Charity

Just as I began writing this post, I saw this short piece by Kendall J.

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong.

This idea usually comes from people who want the state to step in and force everyone to be charitable. A case in point is the recent discussion I had with T.R. who was arguing for free public education so that poor people can afford education. The ironic part is that we already have a free (and broken) public education system for precisely this reason, indicating that there are many people who are concerned that poor people would not be able to afford education and don’t mind getting taxed to “solve” the problem. So why do these people need the state to intervene? As I see it could be two reasons:

1) They think their donations would not be enough to run an adequate system and so they want to coerce others.

2) They think they themselves would not donate if the state did not force them to.

Since there are very few people who ever advocate the scrapping of subsidized education, reason 1 is not credible. What about reason 2? Clearly reason 2 is paradoxical. Why would they not spend money voluntarily when they themselves think it is important to do so?

The answer can be found in the morality of altruism. Altruism creates an artificial line between actions that help you and actions that help others and claims that only actions that help others are noble. So if Edison invents the electric bulb and sells it for a profit, his action is called selfish (and at best amoral) even though it has benefitted innumerable people much more than it has benefitted him. On the other hand, when Bill Gates donates a large part of his wealth to charity, his action is called selfless (and noble) even though much of those donations will be ineffective (Africa’s biggest problem is not disease). Note how actions are being judged not by their rationality but by their (intended) beneficiaries. So Mother Teresa, who never produced any wealth in her life is judged to be incomparably nobler than Dhirubhai Ambani, who established a large business empire that created wealth for so many people (including himself). By this absurd standard, man is certainly not noble (and that is a very good thing – just imagine everybody spending their whole lives with a begging bowl with the intention of helping others with the proceeds).

The proper standard for judging actions should be – does this action actually benefit the actor? Is this a rational, workable, sound idea or is this a stupid idea that will cause harm? Since most men use both standards, the altruistic standard in the domain of morality and the rational standard in the domain of practicality, they carry over the obvious conclusion from the moral standard and apply it to the practical standard. Thus they reach the conclusion that man (not this or that individual, but man as a species) is incapable of acting for his own long term interests and has to be forced to do so.

But the domains of morality and practicality are not separate. Proper moral principles are <i>derived</i> from practical experience. The moral is the practical. Applied to charity, charity is just another action like investing in a company or buying a work of art and like any other action it can be good or bad. It is only the absurd morality of altruism that claims that charity cannot be in one’s self-interest and then exhorts one to engage in it nevertheless. The proper way to judge it is to balance the costs with the rewards (not necessarily in terms of money). The Mother Teresa kind of charity (redistributing wealth created by others in the prime of her life and sinking into a depression at the end of it) is bad charity because it is incredibly stupid. The Carnegie kind of charity (establishing libraries and universities when he might have lacked the energy to engage in directly productive work) is good charity because it brought him great satisfaction at little cost while also helping others.

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