No Irish Setters Need Apply

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.

I’ve been asked for data to support my earlier claim that charity is primarily self-regarding and not about optimum helpfulness. With little further ado, here is the fucking data.

Self-regard is all around us in the charitable world. It’s not that we give with the hope of a material reward (that’s not “charity”; it’s “investment”). But we clearly give with an overwhelming bias toward our particular affinities and communities, and toward feeling and looking good in regard to them. Here are some more examples, drawn from philanthropy both great and small.

Religion: Religious giving is the largest single type of charitable giving in the United States. The majority of religious gifts go to the giver’s own congregation. How much is donated to missionary work? A very small amount, and it’s declining relative to congregational giving. But what then about Luke 15:1-7?

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

That’s pretty hard to reconcile with the data. It’s either the case that the faithful are motivated by a bias toward their own communities (and thus to themselves) — or it’s the case that the faithful have all independently concluded that they personally attend the most sinful and/or financially needy congregations in the world. The former may be startling, but the latter is preposterous. The money ought to follow the need. Overwhelmingly, it stays at home.

Education: How many people give to their alma mater? And why? How many compare educational institutions and give to the most deserving? I’d accept desert by any reasonable metric, including accomplishment, need, room to grow, a great research program, or service to a needy population.

Whatever you choose, we usually don’t do that. Sure, some gifts are from non-alumni, but a larger percentage of givers apparently thinks that their alma mater just so happens to be the most deserving school in the world. As with religion, it’s either that, or their gift is self-regarding: They would appear to be paying off what they perceived as a personal debt—a type of self-regard. Not that it isn’t charitable, but it’s definitely self-regarding.

Health: Americans donate a lot for cancer. That’s altogether reasonable, in that about 40% of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. But many cancer charities are horribly managed, and our giving is all out of proportion to where it really needs to go, even just considering the different types of cancer:

Americans are very sympathetic with cancer sufferers and generously open their pocketbooks to solicitors raising money for many types of cancer research, prevention education and patient care. It is sad that cancer charities, one of the most serious and popular giving categories, perform so poorly—half of the cancer charities that [American Institute of Philanthropy] rates in this Charity Rating Guide receive a D or F grade and only 37% receive an A or B.

Many hundreds of breast cancer organizations have sprung up over the last few decades. With all of the soliciting and cause-oriented marketing being done to cure or assist victims of breast cancer, one might assume that it is the form of cancer that women are most likely to be diagnosed with, yet this is not the case. According to government statistics, more women have non-melanoma skin cancer than breast cancer and more women die of lung and bronchus cancer (68,084 in 2003, the latest figures available) than those that die of breast cancer (41,619 in 2003). Two-thirds as many women died of colorectal cancer as those that died of breast cancer in 2003. Yet based on a search of Guidestar’s database of charity tax forms, 1,326 charities mention being involved with breast cancer and only 56 charities mention work in colon cancer and 11 in rectal cancer. Why are there only 5% as many groups addressing colorectal cancer as breast cancer victims? A likely reason is that colorectal cancer, also called bowel cancer, is not as attractive from a fundraising or marketing perspective as a disease that affects what is considered one of the most beautiful parts of a woman’s body.

Men like boobies, and women are attached to them. And that’s why breast cancer gets all the, erm, love. Never mind that lung cancer kills more women (to say nothing of men). Few if any like the lungs as much as most men like the ta-tas. (Yes, I agree: The language of these campaigns really is sexist and demeaning. That it clearly affects how we give is just another example of how irrational we are about charity.)

Zoom out a bit. Say what we really want is to help people be healthier in general. If so, cancer is a lousy target. Fighting cancer is expensive, and we’re terrible at it. You’d get more bang for the buck by fighting things that can be stopped the easiest — preventing malaria, abating parasitic diseases, and giving vaccinations for childhood illnesses in countries that can’t afford them.

So why do we still pick cancer? It’s an American disease, that’s why. If only because so many people in the developing world won’t live long enough to get it. We look after our own, even if it’s more expensive and less effective.

Affinity Charities: I’ve covered the big three — religion, education, and health. They’re the most popular issue areas in the United States. But there are lots of little charities, too. Many of these play directly to our personal affinities. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but we should be aware of what we’re doing. Shouldn’t we?

How else can we explain, for example, the existence of animal charities that only serve one breed of one species of animal? Look at the Siamese Cat Rescue and the numerous German Shepherd Rescues and the many others of their ilk. Are there any efficiency gains to be had here? Sure, some breeds have particular health problems, but is this really the best way to serve them? No Irish setters need apply? That can’t be right.

The Livestrong Foundation is a cancer charity, so maybe it belongs up above. But who was associated with it? That, my friends, is why I put it in the “vanity” column. Aside from the iconic bracelet, what does it do? How effective is it? Did the foundation’s goals become less worthy when its patron fell from grace? Did its program activities become less effective? If those things haven’t been affected, why is the foundation possibly in trouble now? Rationally speaking, it shouldn’t be.

It’s in these affinity charities that we see the real value of self-regard, if also its real danger. Which is more needy, the opera or the ballet? I have no idea, and the answer clearly depends on your local arts scene, but I’d have no qualms about donating to the ballet rather than the opera. That is, if those were my choices, and if I determined I’d given enough to more utilitarian causes. Why ballet? I just like ballet better. I really do. (My daughter’s opinion on the subject is the same, only stronger.)

Further Comments: If I had to give a single-sentence statement of what I was getting at in my original post, it would be as follows: “In matters of charity, we are primarily self-regarding, meaning that we typically choose among the acts that help others by prioritizing those that make us feel or look the best, even despite what are often morally problematic consequences.”

I am not condemning all forms of selfishness or all forms of self-regarding charity. Still less am I condemning all forms of altruism. I am pointing out where the two exist, and where they do not, and how we might begin to think about them more clearly, which means being able to recognize them in the first place. Even just doing that, I would add, would have to lead any thinking person to recognize that some charities are exceptionally hard to defend when contrasted to some others.

