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The Moral Questions of Giving

   Mar 24, 2021

A message from CharityWatch Executive Director, Laurie Styron

Many of us receive significantly more requests for charitable donations than we have the resources to fulfill. As we attempt to narrow down the list of organizations most worthy of our support, we consider factors like what causes most interest us, and which charities will use our contributions efficiently and effectively. But the driving force behind our giving decisions is far more abstract. Our life experiences inform how each of us considers the moral questions that can greatly affect our giving habits:

  • What is our duty to help and how do we fulfill it?

  • Who is deserving of our help and how do we measure this?

Many of us take comfort in the idea that there is a moral order to the universe that dictates cause and effect. If we are “good” and do the “right thing,” then we have earned the right to avoid a certain degree of suffering in the world. If someone helped us in our time of need, then we have a duty to pay it forward. If we encounter someone down on their luck who has proven their worth by being hard-working, persevering, or by making significant sacrifices, then they have earned a leg up. While this approach to judging which people, charities, or causes are deserving of our donations is not objectively wrong, it is sometimes lacking for a few reasons.

It’s performative. Our ability to evaluate a person’s worth is sometimes only as good as their ability to demonstrate it. In this sense, what we are really judging is a person’s ability to convince us they deserve help rather than their moral worthiness of it. A scam artist with a good story may have a better chance of receiving our help than, say, a homeless veteran with mental illness who is unable to well articulate their needs.

It’s narcissistic. Each of us is informed by our own life experiences. As hard as we may try to empathize with the plights of others, the reality is that we can never completely understand what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes or predict how we would respond to difficult situations we have never personally encountered. Judging others within the context of our own lives centers our abstract desire to make moral judgments above the practical needs of the person who needs help.

And finally, most problems are just too complex to fit into a simplistic moral framework. Even if this approach to determining who is worthy of our help can sometimes work on an individual level, it rarely works on an institutional one. Every community is no doubt comprised of some people who we would deem to be worthy and unworthy. If we are so inflexible in our moral judgments of others that we essentially deprive an entire community of assistance on the basis that we think some members of that community don’t deserve it, we will perpetuate a lot of unnecessary hardship. A lot of problems will go unsolved.

We need to accept that some acts of giving are uncomfortable, that we can’t control everything, and that moral perfection is a test we would all fail if put to it. By all means, do your due diligence to identify efficient and effective charities to support before giving. But as you make your judgments about which people or causes are worthy of your contributions, recognize that giving sometimes requires two kinds of generosity—financial generosity and generosity of spirit.