On Giving: Why Give? To Whom? How Much?

Economics and Faith - Talk Three

Ross Reason, Bursar, Robinson College

Should we give to charity? If so, how much, and to whom? Today’s New Testament reading offers answers to the last two of these three questions but is a little hazy on the first: Zacchaeus gave 50% of his wealth to the poor. But why did he do it? Was it out of a sense of guilt? After all, 2000 years ago, tax collectors were thought of much the same way as bankers and hedge fund managers are today: or maybe it was in the hope of reward – the prospect of eternal salvation is a pretty motivating factor! And why 50%? Is that the hurdle rate for salvation or only for a rich man?

Ethical thinking offers two main approaches to the why – rule based reasoning and goal based reasoning. St Thomas Aquinas developed the rule based argument: for him whatever we have in “superabundance”, that is whatever is above and beyond what we need to satisfy the reasonable needs of ourselves and our dependants is owed of natural right to the poor. For a rich man, this is a far higher standard than Zacchaeus lived up to. Subsequent thinkers in this deontological tradition were not content to take their rule from scripture and advanced arguments from first principles. Kant proposed an ethical system based on what he called the categorical imperative: an action is right if the principle on which it is based should be a universal law. The Oxford moral philosopher Richard Hare built on this: if our actions are to be moral they must be “universalizable” – we must be prepared to prescribe them independently of the role that we occupy. I must consider strangers and enemies as well as friends. So, when I ask, should I give to, say, help someone who is starving, I should imagine that I don’t know whether I am the one who might be starving or not and ask myself what would I want to happen in this situation? Clearly one would give.

For a consequentialist the right approach when asking why give is not ex-ante moralising but ex-post results. If you define happiness as the ultimate “good”, the maximisation of which is your goal, then give because it increases happiness, or in a Buddhist-equivalence, reduces suffering. But what weight to give various people’s suffering? If you accept the premise that moral principles should be universalizable then the only answer is an equal weight. We should give an equal consideration to everyone’s interests. This is a minimal principle of equality: it does not dictate equal treatment. Imagine that you come across 2 victims of a disaster, one with a crushed leg and one with a small gash. You only have 2 shots of morphine. An equal consideration of interests means that you give both to the person with the crushed leg: he will still be suffering far more after he has received the first shot of morphine than the person with the gash.

Now it gets uncomfortable. Last year 18 million people died from poverty-related diseases. 9 million of them were children. 1.4 billion people live on less than 80p a day. And that is not what they can buy in their countries with 80p, but what they could buy in ours.

But that’s distressing so here’s another story: imagine you are on your way to an important meeting – it might be a job interview. You are dressed in your best clothes and are in a bit of a hurry. You notice a 3 year old drowning in a shallow ornamental pool. You are the only adult around who can save her, but, not wanting to be late, and not wanting to ruin your expensive clothes, you rush on by and the child dies. Most people would say that your action was morally repugnant. On the other hand most of us can save thousands of lives with very little sacrifice yet choose not to: no one thinks it is morally repugnant not to donate money to Unicef when that appeal envelope lands on your mat yet it is exactly the moral equivalent of letting the child in the pond die as soon as one accepts the principle of equal consideration of interests. The strength of a moral imperative does not diminish with distance.

Fleshing out this principle allows one to answer the second question of how much to give: an equal consideration of interests leads to the following premise: we ought to prevent what is bad when we can do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. This innocuous sounding principle is remarkably stringent. It means that we cannot go on living our comfortable, luxurious lives, for to do so it is necessary to allow some to die whom we might have saved. Saving every life we could would mean cutting our standard of living to the bare essentials to keep us alive and in employment and also would mean taking the most highly paid job we could, even if that job was loathsome to us. Whilst this would be morally heroic most of us are not saints so perhaps, in the hope that it might motivate more people to give a higher proportion of their wealth and income, it is better to say we should give everything above what we need to lead a life that is consistent with maintaining our motivation to give. For most of us in the developed world that is far above the traditional 10% tithe and, indeed, the more that you earn or have, the more you should give. I very much doubt that Zacchaeus’s 50% would be enough for a hedge fund manager and some have argued, not without reason, that the 99% of their wealth that Bill and Melinda Gates have given is still not enough relative to what remains. After all, amongst many other assets, they still own a house valued at $150 million. But that is carping: if every one of the 1,000 or so billionaires who have, between them, over 4 trillion dollars was only a fraction as generous as the Gates, death by poverty could be eliminated tomorrow.

So to whom should you give? Andrew Carnegie who made the equivalent of over $300 billion dollars at the end of the nineteenth century and then retired to spend the last third of his life giving it away, and Bill Gates who is doing much the same thing with considerably less now, agreed that it is as important to whom you give to as how much. I would argue that it is hard to reduce suffering more than by preventing people, and particularly children, dying from poverty, but you might have your own views on what the best uses of your money might be. For instance, Carnegie gave his wealth away mainly to educational charities. To help you decide the World Health Organisation has developed a metric by which charitable impact can be assessed: it’s a hard-hearted economist’s cost-benefit analysis which ranks every intervention by how many years of disability adjusted life expectancy it adds – the best interventions, such as inoculating children against the parasitic worms that carry many tropical diseases, are up to 10,000 times more effective than the worst. The best-targeted interventions can save a life for a little over £100. What used to be “donate and hope that a dictator doesn’t steal it” has become a science with organisations such as Give Well ranking charities by their effectiveness.

Buddha said “Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy.” Neuroscience agrees, measuring increases in activity in those areas of the brain associated with pleasure when subjects are asked to imagine giving money away anonymously. In a survey of 30,000 households those that gave money to charity were 43% more likely to say they were very happy than those that did not.

Life is more than consuming products and generating waste. Whilst I have been speaking, 250 children have died from preventable, poverty-related causes, something that, in this world of material affluence, is nothing short of a moral outrage. At the end of your life you will want to look back and be able to say that you’ve lived it well: part of that is doing your best to make the world a happier place. So, please give, give as much money and time to reduce suffering as you can afford, to whatever cause you are passionate about. It’s the right thing to do and you’ll be happier for it.