There is a strong tendency in the United States to identify the dichotomy of good/evil with the dichotomy of selfish/altruistic. Randians identify selfishness with good; most others identify altruism with good. I emphatically do neither. I’ve spent some time in both of those camps, and I’m not satisfied either way.

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157 thoughts on “No Irish Setters Need Apply

  1. How many people give to their alma mater? And why?

    And how many are satisfied with just giving to the general fund, and how many want to determine to what purpose their donation is put.


  2. Scarcely apropos, the very first 5K I ran was in support of a breast cancer charity. I selected it because I had decided I wanted to start running in road races, and it was the first one I came across. However, when I showed up for the race and learned how tangential to the actual treatment of cancer the charity’s work was, and how manifestly superfluous and silly its mission, I decided not to run that particular race any longer. I’d rather run 3.1 miles on my own for free than in any way support the existence of a charity that siphons money away from… well, frankly, I’d consider put near any other cause more worthy.

    And I think I agree with your point as I understand it between this post, the last one, and the last comment thread. It seems to be a combination of:
    1) If you’re going to give to charity, you should also go to the trouble of making sure the money is actually going toward the goals you’re hoping to further
    2) Be honest with yourself that you’re choosing to give to that charity because something about it speaks to your soul (if you will), even if a strictly utilitarian analysis would direct you to give to a much more distant and obscure cause.


    • Part of my objection is that the way it was argued, it seemed as if those two points were incompatible to a degree. If you are honest with yourself, you’d realize that the goals you are trying to further are self-regarding and, thus, not charitable and, thus, you should choose other ones.

      If his point was as you present it here, I find it far less problematic. But I didn’t get that from the original post and Jason’s exchanges in the comment threads.


      • I think the brouhaha over the last post (and likely the upcoming brouhaha over this one) is that we’re stuck in the place where we’re talking about self-regard, selfishness, self-centeredness, self-awareness, all like they’re the same thing.

        Jason, I think, has a particular view of selfishness that is much more practical and much less judgmental than than most people. It’s not quite Randian, but it’s close; based upon the observable characteristics of people, we are at the very least extremely self-biased (this isn’t news, right?) How this works out in practice is that usually people act in ways that a machine intelligence would rate as “selfish” behavior, measuring entirely from consequence.

        But humans have attached all sorts of cognitive weight and pejorative connotation to “selfish”, and the gut impulse when someone accuses one of selfishness is to punch them in the eye.


        • But if EVERYTHING we do is selfish, or self-regarding, then what is the point of labeling ANYTHING as such? And, assuming some things can be more self-regarding than others, wouldn’t giving to charity be one of the LEAST self-regarding things we do?


          • if EVERYTHING we do is selfish, or self-regarding, then what is the point of labeling ANYTHING as such?

            To explain why those who believe some behavior is actually not self-regarding are wrong?


            • On your view, there’s no distinction at all between the term “self regarding” and “other regarding”. More importantly, on your view, there in fact are not two types of behaviors which those terms attempt to capture.

              They’re both {{claps hands}} identical.


            • “To explain why those who believe some behavior is actually not self-regarding are wrong?”

              What value does that serve? It seems like needlessly sticking your thumb in someone’s eye.

              “You think you’re a good, selfless person because you donate to charity? WRONG! You’re just another selfish human.”


        • Then shouldn’t we move to distinguishing degrees of self-regard ( or whatever). Without some distinction we are at a place where stealing the lollipop from a child hands is the same as donating to the food bank since both are all about making yourself feel good.


          • I’ve been very careful all along to insist that we were only considering those actions that (1) at least minimally help other people and (2) do so without an expected material reward to oneself.

            Your example violates both those limitations. I’m not sure why you are bringing it up, because on these two threads I’ve never discussed examples like that, except to explain why they are not charity and therefore irrelevant.


            • Because we all know libertarians think stealing popsicles from little kids is the best kind of charity–teaching them that power is justice and they need to stand up for themselves instead of running to their parents in tears.

              It’s true. It’s in the secret libertarian manifesto portion of the Cato website (and thanks for giving me the password to that, Jason; the check’s in the mail….really).


              • Well yeah James i already know that about libertarians. That goes without saying. But my question still stands about how and where do we make distinctions about grades of self-regard and such. Maybe i’ve missed it in the various discussions but pointing out people do stuff for their own needs isn’t all that much of an observation. It’s pretty basic psychology.

                Also that people would tend to donate to groups they know or that are close to them doesn’t seem all that stunning.


                • I was just being cheeky, nothing more.

                  It sounds to me like you’re not actually that far from Jason’s position. You just have to recognize he’s drawing the line at a) actually doing something that does some minimal good for others, and b) not doing so in expectation of a material reward. Because without a), it’s not really charity. And without b), it’s just a bog variety market exchange (e.g., when I give the poor kid in our neighborhood $20 to mow my lawn, it’s not charity). b) sort of relates to that line in the Bible about giving without expectation of return.


        • Pat,
          There’s selfish, and then there’s selfish.
          Some people want groveling for their charitable dollars.
          Others simply want a bigger paycheck (yes, people do rig charities to line their own pockets).

          I think one of these is different from the other.


  3. This is a great follow up post. +1

    Full disclose: My endorsement is flush with self regard right now. I am off to finish building a puppy nursery (for mutts) at the Humane Society today – and, if I have followed your argument correctly, it may be, in some small part, For the Win.


  4. “With little further ado, here is the fucking data.”

    Seriously? You took an unorthodox position, which you argued was grounded in data and, when pressed for that data, you respond with this sort of attitude?

    I’m sorry the lot of us are just too obtuse to understand you.


