Saturday, 2 October 2010

On Martin Brookes' view of "The Morality of Charity"

Apparently, there’s been a fair amount of controversy surrounding Martin Brookes’ call for an independent ranking of charities according to worthiness. Brookes, the head of New Philanthropy Capital, an organisation that provides advice to charitable donors, made the comments in a talk this week. If you get a chance you should have a read of it - it's an interesting and provocative take on the state of giving in the UK. (Find the text here).

The main premise of Brookes’ argument is uncontroversial, but woefully neglected. Brookes rightfully bemoans the fact that all charities are too often lumped in together, with no appreciation of the variation in worthiness of the causes or effectiveness of the charities. Surely he is correct to insist that the distinction between giving well and giving badly is as morally salient as that between giving and not giving at all?

These are important issues, and Brookes should be lauded for trying to draw attention to them. If anything, I think he should be more aggressive in driving home the message about quality of giving. I sympathise with his concern that “criticising donors for not being ‘good’ or ‘moral’ enough” may be counter-productive. Yet I think he overestimates his own importance if he believes his criticism is going to have such a strong effect on people. The thing about moral criticism is that it is easy to ignore: ‘What does he know?’, ‘Who is he to tell me what to do?’. It is only likely to be effective if the person criticised recognises some validity in criticism, and incorporates it into their own worldview. So I think the important thing is to get people to consider the possibility that they are misguided in their approach to charity.

I think most people can agree that some charities are better than others. The difficulty is that they are unlikely to agree which ones precisely are the better ones. Brookes’ suggestion that causes are what ought to be ranked is problematic to say the least, since any such ranking is bound to be subjective and upset as many (probably more) people as it guides or helps. A league table of charities would have to decide whether animals should enjoy comparable moral status to humans, whether we have greater obligations to compatriots than to foreigners and what the precise constituents of human need are. All of these are questions that have divided moral philosophers for centuries, so any assumptions will be controversial.

Even if we agree on what our values are, it is far from straightforward to determine how best to promote them. Brookes seems to believe that donating money to fighting global disease is morally better than giving the money to Harvard University (even though much of the funding for medical research presumably goes to academics at universities like Harvard). Yet even money that is not ear-marked to directly benefit the neediest may in fact serve them better. Is it implausible to imagine that the money used to fund a scholarship for a development economist whose ideas lift millions out of poverty is better spent than tackling that poverty directly? If the goal is reducing human suffering, we simply cannot know which of our strategies is most effective for achieving that goal. Given this uncertainty, it is wise to encourage diversification, a combination of a high- and low-risk ‘investments’.

However, I think that the core idea of an independent comparison of charities is a good one. Perhaps it would be wiser to compare similar charities with similar aims in terms of their effectiveness. I think that there is certainly demand for more general information about charities, like efficiency and administration costs.

In any case, there is another complication. Brookes assumes (not unreasonably) that moral motivations are the basis for most charitable giving. Yet the statistics that he quotes clearly contradict this. Just 14% of American donors in the survey he refers to support the causes that they think constitute the greatest social good, compared to 23% who see charity as ‘repayment’ for ways in which they have been helped. Brookes sees this as evidence of the irrationality of donors, moved by empathy and testimony rather than consideration of hard facts and data.

This may be partly true, but I think that many donors are not irrational at all, but are simply driven by a mix of motives, of which morality is just one. The difficulty is that people tend to see all altruistic acts as morally good, and that a binary conception of ethics blinds us to the possibility that a morally good act can be ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Most moral systems laud altruism, so all else being equal we would praise a person for throwing their friend a lavish birthday party. We generally believe that it is good to put someone else’s interests first, and show the empathy and consideration that requires. Yet it is almost certainly true that the money spent on the birthday party would be better spent given to a worthwhile charity. However, if we were to challenge the person with the fact that they could have done more moral good with the same money, they would probably admit that moral considerations were merely one among many.

Again, we might be wary of the consequences of challenging people with the accusation that they are less moral than they appear. It is bound to upset and anger a few. The hope is that with the realisation of the good they could do, their consciences will do the rest.

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