Charitable giving, radical utilitarianism and democracy

Over on The Nonprofiteer, I grapple with the justification for philanthropy which fails (as mine does) to increase Disability-Adjusted Life Years in the developing world. Not entirely satisfied with my arguments and would welcome any and all assistance.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

9 thoughts on “Charitable giving, radical utilitarianism and democracy”

  1. You have the handle of it, I think: someone who’s homeless in Chicago is no less deserving than someone who’s homeless in Lagos. This is the flip side of the conservative canard that poor people aren’t poor because they have refrigerators in their run-down apartments and aren’t living in mud huts.

    Poverty is relative, certainly, A poor person in the US is certainly more materially wealthy than a poor person in Lagos., and to a wealthy philanthropist it would seem that their ‘dollar goes further’ in Lagos, but it is a canard ‘First World Problems’ are automatically devalued.

    It doesn’t change the hunger pangs of a child in Chicago, nor is the only measure of progress ‘Disability-Adjusted Life Years’. This is the easy stuff: better sanitation, clean water, electricity, refrigeration.The great advances we made in the early 20th century. But the disparity of wealth and poverty continue, even here.

    Certainly, remarkably cheap improvements cam make a bigger difference where basic sanitation and clean water are not available, but again, poverty is relative. A ‘poor’ person in Chicago possess, on average, an income that would make them middle-class in Lagos, but that doesn’t alleviate their poverty in Chicago, unless we want to deport them to Nigeria…

  2. Given that so much spending by the rich is on fripperies (or worse on stuff that actively hurts everyone else) it seems unnecessary/counterproductive to actively call out as bad any humanitarian giving simply for not being optimal.

    But I don’t see why it’s important to reject the intuition of your Pakistani immigrant that the needs of third worlders press more heavily upon them on average than those of first worlders impact them. That’s pretty much what it *means* to be third world. Kenya has way more poor/starving/diseased human beings than France. And the depth of misery extends much further down – the US doesn’t have children dying of diarrhoea by the hundreds of thousands, who can be saved with frickin electrolyte packets. Nor even are the homeless in France (or the US, to a lesser extent) anything like as badly off as their cohorts in Kenya, since they at least are embedded in a rich milieu where certain minimal needs can be satisfied regardless. They get emergency healthcare and soup kitchens that would seem positively luxurious to someone from Somalia.

    One can still pay extra attention to the needs of fellow citizens. If we allow for the nation state and patriotism at all, this seems permissible, though by no means obligatory. [It would be odd and morally obtuse to condemn Bill Gates – whatever else one objects to in him – for saving 10k kids in Congo from dying of malaria rather than buying one really shiny science lab for a high school in inner city Chicago.] I also care more about my family than about yours or that of some ragpicker in Laos. But I can do that without engaging in the weird pretense that our problems are – from the standpoint of an impartial ethics, be it utilitarian or Kantian or Rawlsian or whatever – equally pressing.

    Frankly ISTM your post is more about a) feeling defensive about the PI’s obviously true claim, and b) lacking willingness to explicitly state that ones fellow countrymen have a greater stake on our generosity. Again on the latter, I don’t think you need to endorse that position, but you’re going to have an extremely hard time rebutting PI without something like it.

    1. To make a point explicit, I don’t think *utilitarianism* is the issue here. The issue rather is universalism/cosmopolitanism. Any universal ethic, whatever principles it draws upon, is going to tell you that the needs of babies dying of diarrhoea are greater than those of high schoolers in bad schooling districts. Frankly, it seems morally appalling to deny this.

      Utilitarianism is merely a subcase of a much broader set of frameworks with this problem. If you’re a good Kantian you’re going to face this same question with the same force. Rawls himself had a pretty hard time walling off the transnational redistributive consequences of his original position in Law of Peoples, and it’s not clear he did a good job. The issue is whether all people have an equal claim upon your sympathies. For family we all assume the answer is no, and extending that intuition to patriotism is to me a much more promising avenue here than nitpicking utilitarianism.

