A Philosopher's Blog

Charity & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2013
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. Anonymous said, on July 31, 2013 at 11:02 am

    ” If, for example, I give for the sake of getting a tax break, then I am not exercising the virtue of charity. ”

    Do you even know what this means? If one gives to a charity, unless the effective tax on that gift exceeds 100%, the person giving is still “giving”. Given our bizarre tax structure, I suppose one could possibly imagine that a tax rate might possibly somehow exceed 100%. Would not avoiding this tax, and in such a case would one not be avoiding the very meaning of theft, be completely justifiable?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 31, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      I know what I mean, but I suspect that you are missing my point. My point is not about taxes-you have shifted to another issue(or issues). My point is that, given Aristotle’s account of virtue, in order to exercise the virtue of charity I need to give for the sake of giving. If my motivation is the tax break, then I am not acting from generosity but from a desire to save money. Consider the following conversation:

      Sam: “I just gave money to charity because I wanted to write it off on my taxes and I want to improve my reputation for when I run for office.”
      Sally: “My, you are so generous!”

      Sally, one would hope, is being sarcastic.

      My motives could, of course, be mixed: I might give for the sake of charity while also being motivated by a tax break and the reputation boost. But to the degree I am self-serving in my motivations, I would be lacking in generosity.

      • Anonymous said, on August 1, 2013 at 9:19 am

        Do you understand that the tax deduction part of the donation is thus irrelevant? If you give $1000 to a charity and you’re in say a 35% tax bracket, you only get to deduct $350 from their taxes. You are still out $650. Please explain how is that not ” exercising the virtue of charity”? Just because you felt good about giving the $650?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 1, 2013 at 5:20 pm

          You are missing my point. My claim is that if a person gives money to charity and is motivated by the tax break he will get, then he is not acting from the virtue of generosity/charity.

          Your counter seems to be that he is virtuous because he won’t be able to deduct everything. However, this does not matter-what matters (for Aristotle) is whether or not the person is acting for the sake of the virtue or for the tax break, however small.

          Likewise, if a person buys a bunch of charity raffle tickets in front of another person solely to impress her, then he is not acting from the virtue of generosity. Rather, he is just trying to create the appearance of generosity so as to impress the woman.

          This is based on Aristotle’s account of virtue, which can be disputed.

          • Anonymous said, on August 1, 2013 at 10:59 pm

            But that example doesn’t hold water. If a person buys a bunch of charity raffle tickets in front of another person solely to impress her, putting aside the possibility that those raffle tickets potentially winning something, that person quite arguably could potentially be gaining something of greater value than what was ventured, that being the affection/attention of the girl. A $1000 charitable donation will only return $350 in benefit, a loss f $750. This is something known/obvious at the time of the donation and has no discernible chance of increasing in value. In fact, the tax deduction not manifesting itself until April 15 or so of the following year, the donor is giving up access to that $350 for several months, not to mention the entire $750. Are you familiar with the concept of the time value of money?

            I’m missing the point? No, I think you’ve given a poor example. And compounded it with yet another poor example.

            • Anonymous said, on August 2, 2013 at 7:28 am

              Re-reading this, just to be clear, I would agree that your second example concerning the raffle tickets would be problematic re to what (you imply) Aristotle was referring. Which raises another question/quibble. Can you please reference which specific of Aristotle’s ethics works you are referring?

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    The same principle should apply to government.

    Budget 2014: Federal Government Spends Almost $300 Billion in Redundant Programs

    The Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday on governmental waste, the result of a three-year study on duplication, fragmentation, and overlap in federal agencies. The report found that $95 billion was being spent annually on such projects — ones where the government was found to essentially be doing the same thing twice, thrice, or even more. The report found 31 areas of particular overlap, and within those 31 areas, 81 courses of action that the government — whether it be Congress or the Executive branch, could take to reduce such needless waste.  In combination, the areas identified in prior reports, the total sum comes to $295 billion. That’s greater than the amount the federal government currently spends on education and transportation combined.

    Source: Budget 2014: Federal Government Spends Almost $300 Billion in Redundant Programs – http://www.policymic.com/articles/34255/budget-2014-federal-government-spends-almost-300-billion-in-redundant-programs

    For feds, more get 6-figure salaries

    The number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal salary data.

    Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14% to 19% of civil servants during the recession’s first 18 months — and that’s before overtime pay and bonuses are counted.

    Federal workers are enjoying an extraordinary boom time — in pay and hiring — during a recession that has cost 7.3 million jobs in the private sector.

    Source: For feds, more get 6-figure salaries – http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2009-12-10-federal-pay-salaries_N.htm

    $7 Billion Union Station plan: Too big, or could even be bigger?

    Last week, Amtrak unveiled a master plan for the future Union Station. Most press coverage immediately focused on the dollar figure in the plan, $7 billion, and even many transit advocates fretted that this cost sounded unrealistic. But we should not criticize Amtrak for suggesting a $7 billion plan. Instead, we need even more big plans to go along with this one.

    Source: $7 Billion Union Station plan: Too big, or could even be bigger? – http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/15792/7b-union-station-plan-too-big-or-not-big-enough/

    “Waste” is a dirty word in Washington, which is never to be spoken of in public

    Remember last year how Barack Obama, John Boehner, and the national media told us over, and over, and over again about how we could solve the debt ceiling crisis and the fiscal cliff crisis by simply following the recommendations of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and getting rid of duplicate federal programs as the GAO recommended?

    Neither do I.

    By the way… Ron Paul said nothing about it either… and neither will anyone else who’s riding the Washington regime’s gravy train… at our expense.

    “Waste” is a dirty word in Washington, which is never to be spoken of in public.

    Source: Waste” is a dirty word in Washington, which is never to be spoken of in public – http://wp.me/pPnn7-2aF

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