      • Aw, c’mon Jason! Where’s your spunk? You can’t 1) work for a place that has Charity Navigator bling hard-coded into the main nav bar for it’s entire website; 2) make the previous post an then follow it up with a post that bring educational charities in the argument (you know that’s what Cato call itself, right? Copied from the website “The Cato Institute is a 501(c)(3) educational institute”; and then 3) give a weak-willed, passive-aggressive “No that’s okay, I’ll just sit here in the dark” reply when someone (me) suggests your own charity be run through the rubric you propose.

        Stand up, man! Raise your fists. Your convictions mean nothing without the courage to fight for them!


        • I think Jason’s post (pretty fairly) notes that there’s nothing wrong with self-selected (interested? directed? whatever) giving. He gives a couple of examples in the post itself, and in the comments. That’s granted.

          The interesting note, that nobody is really connecting with here, is that by Jason’s framework we should expect the following things to be true:

          (1) People, generally, will give to those things that they find to be “good” causes, in a self-regarding sense – I don’t think this is a bad point, in fact, I’m pretty convinced that it’s true.

          (2) It would be better, from an outcome standpoint, if more people gave with more awareness of (1), as it would encourage more effective charitable giving as people become aware of how much their own bias for self-regard affects their charitable giving – I don’t think this is a bad point either, in fact, I’m pretty convinced that this is true, too.

          Here’s where Jason and I possibly diverge, going from (1) and (2)…

          (3) Human psychology at this point probably tells us that (1) is true, and while (2) is true, too, it’s not going to happen to the extent that we might like to have it happen, because most people either aren’t self-reflective enough to know that their giving is affected highly by self-regard, or their personal utility calculus is informed much more by their own perception of what’s good that what is (arguably) the community utility calculus.

          Thus (4) Certain types of needs are possibly more optimally addressed by decoupling personal utility calculus from community utility calculus. That is to say, some sorts of charitable needs are very likely to always be under-recognized by individuals, and heck maybe the government *is* a venue through which this can be handled less suboptimally. Even though the government might not be an optimal solution, it’s less suboptimal than drumming up individual giving. That’s arguable, but that’s the argument that these two posts *ought* to have spurred…


          • I agree claim 1 is correct and pretty obviously so. You can’t seperate anythign people do from their own viewpoint and sense of their own needs. It seems true to the point of being a bit banal.

            Doesn’t the point about the sub-optimal nature of how people give also tend to suggest why markets don’t actually work as well as their proponents suggest. People don’t use all available data, don’t know how to find all the needed data nor could they necessarily analyze it, the data may not always be available and don’t really care to make a masters level thesis of every spending decision they make.


            • Doesn’t the point about the sub-optimal nature of how people give also tend to suggest why markets don’t actually work as well as their proponents suggest.

              It does to me, but not all market proponents make the claim that markets are an optimal force, just a more optimizing one than anything else we’ve come up with (and I think, for many things we call markets, that this is probably true and banal as well -> markets are like democracy, they works less worse than the other things we’ve tried).

              But I think the trick there is to clearly differentiate between what the thing is that we’re talking about (a market or a commons), and then treat that thing like what it is, instead of trying to make a commons into a market in an attempt to solve the problem with the commons by turning it into something it isn’t.

              Because a market-based approach to a commons is a really bad idea.


                • Not quite absolutely. Sometimes we can privatize a commons, which is a market-based approach. But as a general point, true, it is a bad idea. But as Elinor Ostrom has exhaustively demonstrated, a top-down government program for managing the commons often isn’t necessary, and is often as bad an idea as the market based approach. There’s a third way, a self-governance way, that is often superior to either market or government management approaches.


          • Even though the government might not be an optimal solution, it’s less suboptimal than drumming up individual giving. That’s arguable, but that’s the argument that these two posts *ought* to have spurred…

            And there’s no one better suited for the task of making that happen than you, Mr. Cahalan. :) That sounds like a great topic to pursue. The optimal v suboptimal v least suboptimal thingy. Personally, I think libertarians view liberals as believing that governmental solutions are optimal when I’d be more inclined to say we think – sometimes mistakenly, of course – that government solutions are least suboptimal.

            {{And it has come up in comments, I think – DRS and Katherine come to mind. }}


          • When I did the work that I did as previously posted, the most interesting conversations I had were examples of failed efforts. These conversations were in confidence, but as all the actors have moved on, and I can render the story sufficiently detail free, I’ll recount my favorite story of failure.

            A group of remote mountain villages populated by indigenous people suffered from a number of social problems. There was little financial opportunity in the villages so the men left, often for weeks or months at a time to seek work in the farms in the lowlands.

            The men would return home, often alcoholic and infected with sexual transmitted disease, and with less money than had been hoped. Domestic strife was rampant. Husbands beat their wives and infected them with diseases.

            The problem was studied by a relief and development organization and the course that was settled on was to start an apiary project for the women of the village to run while their husbands were away working the farms. (That’s bee-keeping)

            The thought was that the the wax and honey could be sold, empowering the women within their households, and giving the men a little more bargaining power with the lowland farms.

            The project proved to be a success, or at least it was at first.

            The women were adept at keeping the bees, and the market for their wax and honey was strong and easy to access. In fact, the bee keeping was so successful that the men stopped going to the lowland farms and stayed in their villages to help their wives tend the hives. Social conditions improved.

            Except the lowland farms were dependent on the highland labor. So the farm owners hired thugs to go up into the mountains. They beat the men. They raped the women. They burned the hives.

            Things went back to the way they were before.

            The private understanding I had with the people I worked with is that, much like the crossover diseases that will occur when people begin to live in farming supported societies, charity is an emergent phenomenon once a society reaches a certain size, complexity and density; and that our responsibly was to see that charity cause as little damage as possible.

            Jason’s gainful employment aside, the existence of the Cato Institute supports this rather jaundiced view of charity. But like I said, I’ve been inside the sausage factory. That might be a privileged point of view, but that doesn’t make it the correct point of view.


