Charity & Ethics

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Chari...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Charity (1878) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an earlier essay I looked at the matter of the ethics of overhead in regards to charities. In that essay, I focused on Dan Pallotta’s discussion of the matter and in this essay I will discuss the matter more generally.

While people do vary in their opinions of the matter, there does seem to be a general moral intuition that a charitable non-profit should have minimal overhead. The idea is, presumably, that the money should go to the charitable cause rather than to the cost of overhead. Thus, the idea is that the lower the overhead, the greater the virtue. In this context it is assumed that the overhead is generally legitimate (that is, the money for overhead is not simply wasted or misused).

The obvious way to discuss this matter in the context of ethics is to consider it within established approaches to ethics, specifically those of virtue theory, Kant and utilitarianism.

Borrowing from Aristotle and Aquinas, when assessing charity one needs to consider such factors as the object of the action, the circumstances of the action, and the end of the action.  Aristotle, in defining what it is to act virtuously, puts considerable emphasis on the idea that a person must do the virtuous act for its own sake. Using the example of giving to charity, exercising the virtue of charity (or generosity) requires that the giving be done for the sake of giving. If, for example, I give for the sake of getting a tax break, then I am not exercising the virtue of charity. This would seem to provide some foundation for the intuition that charities should have low overhead. After all, for those engaged in the charitable function (be it a road race, a bake sale or something else) to be acting from the virtue of charity they would need to engage in the activity for its own sake. If, for example, I work for a charity to get a salary, then it would seem that I am not acting virtuously. As such, to be acting virtuously it would seem that those involved in a charity would need to be engaged in the charity for its owns sake, which would certainly seem to involve the expectation that they make sacrifices for the charity since they are supposed to be acting for its sake and not for some other sake, such as making a large salary.

Not surprisingly, people are praised for making sacrifices for charity—be it a person who volunteers for free or a person who could be a CEO of a major corporation but instead works for a charity for a mere fraction of what she could make in the for-profit sector.

Kant claimed that what matters morally is the good will and not what the good will accomplishes. Roughly put, if a person wills the moral law, then that is what matters. Whether the person accomplishes anything practical or not is not relevant to the ethics of the matter. In the case of a charity, what would presumably matter is that a person will in the appropriately good way and the consequences would not matter morally. This would certainly match the idea that what matters in a charity is that this will be shown by focusing on minimizing overhead and maximizing what goes to the charitable cause. Naturally, a person can will the good and also have success in terms of the consequences. However, people are praised for their intent. So, as Pallotta noted, those running a bake sale with a low overhead that raises a tiny amount of money are regarded as morally superior to those running a high-overhead event that raises a great deal of money. It is presumably assumed that those with the low overhead are focused on (willing) charity while those who are involved in the high overhead operation are really concerned with their own income.

In the case of utilitarianism, the focus is not on the intentions of those involved nor on what they will or do not will. Rather, what matters is the consequences. On this moral view, it would certainly seem that a high overhead charity could be superior to a low overhead charity in terms of the consequences. In fact, Pallotta seems to be giving what amounts to a utilitarian argument: what matters is the overall consequences. On this view, a charity is assessed based rather like any business: costs and benefits. So, for example, if a charity has large expenses in terms of salaries and promotions, yet successfully raises millions for charity, then it is better than a charity with tiny expenses that raises a tiny amount of money.

While it is tempting to claim that those operating from the utilitarian perspective would be doing so in a way that rejects the idea of the true virtue of charity, this need not be the case. Acting in a virtuous manner presumably does not require that a person act less effectively. As such, if a person accepts a large salary to work at a charity for the sake of the charity, then the person can still be regarded as virtuous, albeit well compensated for her virtue.

The obvious counter is that a person who was truly motivated by a sense of charity would accept a much lower salary so that more would go to charity. This is certainly a legitimate concern and raises the question of how much a person should sacrifice in order to be virtuous. In this case, a person who could make a huge salary effectively selling bottle water to the masses instead elects to make a large salary effectively combating malaria could be regarded as being virtuous—provided that she chose the one over the other for the sake of helping others. While a person who accepted a lower salary for doing the job could (and perhaps should) be regarded as more virtuous, it does seem misguided to automatically regard someone who is doing good as lacking virtue merely because they receive such compensation. If only from a practical sense, it seems like a good idea to reward people for doing what is good.

