Thoughts On The Ethics Of Private Vs. Publicly-Mediated Generostiy

Tom Rhees has a fascinating article in which he analyzes religious and irreligious generosity by a number of metrics, yielding some revealing insights. The whole piece is worth reading. But I would like to focus on this last bit:

Arguably, charity is a means to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Seen in this light, it is a competitor to state welfare programs, because money taken in taxes can’t be given as charity. But charity is a relatively ineffective tool for redistributing wealth, because it’s susceptible to free riders. These are people who benefit from society’s efforts to help the poor but don’t give money themselves (after all, if you’re not Bill Gates, then your donation will hardly be missed). The free-rider effect occurs because the utility of charitable giving (i.e., the benefit that accrues to the donor from giving, compared with the benefit that would accrue from keeping the money) is low. For the religious, this is not so important. For them, the utility of charitable giving is increased because they believe that they will be rewarded (either now or in the hereafter) by their god. For atheists, however, the free-rider effect dramatically changes the optimal balance between charity and state-mediated support for the poor.

There’s good evidence that this is the case. Chen found that support for welfare was inversely related to religious “in-group” giving. On an international scale, welfare programs are strongest in nations where atheists are more common. Since state welfare dwarfs charitable giving, even in countries with small welfare states such as the United States, the result is that the least religious countries also have the highest flow of wealth from the rich to the poor and the smallest wealth inequality. This effect also maps onto overseas aid donations. According to data gathered in 2005 by Foreign Policy magazine, private individuals in the United States are the most generous in the world, every day giving six cents to foreigners in need compared with a meager one cent given daily by each Dane. Factor in government donations, however, and it’s a different story. The U.S. government gave fifteen cents on behalf of each citizen, but the Danish government gave ninety cents per capita. Put private and public giving together, and Denmark—one of the least religious countries in the world—is clearly the far more generous nation.

There are a few philosophical issues which this contrast raises.

One of the arguments conservatives often make against relying on state-mediated generosity in the form of welfare programs of various stripes is that this depersonalizes charity and either hinders or fails to cultivate personal charitableness and to foster interpersonal connections through personal charitable interactions. Another argument conservatives make is that state-mediated giving is a form of unjust coerced giving, rather than a morally noble voluntary giving.

And since conservatives seem to reflexively assume a significant proportion of the recipients of state-mediated charity are gaming the system, presumably they have more confidence that the church-based and other voluntary giving that they trumpet in its place is less subject to scamming. Presumably this might be because of an assumption that private individuals and organizations would be in a better position to hold other individuals accountable than impersonal and systematic bureaucracies are.

Or possibly the conservative does not assume private individuals and organizations are better at holding their charity’s recipients more accountable but because they reason that getting screwed over on some occasions as a private giver is a morally acceptable risk for someone already getting the intrinsic reward of doing a properly motivated, generous deed, whereas ripoffs of the government just compound the existing injustice in the seizure of property in the form of taxes in the first place.

Or, finally, maybe conservatives assume that the advantage of private charity efforts is not that the charities can hold recipients accountable but individuals can hold bad charities accountable better than they can fix a systematically broken bureaucracy. Further, conservatives see all bureaucracies as self-perpetuating such that they do not contract when need diminishes but inefficiently expand under all circumstances, they see them as inherently less flexible than private ventures, and at their most conspiratorial, they may see welfare bureaucracies as having a greater interest in perpetuating the need which keeps them in power than in reducing dependency.

And conservatives seem to worry that the government will show poorer judgment (or at least judgment contrary to their own) in discerning who is deserving of what kind of aid and how it is best delivered. In such cases, they find it morally objectionable that the government would seize people’s property to give it out in a way contrary to what their own discretion would.

And, along these lines, they may even be completely underwhelmed to learn about the relative lack of income disparity in socialist European utopias like Denmark because they think the vast income disparity in America is deserved and due to a fundamentally just system which rewards or not according to a morally fairer correlation to the virtues of innovation, determination, hard work, foresight, venturousness, and productivity.

