Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.

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8 Responses to Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

  1. Bad says:

    davidmabus, I have a comment policy. You are violating it. If you are actually interested in commenting try to stay on topic next time.

  2. cubiksrube says:

    I’m pretty sure he’s not. One mabus or another has been cropping up all over the place lately, basically trolling the exact same message everywhere with zero engagement in whatever he’s commenting on.

    And that’s… kinda an unsettling conclusion about the charities, in that it’s simultaneously very intuitive, and very counter-intuitive. I mean, it’s certainly persuasive, I can’t fault his logic, but it’s something of an intellectual struggle to really get behind the idea of, in practice, pushing all resources solely at one problem, letting all other concerns languish, until that one issue is sufficiently resolved that it’s no longer the biggest crisis in the world. The diversification method has more truthiness to it.

  3. Grendel The Martyr says:

    All I know is that I once made a sizable donation, did so publicly (that is, I didn’t request anonymity), and was besieged all day every day for six months by all manner of agencies and entities seeking like donations. That was the last time I went forth overtly. Hey, it’s all about ME, dagnabbit.

    Excellent blog, BTW.

  4. Bad says:

    Grendel The Martyr Says: All I know is that I once made a sizable donation, did so publicly (that is, I didn’t request anonymity), and was besieged all day every day for six months by all manner of agencies and entities seeking like donations

    Well, you can always give money to an agency anonymously so they won’t have your contact info, but still tell everyone you know personally. Hopefully no one you know is likely to sell your name to donor lists. :)

    Excellent blog, BTW.

    Thanks!

  5. Bad says:

    cubiksrube Says: And that’s… kinda an unsettling conclusion about the charities, in that it’s simultaneously very intuitive, and very counter-intuitive. I mean, it’s certainly persuasive, I can’t fault his logic, but it’s something of an intellectual struggle to really get behind the idea of, in practice, pushing all resources solely at one problem, letting all other concerns languish, until that one issue is sufficiently resolved that it’s no longer the biggest crisis in the world. The diversification method has more truthiness to it.

    It is weird. And of course, there are schools of economics that suggest that if a lot of people feel some conclusion is wrong, then maybe there really is something to that nagging feeling: some aspect we aren’t taking into account. But at least in this case, I’m not sure what that would be.

  6. Tom says:

    There does seem something flawed in the logic. Why not say that no matter how much I give, I don’t have the personal resources to solve world hunger or cure cancer so I might as well just have another Frappuccino instead of donating. Let’s say we all follow that logic and we all decide that CARE is the most important charity to give to so only CARE gets money this year? What happens to all the other charities? They need some money to keep the electricity turned on don’t they? Doesn’t this relate to the prisoner dilemma in some way where you want everyone to behave like you? But in this case if everyone did what you did, wouldn’t that be a bad thing?

  7. Bradford says:

    Here are the verses in the bible Peter Singer is referring to:

    Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
    –Matthew chapter 6, verses 1-4

    The point Jesus is making is that you should not give charity for self glorification. If you do then your good deeds will not be rewarded by God because your motive was wrong.

    If you give charity not because you really care about the people in an unfortunate circumstance but rather to look good to others, to appear benevolent and wonderful, to have people applaud and exclaim “Let us give praise, honor, and glory to the caring, concerned person who gave!” then God says you’ve got it all wrong. You should give out of love.”

    If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. I Corinthians 13:1

    In other words, giving without love is only an empty gesture. It does nothing for you and in fact, can very well mar your character. The words of Jesus is not just idle blathering, regardless of what the psychologists say. There is more to charity
    than just giving a lump of money. There is a spiritual side to it as well. /p>

    One of the problems with public giving is that when you give money to a person in need that person must, by necessity, grovel in thanks before the giver, acknowledging the giver’s superior position. Furthermore, the person receiving aid knows that the giver can demand service in the future in acknowledgement of being granted a favor. The giver can say something to the effect “Hey, I gave you money when you were down on your luck. What about doing this for me, eh? The receiver of aid will feel obligated to perform service for the giver. Giving anonymously removes this future burden from the recipient.

    people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving

    This is a form of extortion. This is evil, and it makes people unhappy and uncomfortable to be squeezed for money they can’t afford or don’t want to give. It causes people to despise, not love, the people they are being coerced to help. It is also not within the biblical context for giving:

    Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.
    II corinthians, verses 6-7

    I can see Singer’s point of “the end justifies the means” in that coercing people through peer pressure or being a public example to inspire others to give can result in more people being helped by the raising of public awareness of the problem. It is
    possibly true that “Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same.”