If, however, a person picks the charitable job for other reasons (such as location or to boost his image for planned political run), then the person would not be acting virtuously even if he happened to do good. We do not, of course, always know what is motivating a person. This probably explains why people tend to praise charities with lower overhead—since those involved are obviously not getting anything for themselves (in terms of money), then they surely must be motivated by charity’s sake. Or so it is assumed.

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  1. In my experience, many people who work in charitable or non-profit organizations would like contemporary society to be less profit-oriented, with more solidarity between people
    and with relationships between people motivated by friendship or a sense of community rather than by a cash nexus.

    Thus, in their charity or non-profit work those people try to reproduce on a small scale non-mercantile relationships in their work and with others rather than reproduce the “money talks” ethos of society as a whole.

    Many people who work in the non-profit sector simply could not live with themselves if they reproduce corporate mentality in their daily life, even if that corporate mentality produces
    greater income for charity.

    It seems valid that they try to preserve a small sector of society which is free of a “business is business” mindset.

  2. swallerstein,

    “Many people who work in the non-profit sector simply could not live with themselves if they reproduce corporate mentality in their daily life, even if that corporate mentality produces greater income for charity.”

    Have you ever heard the term “We’re running a business here, not a charity”. It’s usually said by a business person as they’re about to do something very uncharitable. I have to be very careful not to brand all charities, specifically large charities, with the same brush. Some accomplish literally life saving and life changing work, but there are others, that are corporate – and it’s managers running a business for the sake of themselves.

    Not all corporations are that awful, but some do have that grinding amorality that leads to much of the suffering, and consequently a need for charity as there is. When charities behave like these amoral corporations, with the intention of maximising executive reward (all the better to incentivise executives to do more of what they’ve been doing), something is very seriously wrong.

  3. Mike LaBossiere,

    “On this moral view, it would certainly seem that a high overhead charity could be superior to a low overhead charity in terms of the consequences.”

    It would seem…..but in this world not every thing is as it seems.

    But first on the issue of morality, Mike, let me direct you to Mark 12:41-44).

    41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. 42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. 43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: 44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

    Now, Mike, I know young timers like yourself have little time for the gospels, and it’s all Donald Trump and Ayn Rand these days. But I think after all this time those good books still have a lot to say.

    For charity to function properly or even adequately, to serve those in need, a moral purity is essential. There have been abuses of charitable organisations as long as there have been charities. Jesus’ engagement with charities of the time (fictional or real, divine or not, is not important), or Francis of Assisi engagement with Charity. Francis and his monks went about living as beggars – and that is because there was a corruption in charity as there is now; senior executives in other organisations collected for the needy but the needy didn’t see much of the collection. And they would have had the same arguments then as business and corporate charity “leaders” have now. An action of Francis is to uncorrupt the public – who had come to believe charity is a commercial transaction; you pay something, you get something. The more you pay the more you get.

    The specific abuse of charity that bothers me the most. Is the use of charitable funds by the upper-class, privilege, and wealthy, to fund their pleasure activities – and at the same time to grant them a halo of self-sacrifice and giving.

    For instance, but I can repeat several of these anecdotes that are essentially the same; many have the climbing of mount Kilimanjaro as an element. A radio interview I heard recently. The group being interviewed had traveled from a European country to an Africa country. The groups focus was the absolute absence of kidney dialysis machines for children in this country. In the course of the interview, the selfless saviors of African children, said of the great time they were having; Africa, a once in a lifetime trip. The interviewer then asked “And how many machines did you manage to buy for the children?”….And the interviewee said “Oh no. We didn’t buy any machines. We’re just raising awareness….we didn’t buy any dialysis machine”…..raise awareness for who?….And for what? More trips to Africa – charitable works that look good on resume……The interviewer audibly choked and coughed…but did not challenge them, because anyone doing charitable work is unimpeachable. But you could tell what he wanted to say was “How about buying the kids a ********* dialysis machine, instead of blowing the cash on a holiday”

    Nowhere in the gospels does it say: And Jesus raised alms for the lepers. And took those alms to fund his entry in a round Mediterranean yachting race. The awareness of the plight of the lepers had been raised. Then Jesus, his good works done, took a well earned rest at a wonderful resort, with golfing and spa.

  4. Swallerstein,

    That does make sense. A similar situation often arises in teaching: many K-12 and university faculty I know do what they do not primarily for the money. Over the years, I’ve seen teachers buy their own supplies, do lots of extra unpaid work with students, volunteer in the community and so on because of their values.