          • I like the way you put this. 1 through 4 are, if I’m not mistaken, something that the less visible charities are keenly aware of, and much of their fundraising work involves trying to figure out how to get people personally interested in their causes as a result. One way? Get a Bono. Another way? Put kids on TV. Can’t get a Bono and your charity doesn’t involve helping cute kids? Good luck.


  5. “In matters of charity, we are primarily self-regarding, meaning that we typically choose among the acts that help others by prioritizing those that make us feel or look the best, even despite what are often morally problematic consequences.”

    What are the “morally problematic consequences”? If I give $100 to charity and only $10 of that goes directly to serving the cause, it is not “morally problematic” if I opt to do that over donating to a charity that gets $90 to the cause. It is subideal but in both scenarios the world is bettered by my action. I would only see it as morally problematic if the former charity somehow took away from the cause or did harm. Doing less good is still doing good.


    • If a charity asks for bandages, do you give it thumbtacks? And then do you say, “hey, thumbtacks are a good thing, so I’m helping?”

      If you opt to give to a charity that is only 10% efficient, while knowing that a 90% efficient charity exists, there must be some motivation for the choice. It’s either that or you are being irrational.

      Assuming there is a motivation for your choice, that motivation has to do some fairly heavy lifting. If it doesn’t, and if you’re aware that it doesn’t, then you are behaving immorally. Not by my professed standards, but by your own.


        • By donating to charity with for the purpose of helping others. If you’re action doesn’t help others (you give shoes to a food bank), or if you choose a less efficient org over a more efficient one, then you’re action isn’t accomplishing what you (morally?) intend.


              • The reason I don’t think donating to an inefficient charity is immoral is because I think that an immoral action must contain some element of (or potential for) harm. I don’t think there is harm being done in donating in such a way that only 10% of money gets to the intended cause instead of 90%, just less good being done; this is especially true if the decision is not necessarily a conscious, informed one (i.e., not realizing that you have chosen a less efficient charity).

                I do think there exist circumstances where a “donation” could be harmful; if you drop off 1000 pairs of shoes at a food bank, they’re going to have to divert time and resources to figuring out what to do with them, which takes away from other efforts that are central to their mission.

                I also think their could be situations where a charity itself causes harm; the example I offered on the other thread are clothing drives that drive local economies under by flooding the market with free goods.

                Even these I wouldn’t necessarily call immoral because I think intent matters as well. Lots of people do harmful things with the best of intentions. That doesn’t mean they should keep doing it, but they should not be looked at in the same way that people look at folks causing willful harm.

                I agree with Jason that we would all be well-served to be better informed about our charitable giving. My efforts tend to be very local in nature, because I have more control over the eventual outcome and can be more certain that the ends I seek will be met. I also will often donate or sponsor friends who are raising money for different causes not necessarily because of the cause itself, but because I know the friend needs the support (either to meet a required fundraising goal and/or the emotional type).

                I also agree that there is a non-zero amount of charity that is self-regarding. I am always bothered when I see corporations do things like, “We’ll donate 10-cents to charity for every box top mailed in,” especially when the fine print says, “Charitable given capped at X.” If you want to give $X to charity, just do it; don’t do it to get people to buy your yogurt. That stuff REALLY bothers me.


          • If …you give shoes to a food bank… then you’re action isn’t accomplishing what you (morally?) intend.

            It’s nice of you to give him the benefit of the doubt, but actually….


            • In what way am I giving him the benefit of the doubt? I’m explaining Jason’s position to him (or trying to).

              Merely donating shoes isn’t a moral act, right? It can be confused with that, which is one of Jason’s points. But insofar as the basic intention motivating the action is to help others, then a judgment of the morality of the action follows from the degree to which the intended outcome is realized. Which is Jason’s main point, yes?


      • “If a charity asks for bandages, do you give it thumbtacks?”

        What examples do you have of charities asking for one thing and being given another?

        What you MIGHT see a lot of is problems needing certain solutions, with charitable organizations offering other solutions. Donors to these charities might offer exactly what the organization is offering while still not offering the best form of help for the cause. There is certainly something worth exploring there, but I don’t know that insisting that folks are simply giving what THEY want to give because of self-interest is the right way to go about it. If I donate to CharityUSA because I wrongly believe they are doing the best thing to address a cause, that is not offering thumbtacks to someone asking for bandaids.


        • What examples do you have of charities asking for one thing and being given another?

          Food banks, from the original post. Getting food is suboptimal for them when compared to its retail value in cash.


          • Colleges, too.

            “What we really need is mass spectrometer.”

            “Yeah, but I want to plant a rose garden in honor of my mother, because she loved this place so much and always thought it should have a rose garden.”


            • What you probably *really* need is an upgraded power generation facility, an expanded chilled water plant, and a major overhaul of the steam tunnels and the sewage system.

              That gets even less attention than a mass spectrometer.


              • Last Saturday the facilities manager of the local school district was showing me their management system for all schools in the district and how he controlled heat for each subsection of each school. We were sitting in the bleachers at a high school pool 80 miles away and he was controlling everything from his IPad. He said by March their three year savings will be $300,000. And man are we in a cash-strapped district.

                It’s just freakin’ awesome. And, yeah, no donor wants to fund something that works so well nobody but the managers and other assorted geeks notice it.


            • they are in my area. possibly both are good things.
              They often ask for food because people have “discounted” food in their houses (expired, nearly expired, “god why did I buy Olives”)…

              Also, many donations they get are “discounted” in the sense that they’re “store surplus”


            • They may be asking for food because they think they’ll get food, but they won’t get cash.

              Part of this problem is the feedback cycle. Charities ask for what they think they’ll get, not what they need… particularly if what they need (money, yo!) is harder to market than what they can market for and get.

