Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Altruism, Charity, and self interest

It's often said that charitable acts really aren't charitable acts because the person doing them expects to get something out of them, whether it's the respect of the community or a feeling of moral superiority. But the idea doesn't really hold up under scrutiny.

You can look at the gains gotten from charity in a cost-benefit utilitarian way. If a person gives $1000 to a charity, for example, do they get a feeling of moral superiority, or recognition in the community that truly compensates for the $1000 they gave? Are they equal quantities? I think that while it's easy to point to small donations to charity as being done for selfish or self centered reasons, when you get into amounts of money that take an increasing bite out a person's income, affecting the money they have to live their life, the argument is less tenable. What if a person donated small amounts to five different charities that added up to $1000? Or take serious time out of their schedules to volunteer for a cause? The idea of increased social standing and a good feeling in your heart are both very intangible things, with increased social status being something that you really don't know is going to happen if you publicly donate to charities. On the other hand, the sacrifices are very tangible and much less vague than personal psychological well being, for instance. I think that if a person really wanted to do something to make themselves feel better, do something for themselves, in a selfish way that they'd find more cost effective ways to do it than giving lots of money to charity or donating their time.

Because there are better ways to increase one's status without sacrifice of the kind people make for charity, it suggests to me that there's something else going on than ego stroking, like actually caring about the cause. It's very true, though, that mainstream, kind of harmless, charities who don't challenge the status quo too much get the most donations, while the ones that really question the premises of our society see their money go down precipitously in comparison, but I think that's not evidence that people don't want to help out so much as that they want to help out within certain boundaries. Maybe that has to do with a fear of losing social standing if it's found that they give to radical charities, but I think it's a mixed bag between actual care and a kind of skittish paranoia about an issue cutting too close to home.

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