    I have also seen “educators” who are very money and status focused-some have been very successful in landing star faculty positions. Whether they are good educators or not is, of course, another matter.

    That said, I think educators and others often get shamelessly exploited for these attitudes.

  5. JMRC,

    Ah, being called a young timer made my day. 🙂

    Like you, I do regard the misuse of charity as a moral concern. However, I don’t think that charity requires moral purity-a person could be charitable in a meaningful sense while not being completely pure in her motives. But, I would agree that the tainted motives would impact the virtue. For example, if I give mainly for the sake of giving, but am pushed to give a bit more to impress people with my generosity, I am less virtuous than if I had given solely for the sake of giving.

  6. Holy pathemata , I’m still in my prime…but, what a self-evident hypocrisy- these token relationships of authenticity! Theory or not (getting off topic and likely carry on a bit) this controversy between ethics and charity is one that one that begs more application of inquiry, as a side from moral virtue and the purely charitable action of a functional person or group. One may admit as a person functions under the given premises and application, a mystical sort of paradigm is more than any kind of ethical or moral quarea, and its associative role is the ideological context by which the pragmatic content can establish some utilitarian solvency. (Unless, aphoristic math, unproven proportions and indemonstrable statistics is the name of the game) Even though, perhaps drawn on skeptical premises and inferring as much, the concepts of an agent in control or an apposite characteristic is one that resolves itself by way of intellectual Motives and elective Intention:
    “Or, so it is assumed”
    As the seeming cash-culture commits the policy driven suicide, a nationalist sentiment (where metaphor, meaning, semanteme, etc. are agents of linguistic implementation) uses language as an interpretive mechanism of culture and,
    “… ethos of society as a whole,”
    The ‘realpolitik’ is the agency of normative mechanisms, here. If taken out of context of charitable ideals, utilitarian or naught, it can be useful or in the way a given nationalist pride can be either productive or it can be detrimental to themselves or to others. (Reminding me of a book by: Trudy Govier, A Delicate Balance) The effect of morals and the affect of ethical pride are, respectively and regularly, a determination of the inquiry by way of the goal and focus, insofar as,
    “‘We’re running a business, not a charity'”.
    Any meaninglessness of virtue is as much independent of morals so much as it can be descriptions of its negative morals – and, if providing such ideals, ‘amorally meaningful’ or contained in immoral prowess. Effects can be impacting the denigration of ethical distribution by way of pragmatic ‘Trichotomy’ as much as the terms originator, C,S, Pierce, would have re-read Kant’s ‘…Pure Reason’ and joined in the utilitarianism of his formative childhood.
    In macro-eco contrast, when any well-rounded economy allows for gains in unemployment or the ripe earth allows for many to go hungry, there is a globalizing force which needs focus on its ostensible power interconnected to the hunger. This is regarding food, want, and contentment as well as the fear of death and the reserve it inspires in motivating a caring empathy. Apropos, the self-image is one which commiserates less intention in focus than can be manipulated and erode the character; expecting the self-sacrifice that so oft accompanies the aloneness of a treatment or cure that is necessary and unattainable. To this one may cite Chomsky or Foucault as they may remonstrate the roles involving ‘power’, but YouTube and ZComm are on the mark, (‘limes’, and margins, to be less the banal novelty of nuance). What’s more, I can’t think of a quote for some reason?
    To attribute uses of technical metaphor, in signifying an occlusive culture, there are a few dependable (and reasonable) consistencies. To face the crux of the crisis (as in: the Praxis or the Nazis) is to admit that the most effective “red cross” charitable act is the ‘red herring’ of certain sovereign states that has all the know-how it now needs as well as an enjoyment in lording it over other, less fortunate regions or states by restricting their rights to technology and the knowledge as they inspire the collective ethos they intend to impart (though, motives are still a little vague). In other words, xastration can be circumcised if the right services are provided and the smarter cells of “al-query” (for the love of puns :)>) granting these cultural distentions as supplements. To seem,
    “… about to do something very uncharitable.”
    is to be or not to be unethical if morals were taken serious in the privilege of state sanctions as those preserved by the polity of the individual or that of the “corporate mentality.”
    – Sent using an ISP and smart phone by Matt B S Gore not the gormless BS of Mattoids.

  7. Charity and ethics are interrelated. Both have their own importance. Each one has its own importance. Making a donation to charity is one of the virtues that one can posses and gives feeling of satisfaction and happiness.

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