Charity with a Conscience

We all have a moral obligation to use our surplus wealth to help those in need, but we should do so in a way that is effective, fair, and in accordance with our own vocations.

I disagree with Peter Singer, the well-known Princeton bioethicist, about many things: the permissibility of euthanasia and abortion, the nature of personhood, and the correct treatment of non-human animals, to name just a few. But I agree with him about this: we should think carefully about what obligations we have to provide charitable aid to others and about how we should satisfy those obligations.

In regard to the first of these questions, I have argued here at Public Discourse that we have an obligation to come the aid of others who are in need if we can help them without disproportionate difficulty. This obligation translates into a general obligation to give of our surplus wealth—that wealth that is necessary neither to the satisfaction of our basic needs nor to the pursuit of our vocation, including our vocation to care for, educate, and raise our children. We are obliged to use such wealth to serve human needs that would otherwise go unsatisfied.

A recent New York Times column by Professor Singer is devoted to the second of these questions—that of how best to fulfill our obligation to help those in need. Singer notes that philanthropic service organizations are reluctant to say that one charitable option is better than another. Could it be that there is no objective right answer to this question? “I don’t think so,” says Singer, before mounting an argument for two important claims.

The first is that we should support organizations that serve basic needs and prevent significant evils over supporting, to use his example, “arts, culture, and heritage.” The second claim is that when deciding amongst welfare-oriented agencies, we should, in effect, do our homework, and prefer those that most effectively use their resources over the wasteful and inefficient.

Singer’s second point is largely correct. We might wonder, “Who really gives to the less effective over the more?” But high-gloss charity campaigns and foundations led by fabulous superstars clearly attract attention that is often not justified by results. These charities and foundations can have disproportionate expenses, engage in needless self-promotion, and are sometimes an occasion for celebrity adulation as much as the relief of the needy. And even among more run-of-the-mill charities, there can be great discrepancies between the percentage of each dollar donated that goes directly toward supporting the mission. Giving inefficiently is, in fact, morally wrong: those who could have been helped by wasted dollars could rightly complain of unfair treatment.

A further point, not made by Singer, is that many charities contribute to goods while also contributing to evils. We often do not take adequately into account the negative side effects of our charitable giving. If certain charities educate in ways we believe are wrongheaded, or promote practices that we believe are morally problematic, then we should avoid donating to them, even if they serve the poor in other important ways. What could justify material cooperation in the bad effects these charities will bring about if there are other charities that do not promote these ills?

Now to Singer’s first claim. It is not without some merit. Other things being equal, it is usually the case that our most exigent obligations in using our surplus wealth are to serve those in the gravest need. After all, having one’s most serious needs met is a pre-condition of being able to enjoy many of life’s other goods, such as those of arts, culture and heritage. So fairness toward others will often lead us to favor the satisfaction of basic needs in our giving.

Recognition of this truth should lead those who accept the truth about the worth and dignity of every human being to support a particular form of giving that Singer would find unappealing. Who, in the world in which we live, is at greater risk of being deprived of all of life’s necessities than those unborn children who are daily put at risk by the prevalence of abortion?

The gravity of this problem requires a multi-pronged approach. Money must be given to ensure that women have what they need to be able to accept their children and to either take care of them or place them for adoption with loving families. Money must also be spent to educate all citizens about the nature and value of unborn human life and to promote pro-life legislation. All such charitable giving is rightly thought of as going toward the care of the most needy and dependent. This should not lead us to ignore the plight of the poor and desperate elsewhere around the world, but neither should their situation lead us to ignore the needs of the unborn. Much less should it lead us to denigrate the lives of the unborn: abortion is not a reasonable response to the economic difficulties that many around the world experience.

Nevertheless, despite some merits, Singer’s claim about the nature of our charitable obligations depends on a view about the relationship among human goods that is false. Seeing his error should show us that all things are not “equal” as often as he assumes.

Is it true, for example, that we can simply say that saving 1,000 people from 15 years of blindness, as in Singer’s example, is an objectively better state of affairs than contributing to a museum that will be visited by 50 million people over 50 years? If it were, then there could be no question: preventing blindness would be obligatory in all cases.

What Singer takes to be obvious, however, is not. While saving people from blindness is clearly good, so is contributing to the preservation and enjoyment of the arts, and the two goods are different. If they both cannot be pursued, then some real good will be lost by the choice to promote one rather than the other.

It is not really possible to say, as Singer does, that “the harm of one person’s becoming blind outweighs the benefits received by 1,000 people visiting” the museum. And neither is it possible to say, though Singer does not suggest this, that the choice to fund the museum is a choice to blind those who will not receive your aid. Their blindness is a side effect. While it can be unfair to accept some side effects (perhaps even in this case), sound moral norms do not rule out the possibility of ever accepting such bad consequences. Moral absolutes, rather, direct us never to intentionally bring about such harms to other persons.

It is also essential to note that the provision of both goods in Singer’s example—of health care to prevent blindness and of the resources necessary for preservation and enjoyment of the arts—can each reasonably be described as the satisfaction of genuine human needs, which is, after all, what the obligation of charity is oriented toward. One can be motivated to provide charitable aid along a much broader axis than Singer’s view seems to allow. Any human good, in fact, generates genuine needs, and thus charitable giving may be oriented to the satisfaction of needs generated by all the basic human goods: knowledge, aesthetic experience, religion, marriage, play, and others.

Of course, simply being rooted in a human good does not show that a particular project serves a genuine need. Part of considering efficiencies requires asking whether some particular goal really is necessary. Perhaps the museum wing that Singer describes is itself no more than a vanity project; if so, the money should go elsewhere. But if the museum project would make significant works of art widely accessible that would otherwise be unavailable for display, then a genuine human need really is being met, one not obviously outweighed by any other similarly genuine need.

If the claim to straightforward weighing fails, and we recognize that the field of human goods is wide, generating a variety of genuine human needs, then we can argue that while the obligation of helping those in grave need is often stronger than that of pursuing some other form of charitable giving, this obligation is not absolute. Various considerations can be marshaled to show in individual cases that other forms of charitable giving can reasonably be pursued.

One such consideration comes from the relationships and social contexts in which one finds oneself. Within the web of such relationships, human agents find themselves with familial and social obligations, debts of gratitude, and favorable personal dispositions toward some goods and activities over others. For example: adults who, as children, were educated into an enjoyment of the arts at a local museum may find themselves drawn to the idea of helping future generations to receive the same or similar benefits. Similar considerations could lead someone to favor giving to a university, a church group, or a political movement or party.

Another kind of consideration concerns the importance of, for want of a better word, personal involvement. There is some value to giving money to an organization that will use that money in ways its officers think best to benefit those whom one will never know. But there is also value in giving both money and effort to a cause or institution in which one is personally invested. That kind of giving is, naturally enough, usually more local than global. This could lead a charitably minded person to give in a way that does not help those in the gravest need, but rather those whose needs were in some way related to his or her own personal gifts.

These considerations suggest that an important standard, in addition to fairness, is personal vocation. Charitable giving, like all else one does, should fit with the contours of one’s commitments, relationships, and one’s understanding of one’s life as a whole.

For many persons, that understanding situates everything one does in relation to religious concerns. Accordingly, charitable giving that serves missionary work will often be given priority over other forms. But for all, personal vocation and fairness should be brought to bear on the question of how best to meet obligations of charity. That an “objective” answer may also be to a certain degree “personal” does not eliminate the responsibility for giving the question much more serious consideration than we often do.

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