    A substantial body of current psychological research points against Jesus’ advice.

    In answer to Singer’s point of “the end justifies the means” and in the flawed conclusion of psychological research about Jesus’ advice (which is a commandment, not just advice):

    You can raise public awareness by speaking out and by advertisement without having to say, “Hey, I give money to this charity and you should too!” A conscientious person can analyze a problem and see the amount of resources needed to help, either by giving singly or organizing a group of people to raise money for the problem, an effort that can be done without coercing people or drawing attention to yourself. The problem can be made public but the givers should remain anonymous. If the need is big then a big effort can be made to meet the problem without parading people around on stage telling people they can be good too by giving.

    There is more than one way to make people aware about a problem. Sure, standing up on a stage and telling everyone to give because you did is one way to bring resources to the problem but Jesus says this is the wrong way to do it. There are
    many ways to make public a problem.

    What bothers me is the assumption that people don’t give because they don’t see others giving, that people are just cattle, “monkey see monkey do” so they must be coerced to give. “Why, they’re just too dumb or greedy.” Singer seems to be saying.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if Singer would applaud the federal government forcibly taking money from people to give to “insert_victim_here”.

    Finally, I disagree with Singer’s reasoning: “We need to get over our reluctance to speak openly about the good we do.” The fact is, when a person talks about their good works it is perceived as bragging, or an attempt to look good. This perception remains regardless of the do-gooder’s motive.

  8. Bad says:

    The point Jesus is making is that you should not give charity for self glorification. If you do then your good deeds will not be rewarded by God because your motive was wrong.

    Now that is an amusing bit of reasoning. Don’t show off to other people so that they’ll praise you, show off to God so he’ll reward you?

    Again, the concern here doesn’t seem to be with helping people. It seems to be with properly acted theater, with the main concern being which audience matters most.

    Seriously though, the point is not that Jesus is wrong in condemning people who give for the wrong reasons. He’s right to portray those people as selfish and silly. But the point is that the takeaway principle of giving in secret is the wrong lesson to learn from this: it doesn’t seem to hold up if what you really care about is helping people, as opposed to simply impressing God or something.

    In other words, giving without love is only an empty gesture. It does nothing for you and in fact, can very well mar your character.

    It strikes me as somewhat selfish to obsess about what giving charity might do to your character instead of just being charitable.

    This is a form of extortion. This is evil, and it makes people unhappy and uncomfortable to be squeezed for money they can’t afford or don’t want to give.

    Not at all. Human beings learn by imitation and example. Most of your moral concerns and empathy were learned not from the Bible, but from your interaction with your parents and peers.

    Nothing about seeing other people giving coerces you to give in any meaningful sense. But if it makes you feel a little guilty, makes you break out of your bubble of carefully ignoring the fact that you spend lots on luxuries you easily can live without while others die for lack of basic needs, that’s a good thing. For our characters.

    There is more than one way to make people aware about a problem. Sure, standing up on a stage and telling everyone to give because you did is one way to bring resources to the problem but Jesus says this is the wrong way to do it.

    The Jesus in the Bible was just one person, with one small set of concerns, applying them to a very different world than the one we live in. I don’t think his advice carries any special weight. Certainly you can read it and find parts of interesting observations, but it’s just not the final word on the matter, and other later insights are important as well.

    The fact is, when a person talks about their good works it is perceived as bragging, or an attempt to look good. This perception remains regardless of the do-gooder’s motive.

    Again, you’re inventing cramped examples here that I’m not sure really have relevance to what Singer is talking about. The examples he gives are of movements and organizations whose purpose is demonstrate that it is, in fact, very possible to give quite a lot, and in fact for that to increase your own quality of life to boot.

    For many comfortable people, they aren’t even aware of this. Giving in secret so that you can bask in God’s rewards doesn’t help improve that situation any.

    One of the problems with public giving is that when you give money to a person in need that person must, by necessity, grovel in thanks before the giver, acknowledging the giver’s superior position.

    This is just inventing a confounding situation, which is not necessitated by the simple dictum of give publicly. When you donate to CARE, for instance, none of the people who receive the aid grovel at your feet. It’s anonymous to them. The point is that it shouldn’t be anonymous to other people who could benefit from the example.

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