honest businesses.

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  24. Sorry, I’m really late to this.

    I like this post, Jason. I often worry about whether or not I’m doing my best with my charitable donations. I think my money is being put to good use, but perhaps it could be put to better use. Similarly, perhaps the time I donate could also be put to better use.

    I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of people have some sort of selfish motive for donating. Food banks around here tend to list their greatest needs (and cash is usually up near the top), yet food drives will often reap other, less-needed goods. Yes, it’s better than nothing, but it’d be nice if more donations were better than “better than nothing”.

    I don’t think I’m willing to chalk up all charitable givings to self-regard, but it seems pretty undeniable that it plays a role in a lot of giving. And, really, if that’s what is going to push some people towards giving, well, again, that’s better than nothing.

    Thanks for kicking off the symposium so well.

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    • Except whend onating is NOT better tahn nothing.
      Donating towards the Komen foundation is actively standing in the way of breast cancer research, particularly in the realm of prevention.

      Jason did a grand job of saying “If you’re going to donate to help, here’s how”

      Maybe I ought to do a post on here’s how NOT to donate…

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  26. Interesting post! Thanks for writing! (sorry so late to respond, but I just found you via Slactivist)

    I guess this explains the popularity of “Operation Christmas Child”. If you haven’t seen this “charity”, do go look – it is an interesting example of what you’re talking about. People in the first world buy “Christmas presents” for children in the 3rd world, thus paying to ship cheap Chinese plastic toys (which were probably made by child slave labour) halfway around the world to give to children who probably don’t even celebrate Christmas, and who are much more in need of clean water…

    I will also point out that “self-regard” may not be a bad thing (assuming I understand what you mean by that term.) I know that as a health professional myself I tend to donate to medical charities because I know how vital the work they do really is, and because I am in a position to evaluate how effective they are. For example, my current favorites are polio eradication, child immunization and clean water schemes (with a side of malaria research). My hubby favours cataract surgical charities, which is a local scourge – but also he’s a surgeon. I’m not sure it is evident that one choice is “better” than another – both are fairly highly self-regarding, I suppose, but do the recipients care *why* we give as long as we do?

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