              So the inefficiency can be fed by charities pursuing less optimal goals themselves, for the reasons Chris lays out just above: if you don’t have Bono, and you don’t have cute kids…


        • Only really slightly related to the topic, but still amusing.

          When i worked for a shelter for runaway/homeless teens a large undie manufacturer whose name rhymes with Baines donated many boxes of underwear. Homeless kids often need clean undies. They also donated hundreds of lacy, sexy panties with garter belts. I made the decision not to give out the sexy panties to our teens.


            • None of my staff would fit the panties ( they were all on the smallish side which was a bit creepy, i think they would be like womens’ size 0-4) or they were guys. But whom am i to judge. It was a catholic charity so i was careful about joking about having lots of smallish sexy panties in my building.

              I wanted to just toss the box since we weren’t going to use them and it took up space i needed. However i was told that wouldn’t be right so we kept hundreds of sexy panties around for a few years. Did some staff give themselves a small bonus? Well i don’t know.


  6. Rand didn’t have a problem with charitable giving. She had a problem with the idea that it was some kind of moral obligation to give, like if you didn’t want to give away money then you deserved to be (in the extreme case) beaten up and put in jail over it.

    “Randians think charity is wrong!” is a popular mis-statement of objectivist philosophy.


  7. How much is donated to missionary work? A very small amount, and it’s declining relative to congregational giving.

    This is moving away from your point but the missionaries I know are not funded out of general church collections or at least not very much. Typically they will have maybe 20-30 supporters who are both personal friends and members of the same church who donate either directly to their expenses or into a dedicated account run by the mission organisation.

    Money in the collecting plate for ‘missionaries’ goes more to the admin costs of running a the organisation than the people in the field, which to be clear I do accept as a perfectly legitimate way to do it.


  8. The data doesn’t really address the original question, because there are a lot of alternate explanations for those donation patterns. For one thing, we’re more likely to donate to something when we recognize the need. I’m not going to donate to a different church than the one I go to, because I’m familiar with the issues facing mine. For another thing, we’d like to give to those charities we can trust, and we have a high level of confidence about the ones closest to us, and we have easier access to information about the failures of the ones closest to us, should those failures occur. Now, in the case of cancer, you fairly note that our information is distorted. We overrate the dangers of particular diseases because of the press they receive, and because of our personal experiences. But that could just as easily be an argument to place greater emphasis on giving closer to home.


  9. I already tweeted this to Jason, but I thought I’d share:

    The low level of missionary funding at churches is probably a good sign. A significant portion of missionary work is extremely self-regarding.

    If you take it as a given that the best use of a church is to convert people, and people in foreign lands are less likely to be Christian (and therefore the most efficient targets of missionary work), I still wouldn’t put much money toward it. In my experience, missionary work is often a euphemism for sending tween and teen church members to far away places for what amounts to tourism. The ‘missionaries’ do things like perform puppet shows for people who don’t speak their language, hand out fliers advertising local church services, walk around in poor neighborhoods, and eat tacos.

    The actually useful things churches do, such as providing aid for people who are unable to take care of themselves, delivering meals to the elderly, and counseling members, tends to happen within a few miles of the church.


  10. Does it really matter if charity is self regarding if it gets results? Humanity is self regarding. Narcissism is pervasive. I don’t care why people give or if they choose to give to a charity which doesn’t score well. The emphasis is on that they gave.


    • If an act of charity gets results, that’s wonderful. But is it entirely unfair to ask whether you might get better results from some other act of charity?

      That is, the emphasis here is not on whether they gave. I’m taking giving for granted. After that, I’m asking about how to help others, and whether self-regard doesn’t sometimes get in the way of that.

      So I guess I do care why people give, and whether they might be persuaded to give to somewhat more effective causes.


      • No, not unfair at all and didn’t mean to imply that it was.
        My concern is that placing the focus on maximizing the effectiveness of charity may dissuade people from giving at all. It doesn’t bother me that there are low information givers.


        • I am reminded of blood donation following 9/11. There was a *HUGE* upsurge in people showing up wanting to donate blood. The Red Cross allowed everybody who wanted to donate blood to do so, knowing that they seriously did not need that much blood, knowing that that blood would be destroyed.

          I still find that vaguely unsettling.


          • Establishing blood donation as a habit is one of the long-term efforts of the Red Cross.

            If X% of the population gave blood once a year, they’d be golden. The number Y, of people who currently give regularly, is much, much less than X. Any time they can take a donation, they increase the odds that they’ll get a new, regular donor.

            It’s remarkably similar to the public radio donation problem.


          • Any unsettling feeling for me is counterbalanced by the outpouring of support. Sure, there are unintended consequences and ways it could have gone better. I’ll take this tradeoff.


          • JB,

            I’d find that disturbing if there was reason to believe they could successfully tell people, “We don’t need your donation right now but please come back in 6 months,” and actually have them return. Most probably would not.

            If the number of people who would come back is less than the number of new, regular donors, they did the right thing, with some caveats depending on just how forthcoming and/or deceitful they were to those folks. I remember reading articles at the time about the amount of blood that would go wasted because of limitations on the shelf life and supply outpacing demand and all that, so it doesn’t seem like they were WHOLLY deceitful, at the least.

            Another model is the “Adopt-a-Child” model. I actually worked for that crew for one day, shaking people down on the street. The organization was really clear on why we were supposed to push for “adoption” and refuse one-time gifts. One-time gifts could not be counted on with any regularity and didn’t allow for the long-term efforts they were undertaking. It seems the RC was trying to foster that same sort of program.


      • “If an act of charity gets results, that’s wonderful. But is it entirely unfair to ask whether you might get better results from some other act of charity?”

        Not unfair, no. Of course, defining “better” is difficult. If we are looking at two groups that both raise money that goes to funding cancer research, and the first group gets 90% of donations through to research and the second gets only 50%, it is pretty clear which is better. But if one group is raising money for cancer research and another is raising money for mosquito nets and both are getting money through at roughly the same level of efficiency, it is a hell of a lot harder to determine which one is better.

