How much should we give to charity?

Being charitable is, despite what some people may think, a commonly-held secular value. I could point you to large, successful groups like Kiva Atheists or Non-Believers Giving Aid as evidence. Or I could just present the logical argument that, when you are coming from the perspective that this one life is all that each of us have, you tend to understand the benefit in helping other people make the most of it. If people who are well-off give some of their nonessential wealth to help the poor, hungry, or otherwise disadvantaged and in need of assistance — if people who have some time to spare volunteer their time in these efforts — society as a whole will be improved. Even the givers and the volunteers win in this exchange, because their actions help reinforce a norm of charitable behavior, which offers the reassurance that if they found themselves in a similarly disadvantaged position in the future, someone else with the ability to do so would offer them help.

I think it’s pretty clear, then, why giving your time and/or money to charity is a good thing. The question I really want to address here is whether there is a point when you’ve given “enough.” If we’re justifying charitable giving based on the giver’s lower marginal utility of money (or whatever is given) compared to the receiver’s utility of the same stuff, can we ever justify going to a movie or eating out at a restaurant? Surely there’s some starving person who would benefit more from ten dollars’ worth of rice than I would benefit from the 7 pm showing of the latest Transformers sequel. And where do we draw the line? Is it okay to buy new clothes at full price at the mall, when I could buy other clothes on sale at discount stores or thrift shops and donate the money I save to the Red Cross or Oxfam? Surely I have a lot of stuff in my home I don’t need to survive. Should I donate it all, or sell it and donate the money? Extending this logic would seem to imply that we ought to give as much as we can until we’re no better off than the people we’re giving to, or at least until giving more would impinge on our ability to continue working and earning more money which we could then donate in the future.

I certainly don’t live that way, and I don’t know anyone else who does, either. Are we all hypocrites? I don’t actually think so. This argument based on marginal utility isn’t a binary thing. We don’t actually make a choice between giving nothing and giving everything but the bare necessities. Yes, it’s good to give, and it’s better to give more. But using your own money to have a bit of fun from time to time is hardly a blameworthy act on its own. There doesn’t seem to me to be a clear amount of morally obligatory charity, just a continuum on which people might do more or less of a good thing.

All other things being equal, someone who gives away most of what they have to those who are less fortunate should be considered morally superior to someone who makes the occasional $20 donation. But all other things are rarely equal. Our second person might be earning a lot of money working 60-hour weeks in a medical research facility trying to cure fatal diseases, and they might choose to spend their savings and precious free time kicking back and relaxing in order to recharge and keep working just as hard toward such a worthy cause. Or they might have decided to save up so they can put their children through college, or so they can be sure not to be a burden on their family during their retirement.

The key, I think, is to reflect on what you can truly afford to give, and weigh that against your needs and wants. If you decide you’re in a position to give gobs to charitable causes, that’s fantastic. We’ll all look up to you, and cite you as an example of an especially virtuous person. If you’re willing and able to give some, but not as much, that’s good too. And of course, you might be a recipient of charity, rather than a contributor of it. (In some cases, you might participate in some of both sides.) We all do what we can. On the other hand, if you’re obviously rolling in dough and don’t give a penny of it away, it’s clear to everyone that you could drastically improve the lives of others at basically no cost to yourself. I’d say it’s a morally bad thing for a person in this situation to hoard their wealth. I suppose it’s like there’s a charity score: x – y, where x is the amount you can afford to lose and still maintain a comfortable lifestyle, and y is the amount that you actually donate. Very high number? That reflects poorly on you, morally speaking. Very low (or even negative) number? You are a paragon of compassion.

So where do you stand? Do you think there’s a moral obligation to be charitable, and if so, how much must we give? How much do you give — or, if you don’t, why don’t you? Please remember, keep your explanations secular in the comments.

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3 Comments

  1. If we’re justifying charitable giving based on the giver’s lower marginal utility of money (or whatever is given) compared to the receiver’s utility of the same stuff, can we ever justify going to a movie or eating out at a restaurant? Surely there’s some starving person who would benefit more from ten dollars’ worth of rice than I would benefit from the 7 pm showing of the latest Transformers sequel.

    I just finished Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save, which makes essentially this argument: it’s wrong to enjoy luxuries for yourself if that money could be used to make a much greater improvement in the life of a needy person. He does, however, recognize that this argument is likely to sound too demanding to an average person, so he proposes a sliding scale of how much you should give away, based on income, that he thinks people should be able to follow.

    I’ve heard that Singer himself gives 25% of his income to charitable causes. I find it hard to argue with his basic logic, but I think the greatest difficulty is in finding a charity that you can know will actually be able to accomplish an amount of good commensurate with how much you’re giving.

  2. Aristarchus

     /  July 4, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    @Ebonmuse

    It’s hard to figure out exactly which charity would maximize the good done with your money, but it’s extremely easy to find one that will add a lot more happiness to the world than you lose in giving away the money, which is enough to support the logic for donating almost all your income.

    I would add that it’s ok not to donate if the person who would benefit a lot more from it than you doesn’t actually deserve it in some meaningful sense. I could see that as an argument against giving to charities that only help poor, healthy adults in first world countries, since those people tend to be in situations where they could make a decent life for themselves on their own, but most of the poor people in this world were born into situations where almost anyone in that situation would end up in poverty.

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