Finally, many highly religious Christian conservatives, and irreligious conservatives who nonetheless see religion as a more useful institution than government for social control, deeply desire that the desperation of the destitute or emotionally wracked be turned into an opportunity for religious conversion. They want their charitable giving to be tightly associated with their faith so that they can win souls and so that they can condition support on religious instruction or devotion (whether this happens through explicit means or through more implicit and subtler, softer-sell tactics, this ulterior motive frequently lurks in the evangelizing Christian’s love of the poor and emotionally needy).

Secular resources which come with no dogmatic strings attached crowd out the evangelists’ turf and give the poor and otherwise needy options that let them evade attempts to Christianize their souls as a condition of the help they get. Some religious conservatives may even see this as a further reason to dislike government-based support: it does not come with Christian moralizing or religious demands which they would think constitute a more holistic, disciplining, morally improving, and accountability-fostering approach to charity.

And, finally, on this score, sometimes the religious refuse people their legally entitled rights to self-determination altogether by denying them certain forms of care that the religious institution administering a public good finds objectionable. See egregious, dogmatically justified moral impositions of the Roman Catholic Church on patients in the care of their hospitals (one salient example of which I commented upon extensively in the two posts, Legalism Over Life: Nun Supports Life-Saving Abortion And Gets Excommunicated and Moral Actions, Moral Sentiments, Moral Motives, and Moral Justifications: More On The Nun Excommunicated For Approving A Life-Saving Abortion).

In light of Rees’s observations and these speculations about the logic of virulent opposition to state-mediated generosity on the right wing, I want to offer a few thoughts on the ethics of generosity and of the positions I have just developed.

First, I obviously do not want the desperate to be compelled with no other options to take sanctuary in the churches where the condition of aid is either a soft or hard sell that they buy into religious falsehoods and poorly formed moral beliefs and spiritual practices. For this reason alone, before any other considerations, I think the guarantee of secular, systematic, religiously-neutral institutions is a vital protector of the freedom of conscience for the most vulnerable in society.

The most vulnerable need access to democratically controlled, egalitarian institutions they can turn to which restrict their advice and tactics to those approved by the standards of medicine and social science, and not be subject to the potential ignorance and recklessness of faith-based beliefs, moralities, and spiritualities because they have no other options. The vulnerable need secular, democratically controlled institutions which aim to solve their specific needs which lead them to need help, rather than be subject to possible ulterior motives of exploiting their weakness for manipulation of their souls.

But, beyond this concern, I think there are several others to reject the conservative view of generosity. I do not think that mutual support through the government has to alienate us from one another. I am very happy to pay my taxes and support the endeavors of creating a prosperous, technologically advanced, and just country. While government inefficiencies are lamentable and should obviously be minimized, collective investments in education, health care, scientific research, support for the poor, which reduce the unnecessarily enormous and shamefully growing income gap in the country creates a world of far greater opportunity and overall flourishing than a system that allows a few to horde all the resources.

I understand the value of capitalism and free markets, I really do. I am all for wealth generation. I am just not for wealth consolidation. I am a fiscal pragmatist and do not want the government to try to do anything the free market could do better and more justly but I also am not a free market absolutist and I recognize that there are some moral goods that only the government can provide better and more justly because it can do so more systematically.

And, honestly, I would rather pay more in taxes than have to give a dime to charity out of my own pocket. This is not because I want to be uncharitable. I’ll pay the taxes willingly and even vote for them willingly. But I want an efficiently just country, not one where people are left to the wolves so that I have to do the painful, inefficient, and time consuming task of taking care of them when the wolves are done with them.

While I am enough of a social libertarian to fear the government when it violates the 4th and 5th Amendments (which is all the time these days) and to be vigilant that it uphold the 1st Amendment, and while I do not trust its every intention or action in its militaristic, imperialistic foreign policy—I do not see the government as alien from myself when it is assuring that my neighbors have unemployment checks, when it is subsidizing the educations of disadvantaged kids, when it is offering to expand health care access to 30 million more people.

Of course we need the most efficient means possible and I do not claim the left is right about every instance where it assumes a government solution is a better one than a private one.

But what I want to address is the ethical question. I want to say that it is not inherently more virtuous to have a system designed to function on market whims as a matter of principle. If the freest market leads to the biggest tide which naturally lifts all boats as a pragmatic consequence, then it is justifiable. But if the lesson of Denmark is that a more robust welfare state accompanied by much higher taxes on those who can afford them leads to diminished income disparity and diminished social ills, then this would be clearly the morally best option.