        “That is, the emphasis here is not on whether they gave. I’m taking giving for granted. After that, I’m asking about how to help others, and whether self-regard doesn’t sometimes get in the way of that.”

        I think the “taking giving for granted” is what is getting stuck in my craw. It seems you are setting a baseline at “giving optimally” and judging everyone poorly for falling short of that. A lot of people don’t give. Casting those who do give and do so with the best of intentions as being on the same side of the baseline as people who don’t give at all is problematic. That is where I went with the “perfect being the enemy of the good” in my initial response on the other post.


        • I doubt “a lot of people don’t give” I’m pretty sure my work’s united way campaign has a 90+% “participation rate”.

          It’s relatively easy to determine which is better: look at the expected lifetimes pre/post intervention, diff ’em, and sum ’em up.
          I can get a hell of a lot more people living a hell of a longer with mosquito nets than with cancer cures.

          AND there’s the reasonable odds that one of those people will discover the cure for cancer.


      • It is not unfair to ask whether you might get better results from some other act of charity. Once it has been asked though it is unfair to tell someone that their charity is only being done because they want to appear to their peers in a better light. That if they were “really” charitable they would put their money towards something more worthwhile, something that does more “good” per dollar.


          • Suppose

            1. People claim their objective in doing X is Y.

            2. I come along, point out that Y could be done more effectively, and at a much lesser price, by doing Z instead.

            3. And they say, “No, I’m not changing, I’m still doing X. How dare you question my motives? You’re a horrible person!”

            That would be irrational, wouldn’t it? It’s either that or there is a hidden motive that the people acting this way don’t want to reveal.

            Much of my arguing has been to point out that (2), above, doesn’t really need anyone to make the case. Because (2) is bleeding obvious, just looking at the numbers for various charities.

            A lot of the comments have been to the effect of (3), which was sad but predictable.


            • But you aren’t telling them that they can find a shelter that uses the money they give more efficiently. You are telling them that they should give to a charity that did “more good” with their money. I may be reading you wrong, but I sounds to me that if one doesn’t give to a charity that will save the most people they are wasting their money. Not only are they wasting their money, they are depriving someone of their life. Seems that you are going beyond telling them that you know of some really good charities that do great deeds and are very efficient in doing them. You are telling them, that the charity category is wrong. Don’t give to charities that are trying to cure cancer…not enough people would be saved. You can do more good if you would only give to a charity that buys mosquito nets to stop malaria. If I am reading you wrong I apologize, but that is how it has come across to me.


              • I think that some charities that claim they are trying to cure cancer are in fact simply self-sustaining leeches, that do more to hamper cures than actually solve the fucking problems.
                This might have something to do with being funded by DOW CHEMICAL.


            • It’s bleeding obvious to you, but not to everyone. And folks might be making different calculations of how they best achieve their ends. Both your argument and your tone assumes there is “one true way” to give and everyone who doesn’t follow that path is stupid or selfish or whathaveyou. You don’t see why you don’t have more traction with your argument?

              This isn’t true just for charity, mind you. “You say you want to make the best hamburgers? Why are you frying them? It’s bleeding obvious that grilling over charcoal is better? Jeez, man, I wonder if you REALLY care about the quality of your hamburgers at all.” That’s not going to get you particulary far. Maybe YOU don’t really care about improving charity, given that your tack is unlikely to change many minds.


                • What do you mean when you say that it is a “moral matter”?

                  To the extent that it is, here is how I see it:

                  Not giving < Giving suboptimally < Giving optimally

                  If I had to draw a hard-and-fast line that divided moral and immoral (or amoral, more liekly), it would be between "not giving" and "giving suboptimally". Jason seems to be arguing that it should be between "giving suboptimally" and "giving optimally". I steadfastly disagree with that.


                  • Well, I suppose it’d be a bit more complicated…

                    Doing harm to charity < doing nothing < inefficiently doing good to charity < efficiently doing good to charity

                    I'd argue the first is immoral, the second is morally neutral, and the rest are both morally good, if to different degrees. And I won't get into "categories" of charity because I don't know that there is an objective way to state which type is morally preferable, though Jason seems to think otherwise.

                    Personally, I think donating money to animal causes that could be donated to people causes is nuts. But that is because how I personally feel about the rights of and value provided by animals as compared to those of humans. I have zero ability to say, objectively, that my preferences are the correct ones. In fact, I've heard compelling if unconvincing arguments to the contrary. If those who make such arguments feel justified in donating to animal causes, I would be hardpressed to say convincingly they are immoral or are engaged in immoral acts.


                  • Eh, it’s a vector. Not a destination. I do think that someone who tells himself or herself that they donate because they wish to help others would be more taken aback by a 75% overhead charity than a 33% overhead charity… and, if they aren’t, I’d be interested if they still consider themselves someone who donates because they wish to help others.


                    • Suppose the local charity offers food as well as employment to people. Part of the wages go to employing the otherwise unemployable.

                      Or suppose that the purpose of your donation is to increase access of golf clubs to poor kids. There is very little by way of evidence to determine which gold club provider to the poor is the most efficient.

                      That’s not to say those are the only considerations that apply when donating …


                    • Hey, just thinking about this stuff and doing research and discovering what you are and aren’t comfortable with is good enough for me to say “well, you’re acting like a moral agent. I can’t ask for more than that.”


                    • “well, you’re acting like a moral agent. I can’t ask for more than that.”

                      I agree. Part of being a moral agent is thinking about what your doing. A little bit, anyway.

                      Kazzy, I can’t disagree with what you wrote here since I was very confused about what jason was arguing in the OP myself. In comments it became clearer what his view actually is. As he wrote upthread somewhere, he’s arguing a pretty subtle point here. That alone is probably enough to cause confusion independent from the way the argument was phrased. Personally, I don’t think he was actually intending to argue for more than what Jaybird was indicating right above this comment.