  3. Here’s my assistance: Utilitarianism is a bad joke.

    1. It is computationally impossible, demanding of you that you perform calculations impossible for any finite being, using information you have no access to, and regarding subjects which aren’t genuinely subject to mathematical analysis.

    a) You don’t have access to other people’s utility functions, even assuming they could be objectively defined.
    b) If you did the most powerful supercomputer in the world couldn’t optimize the outcome for any group larger than a dozen or so.
    c) It hasn’t even been established if utility is a scalar or vector value.

    Essentially, the idea of performing calculations regarding “utility” is a metaphor gone cancerous.

    2. Nobody is a utilitarian in practice. How many people do you know who live in appliance crates, and live on instant ramen, so that they can send all their income people who lack appliance crates and instant ramen? Zero, I bet. Maybe this should tell you something?

    My advise is, stop taking utilitarianism seriously. It’s a joke. People who claim to be utilitarians should be told to go away until they want to be serious about morality.

  4. The error is in pretending that there’s only so much philanthropy to go around, and so it’s always a question of art museum or food for starving children. We can have both! Donors can give to both, and they should.

    I’d think that donors that get their names on a plaque at a new theater, go to a nice party, and hang out with other locally generous people are more likely to later support malaria prevention in Africa, not less. They’ve come to see themselves as pillars of the community, and now it’s just a matter of extending their sense of community to the whole world.

    We’re rich enough as a species to take on poverty in the Third World, and less catastrophic needs in the First. So I don’t see the point in pitting one against the other. Will is the barrier, not money.

  5. None of us is Bentham Khan, enlightened despot of the world. We are citizens in a particular society, and start with different circles of 200 acquaintances, even if we are six steps away from anybody else in the world. It’s reasonable IMHO to discriminate to some extent – not entirely- in favour of people and needs we can see directly. An attempt at pure rational benevolence would in practice kill off the empathy needed to make it work psychologically. The Golden Rule authorises, I suggest, a measure of such discrimination.

    “Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friend“. Laying down your life for strangers may sound even better, but it’s infeasible for almost all of us.

  6. All good things cannot be distilled down to disability-adjusted life years. All philanthropists don’t have the same goals, so there is no reason to think that donations to a particular cause could easily be diverted to another. Maybe all donors should in fact think exclusively about DALYs, but they don’t and it is probably neither feasible nor prudent for a non-profit that needs donations to try to persuade them otherwise.

  7. I don’t have the answer either, but I tend to agree with Prasad. There’s really no reason to be defensive about wanting to help people here, v there. We have babies dying of various preventable issues here too, we don’t have to choose. (I reject this business of where does the dollar go furthest — I think we can save all babies everywhere, at least to the extent of prenatal care, clean water and so forth. If it means a bit less botox gets sold, so be it. Obviously at some point on the scale, this might kick in. But we’re not anywhere close imo.)

    Plus, the person making the remark would seem to have moved to the First World, so really, who is he/she to criticize? If they were really so concerned, they would presumably have stayed home. Otoh, it is good to make sure people are grounded in reality too. Really I’d have to know more context. No one likes to be around people who whine constantly; yet if someone never complains, you don’t really know them and you can’t really talk to them. It is a bar to intimacy. I guess to some, this is a feature not a bug?

    Then, there’s the issue of guilt. I won’t argue now, but I could, that f.e., the US owes a whole lot more to people in this hemisphere than to those further away. Plus, maybe before we worry too much about saving the rest of the world, we could first stop actually killing them directly. We should remember, these are other people’s countries. Are we paying enough for commodities? Are we in the process (TPP) of coming up with new ways to rob them? There are so many dimensions to these questions. Guilt to me is just a tool to do better the next time, but we in the US tend to be sooo ahistorical that I’m not sure the penny ever drops.

  8. I’m grateful to you all for your input. Especially valuable is prasad’s insight that it’s not necessary to claim equivalence of suffering to decide to make gifts close to home as well as far away. The suggestion that one legitimately gives priority to one’s own community is one I hadn’t brought clearly into focus. Ben is right that we should all give in multiple contexts, but I don’t want to scatter my limited largesse to so many recipients that it makes no impact at all. To be continued . . .

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