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

June 22, 2008

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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Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.


Richard Carrier on Atheist Morality & Theist Fears of Depravity

April 7, 2008

I’ve argued that theism cannot provide any demonstrable advantage over the lack of it in regards to justifying “meaning,” including moral meaning. More recently, I’ve started to flesh out the reasons why I find the specifically Christian version of theism morally incoherent (from, of course, my own conception of what is moral: i.e. fairness, rational principles, concern for others, etc.), specifically the idea of salvation (as well as a response to a cumbersome critic).

Richard Carrier, up and coming historian and philosopher, has some more to say on the subject of morality that I think is worth a look. As he notes, when believers insist that non-believers are always a frightening inch away from rape and pillage, they are looking for a very specific set of answers, which are not always provided by atheists, perhaps because we’re missing the real point of the question.

As I noted in my first essay on meaning, one important key to this debate is to ask how exactly believers really come to their own moral justifications, which they purport to be satisfied with, or at least think superior to all comers. I think they, and perhaps even the rest of us, might be surprised at just how flimsy and often strangely indirect those justifications for moral behavior are.

On a side note, Carrier is also looking for patrons, of sorts, to sponsor him in his writing of a book on the historical Jesus. When the vast majority of Biblical scholars (though perhaps not the ranks of best) are devoted believers or even glorified salesmen like William Craig, it is always worthwhile to have a contrary perspective, especially from someone who is qualified to give one (as Richard is). I know I don’t have a devoted set of wealthy readers, or else you’d have already given ME all your money by now. But its certainly a cause worth passing the word around about.


Ben Stein Continues to Face the Hard Questions on Expelled!… from Calvinist Minister

April 6, 2008

I had meant to watch and comment on this Stein interview with Calvinist minister RC Sproul at some point, but never got around to it. Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub has now beaten me to it.

As Ed points out, it is simply astonishing that Sproul can sit there demanding that universities pay for and the support of Intelligent Design utterly regardless of whether it has merit or not (which is what universities normally use to judge what to fund, and a subject Stein and Sproul do not even bother to address). Does Sproul or any of his Bible colleges do the same for mainstream biology? How many evolutionary biologists have been invited to teach Sproul’s parishioners?

The video is also a pretty good example of the shallowness of Stein’s understanding of the subjects he’s purporting to know are all flawed and implausible. He simply repeats the standard canards and questions that Intelligent Design proponents told him, oblivious to the fact that they often make no sense (i.e. “where did the information come from?“).  There doesn’t seem to be any evidence, in all his many interviews, that his is capable of expanding on these talking points, let alone really grappling with critics who are actually experts in the fields being attacked.

Sproul’s discussion of “chance” is a case in point of just how shallow and confused the discussion is here. Pretty much everything he says initially he phrases as if it were a rebuttal to evolutionary theory. And yet his discussion of how “chance” per se is basically a linguistic illusion is something I’ve heard countless biologists try to explain to unwilling creationists. When scientists talk about “chance” or “randomness,” they do so in a very strictly delineated sense: most often meaning that the occurrence of two variables or occurrences things are not discernibly correlated (i.e for coin flips, the outcome of the flips is averages 50/50 over more and more trials, and these outcomes are not correlated with relevant variables like who is calling heads and who is calling tails).

No scientist is claiming that “chance” is some sort of magical power as the two seem to imply. It is simply a notable feature of various processes we look at. For instance, scientists do not claim that mutations happen by “chance” in the sense that they have no ultimate deterministic cause or explanation. What they mean is that mutations happen without any observed correlation to what they might do or cause, and whether or not this would be helpful to the survival of the creature they occur within.

Ignorant of any of this, Stein and Sproul sagely agree that scientists are arrogant and appealing to “magic.” This coming from folks whose alternative IS, literally an openly, magic (performed by an inexplicable all-powerful magician).  And bizarrely, for all this pretension at having a superior scientific position, they seem to feel no obligation to explain the specific mechanism or functioning of their alternative.