                    • Jason said that people do charity because it makes them look better in people’s eyes. Let’s not pretend he didn’t.

                      Roger, if you are correct, than I would agree as well. I’ve said as much: we’d be better served to make more informed decisions about charity (among other things). But Jason seems to be saying to not just inform yourself, but that you are wrong if you do so and do not reach the same conclusions that he has.


                    • Oh, that’s certainly another reason to do it. I mean, I donated to Erik’s drive and left a comment communicating solidarity with the community rather than merely donating and feeling good about it (though, seriously, I wrestled with that).

                      It’s another thing in the mix.


                    • Jason said that people do charity because it makes them look better in people’s eyes.

                      Well, sure. Particularly if you’re counting “themselves” as the linchpin member of “people in whose eyes they look better”. I don’t even know that it’s terribly controversial to say that most people who do charity do it because it makes them feel better about themselves, right?

                      I think there’s plenty of discussion space in there, but I don’t think that’s the interesting discussion.

                      Let’s not pretend he didn’t.

                      Humor me for a second. Pretend he didn’t. Or rather, pretend that this wasn’t his primary intention, and re-read the post(s). Do you feel differently about ’em?


                    • But Jason seems to be saying to not just inform yourself, but that you are wrong if you do so and do not reach the same conclusions that he has.

                      That was my initial reaction to the OP as well. It’s one reason I didn’t comment on it until much later (the next day, I think): because that view seemed sorta crazy and Jason isn’t (generally speaking!) crazy. I even challenged him on that specific view in a subthread up there somewhere. In the end, tho, he’s not arguing that. He’s saying (ISTM) that if people were to pay more attention to outcomes than inclinations (read: self regard), then charity would probably look a lot different than it currently does.


                    • I still think that his position and, perhaps moreso, his tone and delivery, was dripping with presumptuousness that bordered on condescension.

                      As I said somewhere else, if his goal was to convince people to be more thoughtful in their approach to charity, he did a poor job of doing that. Which, by his logic, might mean that he is not actually interested in convincing people to be more thoughtful.

                      But I don’t think that’s true. I think Jason would absolutely like to see a better voluntary model for charity. I think he fell into the very trap that he accuses, chastises even, others for. And that, to me, is problematic.


                    • PC,

                      He didn’t just say it there, though. He said it in several comments. If I could erase any notion of that from my memory, the column would be slightly more palatable, but I’d still find it problematic, but the reasons in the comment directly above this.

                      If the starting point of your essay is, “You think you are charitable but you are really just vain,” I’m sorry, but you sacrifice any right to ask for the benefit of the doubt. Jason doesn’t know me, doesn’t know my approach to charitable giving, and doesn’t know how I carry myself in the world. That he would presume to is really bothersome.

                      Which, for the record, does not mean that I am wholly dismissive of his argument. As I’ve said, I think he is right that folks would be better served to be more informed about their giving and the disconnect that might exist between their stated goals and their actions. I have changed the way I give in part because of what I’ve learned about the impact of my choices and how they didn’t always line up with what I wanted it to be. I’m a more thoughtful donor now. But apparently I’m still a self-regarding, pleasure-seeking boob who only does what I do to get Facebook likes because I didn’t buy mosquito nets for Mozambique. Or something.

                      (I’m actually not that personally offended by what he said but am appalled at the dare-I-say privilege that seemed to accompany both his ideology and methodology.)


                    • I still think that his position and, perhaps moreso, his tone and delivery, was dripping with presumptuousness that bordered on condescension.

                      Huh, I didn’t read that at all. I think we might have a major disconnect in how we read Jason’s writing.


                    • If the charity has a 75% overhead but has had breakthroughs or has accomplished the stated goal of the charity would that factor into the consideration as to whether they were an effective charity? I would contend that they are. It is hypothetical and I have no idea if such a charity exists….one with a ginormous overhead that still accomplishes what it set out to do better than another charity the same category.


                    • If the starting point of your essay is, “You think you are charitable but you are really just vain,” I’m sorry, but you sacrifice any right to ask for the benefit of the doubt. Jason doesn’t know me, doesn’t know my approach to charitable giving, and doesn’t know how I carry myself in the world. That he would presume to is really bothersome.

                      You are reacting as if this were personal. It is not personal. I am looking at overall patterns of giving, with aggregate data.

                      If you choose to take it personally, you must ignore not only that fact, but the additional fact, which I have repeated in both posts and in many comments, that self-regard is very often good and useful and wonderful and awesome, including much self-regarding charity.


                    • Jaybird,
                      I’ve worked for that charity (the one where 75% of your donation goes to line the pocket of the canvasser standing at your door).
                      It does NOT have a 75% “overhead”.


  11. I am a lurker, one of “those” people who feel that they are too ordinary and have vocabularies that are not up to the standards of this blog. Usually any question I have someone is sure to ask, so there has been no real need to post any of my own comments. This topic has me confused. What is the definition of self-regard that is being used here? I’m not sure how self-regard seems to be lumped in with peer-regard. I have no beef with saying that self-regard is a component to charity. Are not humans predisposed towards doing things that make them feel good? I do have a beef with then saying that the self-regard somehow encompasses how others see us in context of charity giving. I may have read this wrong and you are saying that we want to feel good by comparing ourselves to our peers and that we give to charities in order to think we are as good as our peers or that we want to feel better than our peers. But I don’t think that is the case. The line “In matters of charity, we are primarily self-regarding, meaning that we typically choose among the acts that help others by prioritizing those that make us feel or look the best, even despite what are often morally problematic consequences.” Adding “or look the best” tells me that you believe that charity is all about looking good to our peers. That somehow you equate self-regard as how others see us, and what others think about us.