This is because the consequence of increased overall flourishing is a far better moral good in itself than that individuals get more opportunities to privately pity and take care of their fellow man when this is less efficient and runs all sorts of risks of subjecting the vulnerable to people’s private exploitation or manipulation of their souls. In this way, I share a good deal of Nietzsche’s desire to avoid pitying and dehumanizing personal dynamics with others in which they have to beg of me and be dependent on me and in which my pleasure at helping comes at their expense in needing help.

I am happy to give time and love to those I love as an equal or those whose excellence I am helping them to develop. But I would rather the humiliation of need be met in ways which did not force people to beg of me at their most destitute. I would rather a system which kept them out of destitution in the first place as much as possible, which gave genuine opportunities in education, well funded hospitals for all the mentally ill who now live on the street, guarantees of medical attention for the sick, etc.

I would rather pay for that and run the risk that should I ever become a multi-millionaire I have to pay a lot for it. I do not see the loss of the personal virtue of generosity in this. There are many other, more ennobling and more efficient contexts in which to be generous one on one. And, more importantly, greater generosity seeks greater net efficiency, like the kind Rees cites in Denmark by contrast with the USA, rather than more opportunities to feel personally efficacious or more opportunities to sit as the judge of who deserves and who does not.

I think I can just as charitably vote as donate when my vote is for higher taxes for a more just society. I do not think that capitalistic free market income distribution divvies up either wealth or resources in the most morally fair ways at all. There is more to value than market value. Insofar as allowing market values to dominate is efficient for making a more prosperous world, they should dominate the economy.

But insofar as allowing market values to determine other goods is detrimental to other goods of human flourishing—to art, to individual health, to education, etc.—moral values need to be represented as well as economic values, even if it means some restraint on overall material prosperity if it means genuine increases for the worst off or for other cultural values.

There is no intrinsic virtue or duty however to honor market values as the only moral determinant of dessert. You do not always morally deserve only exactly what a free market determines you do. Neither our contributions to society nor our intrinsic worths as individual humans are always (or even often) properly compensated by the free market. There is no reason in government to make market values the sole determiner of who gets what. Taxes which allow that morally defensible goods get funded do not rob from those who deserve what they earn, but, when they are just, they correct for the necessary evil relativistic market value in ways that allow other, unprofitable values (and short-term but not long-term unprofitable values) of equal or greater importance to thrive too.

Of course, to the extent that taxing and otherwise meddling with free market values has a net effect of damaging other objectively valuable things, then the greater good is served by deferring to free market priorities.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mary Young

    The driving force behind what calls conservatives (religious or not) to critique government based welfare and wealth redistribution programs is the endless, insatiable, idolatrous need to consume. I think this is evident in many ways.

    First, many of the most effective faith-based charitable organizations are partially government funded and the amount to which they are funded by the government changes according to how much their locality has in its ability to donate. My boyfriend is a campus minster in Ithaca, New York and he volunteers some time at the Catholic Worker which, in Ithaca and the surrounding region, provides basic necessities like deoderant, diapers, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper to literally thousands of people. It’s basic function is to provide the things which are not covered by standard foodstamps and welfare subsidies. They are funded partially by the diocese of Rochester which has little money, partially by the federal government, partially by the county and obviously private donations. The county agrees every year to match 1/2 of what the federal government pays. This year, the Catholic Worker in Ithaca lost $80,000 due to conservative push to stop having the government fund charities. And the Catholic Worker isn’t the only religiously-based charitable organization or otherwise private charitable organization to suffer such cut backs. If a private charity organization is going to function at all in a way that respects human dignity it cannot, for instance, deny service to certain individuals. It cannot draw arbitrary geographical lines of outreach but should, instead, attempt to reach as geographically far with its services as possible. This requires workers, volunteers, transportation, bills to pay etc. Only the luckiest or greediest of private charitable organizations could survive purely on their private donations. The most effective private charities have government aid.

    So conservatives claim to come from a religiously-based point of view in regard to government charity and welfare, but they cut off the life blood to the very organizations they believe should be the arbiter of charity.

