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.