    In the end what does it matter why someone gives to charities? What does it matter that someone buys a bucket of kitty litter for their local shelter when there are more “deserving” charities?

    If I have a family member who utilized the Ronald McDonald house, so I chose to donate to them in thanks, who cares? If I see someone who needs a ride and I chose to give them a ride to get to their job, who cares that the $3 I spent in gas could have done more good if I had donated it to an organization to buy mosquito nets?

    I understand the concept that if one is really interested in charity they should spend the time to see where the dollar does the most good. But charity is not trying to get the biggest bang for your buck. It is helping those who need help in any way that “we” can. If that means that someone can only put out a can of food in the bag for the postman to pick up, then so be it.

    Your premise reminds me of Christmas presents. Some people believe it is the thought that counts. Others believe that if you did not get exactly the right gift, the gift that someone will get the most use from, you might as well have never given them the gift in the first place.


    • Hey, Just Me. It sure seems from here that you meet the standards for commenting.

      Anyway, it seems like you answered the question in your last paragraph. The question comes: “Why are you doing this?”

      If the answer is “because it makes me feel good”, then that takes you to certain places. If the answer is “because I want to help the less fortunate”, then that could easily take you others. If the answer is “because it makes me feel good to help the less fortunate” (and, let me point out, there is *NOTHING* wrong with that), then people would benefit from engaging with less helpful charities and instead engaging with the more helpful ones.


      • I agree….really the part I take exception with is that somehow “I feel good about xyz or someone helped me out so I did the same for another when I was in the position to” equates with I feel good because someone else thinks I am a great charitable person for doing so. I am not sure about others but I don’t post to Facebook every time I do something nice for others or give to charity. I also don’t then decide I am only going to give to charity if others know I am doing so. I appreciate when other’s point out that there might be other charities I should consider giving to and then explain why I should consider giving my hard earned money to them over the ones I already do or in conjunction with.

        Somehow I think we are taking the humanity out of the act of charity. I feel like we are weighing the worth of one persons life vs the life of another in this whole discussion. I can save more peoples lives with mosquito nets therefore it is “only for self-regard” that I would take that same money and give it to an organization that is trying to cure cancer. …or horrors…..give it to an animal shelter.


        • I don’t know that I’ve ever shared publicly my charitable giving. My wife didn’t even know I had sent in money to the local volunteer fire department until the thank you came in the mail. Some folks certainly where their charity on their sleeve. But most don’t.


            • Oooh! We should tell him about the sub-blogs!

              Just Me, you should visit the sub-blogs. Mindless Diversions is a happy place where we discuss video games, television shows, comic books, movies, and rock and/or roll.

              We’re currently watching Fringe and reading Sandman.


              • It’s her…where do I find these sub-blogs? I must poke around more on here. Mindless Diversions sound like a spot to check out. How do you all feel about sport posts? Probably the topic I would talk about the most. Love politics but you all are way more knowledgeable than me on specific topics dealing with that. And yes, I am a female who is a sports fan (some might say fanatic)…especially football.


                • Just Me,

                  I write sports posts here and there for Mindless Diversions but have lately been shirking my duties (I probably should be apologizing directly to JB for this, but I feel like he’s just happy that I post anything PLUS I can blame the impending baby for most shirked duties and the Philadelphia Eagles for the rest). If you want to post something or just serve as another person to talk sports with, please please please do so.


                  • It was a good day for Cheese Heads yesterday. Tonight I will be cheering for the Redskins. Nothing better than December football……except Jan and Feb football that is.


              • Just Me, if you go up to the top of the page, just below the blog’s logo, you’ll see a bar that says “Home — About — Masthead — Sites — Commenting Policy.” Hover your mouse over “Sites.” In a second or two, a list will pop up. Just for kicks, choose the first one (Not A Potted Plant). That’ll take you to my sub-blog. There, you can take a stab at this weeks trivia puzzle.

                Jay and Pat and Kazzy’s perpetually enjoyable sub-blog is two spots below that, and Doc and Rose’s perpetually thought-provoking sub-blog is the spot below that. And so on.

                If you’re skipping the sub-blogs, you’re only doing LOoG-lite! I hope to see you at NAPP. And Mindless Diversions. And Blinded Trials. And all the rest.


    • “In the end what does it matter why someone gives to charities? ”

      If I give to charity because it makes me feel good, that’s okay.

      If I give to charity because That’s What Moral People Do, well, what does that imply about someone who doesn’t give to charity?


  12. Why are we altruistic?

    1) because we genuinely want the world to be a better place
    2) because it makes us feel good
    3). because we are expected to, and either feel social pressure or seek social status
    4). because we want to establish tribal bonds and allegiances and display tokens of tribal loyalty.
    5). because of our shared sense of reciprocity. We help today when we least need it, and others help us tomorrow when we most need it thus creating a type of insurance or savings program.

    The who and what and why of altruism is not one dimensional. In other words, great post Jason.


  13. I’d just like to point out that not all “religious giving” is actually intended to be charitable. Some of it (probably a great deal of it) is to sustain and support the “services” which the congregation expects to be provided. So I don’t think it is “charity” for the congregation to pay their pastor, provide a house and car, pay the church electricity bills and heating bills, etc. The fact that the IRS calls this “charitable giving” doesn’t make it so.

    The last church figures I remember seeing on this subject in the church budget were that about 60% of the annual giving went to paying the staff, maintaining the building, etc. 20% went to the ministries which the church did locally (both explicit religious instruction and charitable activities) and 20% went to overseas missions/churches. So guesstimating that half each of the local and overseas funds went to actual charitable activities, this means about 20% of the total church budget is for charity – the rest is just enabling the church to run and to provide services for the congregation.

    My point is that these figures are not a secret from the congregation. I don’t think the people attending the church are counting their church giving as 100% charity – I certainly don’t. I give to the church to support my minister and pay for what I receive. I also give to charity – but I don’t conflate the two together.


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