    Hiding behind the “religious charities do a better job” mask is just a way of putting the issue out of sight and out of mind. The vast majority of the people who say that have no intention of donating any money or time to those charities and they don’t care if they are effective or not. Some religious-based charities (but not all) are exactly as you said – closed-minded and proselytizing and do good only if people agree to listen to Bible readings or participate in services (as just a few examples).

    Second, the claim that government based welfare contributes to the lack of meaningful human interaction involved in charity is just a nice way of saying, “if people are given an opportunity to have a fair shot in a largely capitalist system and are not plunged into desperate poverty because of my tax dollars” then those people cannot know that they are subjected to the charitable whim of the wealthy. Redistributing wealth removes a person’s ability to consume the things necessary to show outward displays of wealth which in turn show to the lucky poor person they decide to be charitable to how much richer than rich person is than the poor person. Conceivably, without anyone over whom to lord wealth, there would be no reason to mindlessly consume and so government-based welfare and wealth redistribution systems threaten what people love the most about consuming – the outward effect it has on one’s status.

    Charitable giving can be the most impersonal system of all. I went on GO! West while I was at Fordham and we went to a place in Alamosa, Colorado called La Puente which I believe began as a religious organization but is no longer religious. It operates a homeless shelter/soup kitchen, a thrift shop whose proceeds benefit the homeless, a place where people can buy food and other necessities at an extremely discounted price, a coffee shop whose profits benefit the charity and which has free access to the internet for the large majority of the people in the town who have no internet. From what I could see, it was one of the most dignified ways to do charity I’d ever seen and their services were invaluable to the hundreds of migrant workers who came through the town and the people who lived on the outskirts of the valley with literally no access to resources. The daily meals at the homeless shelter were open to the public and no one was denied a meal. Even if the week before you had tried to strangle a volunteer, you would still be given a meal to take with you. As for the charitable distribution of food and necessities, families were given points based on how many children they had etc. and they could actually go to shop in the store. They had a cart and choices and it was like real shopping. The people who lived in the valley, unfortunately, had to receive boxes with supplies because they could not reach town. Everything about the way La Puenta runs itself is aimed at allowing the people they serve to be on the same level as the people who contribute to the service and allowing them to feel as if they have a choice. But we both know and I’m sure everyone who is involved knows – they don’t really have a choice. They are still dirt poor and they are still living off of the kindness and generosity of the people who give private donations to the organization. It is extremely impersonal because it necessarily subjugates the person receiving charity. The people who donate the “personal charity money” are not the people who work there or volunteer there. The organization tries to get people jobs and things like that, but it can’t single handedly fix a broken system that makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. If you asked any of the volunteers at La Puenta if they would rather the government operate in such a way that the people in Alamosa didn’t need their services, they would say “yes.” It is the same as many more liberally minded private or religious charitable organizations which is why so many of them campaign for better government aid.

    Charity is dehumanizing – at least being the recipient of it is, especially if you are repeatedly the recipient of charity. Small instances of help in a time of extreme need are appreciated, but in the long-term it ruins the spirit of the person who received it. When my parents were first married they were extremely poor and my mom always talks fondly about how people would help them with things, sometimes family and sometimes total strangers, so that their life could be a little more comfortable. But my parents weren’t from the poor class – though they may have been poor at the time – and with better means of employment they no longer need to receive charity. Those instances of charity were personal and meaningful but imagine if they had to raise all four of their children purely on the kindness of strangers. I think their attitude would be different.

    Conservatives want a more impersonal system. One that places the poor in shelters and not on street corners and keeps them where they belong – at the bottom. Anyone who tries to question this system is a communist as we learned from the violent and often fatal struggle of many religious and non-religious organizations who worked in Latin American in the 80s and 90s.

    Even if, like me, you have no a priori objection to religious institutions doing charitable work in society, you should still see how charity should really be the last resort. We should prefer a system that calls for no charity and with the wealth that flows through private individuals in this country, it should be no major threat to personal comfort if the tax system better benefited the poor. But that limits the extent to which we can extravagantly spend and it closes the gap between rich and poor which, frankly, makes the rich seem not quite as interesting.

    I am always skeptical of a conservative who talks about how charity should be with private or religious organizations. If they ever spent any time at those organizations they would know that many of the people who work in them (at least work in the less conservative organizations) would support the wealth redistribution program they despise.