Donating to charity is a worthy way to end the year. Every day, at least everyday the physical mail arrives, our household receives as many as a half dozen (and at times more) mail solicitations from charitable organizations. A similar stream of requests comes to us via Email.
While some might consider this a nuisance, or a waste, or even harassment, by the charities, I decidedly do not. I consider the inflow reasonable, and the charities’ efforts to solicit as legitimate, and the imposition on me not a nuisance, but to the contrary a challenge. Not a challenge in a sense of how to handle or dispose of the mail, or how to stem the flow, but a challenge as to how to respond in an ethically responsible and appropriate manner.
So, given a decision to not dismiss, or throw out, or simply ignore the incoming wave, what is the proper action? Should I give, and how much? Now our household, as might be considered typical, earns sufficient income to cover necessities and some amenities, but we are not living in large luxury. We own standard brand (Chevy, Pontiac) cars, live in a modest single family home, consider Saturday evening at the local pizza parlor as eating out, and turn down the heat to keep the utility bills affordable.
Contributing thus falls within our means, but not without trade-offs, and even sacrifice.
So should we give? And how much? Let’s consider (and dismiss) some initial concerns, concerns which could otherwise deflect, diminish or even remove an obligation to donate.
The Legitimacy and Efficiency of Charities – Stories surface, more often than desirable, highlighting unscrupulous individuals who prey on sympathy and use sham charity websites to collect contributions but then keep the donations. Other stories uncover less than competent actions by charities, for example excessive salaries, inappropriate marketing costs, lack of oversight. With this, then, why give?
While striking, these stories, as I scan the situation, represent outliers. The stories rate as news due to the very fact that they represent the atypical. Do I believe mainline charities, like Salvation Army, or Catholic Charities, or Doctors without Borders, do I believe them so inefficient or corrupt to justify my not giving? No. Rather, the response, if I and anyone have concerns about a charity, is to research the charity, to check and find those that are worthy, and not to simply cast one’s obligation aside.
Government and Business Role – Some may argue that government (by its programs), or business (through its contributions and community service), should handle charity needs and issues. Government and business have resources beyond any that I or any one individual can garner.
My look again says I can not use this argument to side step my involvement. Government needs taxes, plus political consensus, both uncertain, to run social and charity programs, and businesses simply are not sufficiently in the business of charity to expect them to carry the whole weight.
Deserving of our Amenities – Most individuals with a modest but comfortable status achieved that through sacrifice, and scholastic effort, and hard work, and daily discipline. We thus should not, and do not need to, feel guilt as we reasonably reward ourselves, and our households, with amenities. And the term amenities doesn’t imply decadence Amenities often include positive and admirable items, i.e. instructional summer camps, travel to educational places, purchase of healthy food, a family outing at an afternoon baseball game.
However, while we earned our amenities, in a broader sense we did not earn our stature at birth. Most financially sufficient individuals and families likely have had the good fortune to be born into an economically productive setting, with the opportunity for education, and the freedom to pursue and find employment and advancement.
If we have that good fortune, if we were born into free, safe and relatively prosperous conditions, few of us would change our stature at birth to have been born in the dictatorship of North Korea, or a slum in India, or a war-ravaged city in the Middle East, or doctorless village in Africa, or a decaying municipality in Siberia, or, since the Western world isn’t perfect, an impoverished neighborhood in the U.S., or a cold, wind-swept nomadic steppe in South America. Certainly much of any success comes from our own efforts. But much of it also comes from the luck of the draw on the stature into which we were born.
Economic Dislocation – Isn’t giving a zero sum game? Diverting spending from luxury items (e.g. designer sunglasses, drinks at a fine lounge), or even making sacrifices (fasting a meal), to give to charity, creates economic ripples. As we convert spending to charities, we reduce spending, and incrementally employment, in companies and firms providing the items forgone. And the ripples don’t affect just the wealthy. The employment ripples impact what might be considered deserving individuals, e.g. students paying their way through college, pensioners depending on dividends, inner city youth working hard, average income individuals providing for families.
However, in reality, for good or bad, every purchasing decision, not just those involving charity donations, creates employment ripples, creates winners and losers. A trip to the ball game verses a trip to the theme park, a purchase at a local deli verses a purchase at a large grocery, clothes made in Malaysia verses clothes made in Vietnam – every purchasing decision implicitly decides a winner and a loser, generates employment for some and reduces it for others.
So this issue, of purchasing decisions shifting employment patterns, this issue extends over the whole economy. How can it be handled? In an overarching way, government and social structures must create fluidity and freedom in employment so individuals can move (relatively) smoothly between firms, locations and sectors. This public policy issue, of dislocation of employment due to economic shifts, looms large, but in the end, should not, and more critically, can not, be solved by failing to donate.
So donations to charities shift employment, not reduce it. Does employment in the charity sector provide substantial work? I would say yes. Take one example, City Harvest New York. City Harvest collects otherwise surplus food, to distribute to needy. To accomplish this, the charity employs truck drivers, dispatchers, outreach personnel, program managers, research analysts, and on and on. These are skilled positions, in the New York City urban boundaries, doing meaningful work, offering strong careers. In many cases, for a typical city individual, these positions would represent a step up from fast food and retail clerk.
Culpability and Means – Though a fine line exists here, charity might best be considered generosity, a positive and voluntary expression of the heart, and not so much on obligation which weighs on the mind as guilt. The normal and typical individual did not cause the conditions or situations requiring charity. And the normal and typical individual doesn’t possess excessive, or even significant, wealth from which to donate.
So, given that the typical individual lacks culpability for the ills of the world, and similarly lacks the means to individually address them, one could argue we are not duty bound. We can decide to be generous, or not, with no compulsion, with no obligation, with no guilt if we discard the incoming solicitations.
By a small margin, I judge otherwise. When I compare the utility of the last dollar I might spend on myself, to the utility of food for a hungry child, or medicine for a dying patient, or a habitat for a dying species, I can not conclude charity rates only as discretionary generosity, a nice thing to do, something to consider, possibly, in my free time. The disparity between the minor incremental benefit I receive from the last dollar spent on myself, and the large and possibly life-saving benefit which another would receive from a donated dollar, stands as so large that I conclude that I in particular, and individuals in general, have an obligation to give.
Blameworthiness of Poor – But while our lack of culpability and means may not mitigate our responsibility, do not the poor and needy possess some accountability. Do they not have some responsibility for their status, and to improve that status? Do not the poor bear some level of blame themselves?
In cases, yes. But it is disingenuous to dismiss our moral obligation based on the proportion of cases, or the extent in any individual case, where the poor may be at fault. In many, if not most, situations little or no blameworthiness exists. The hungry child, the rare disease sufferer, the flood victim, the disabled war veteran, the cancer patient, the inner-city crime victim, the disabled from birth, the drought-stricken third-world farmer, the born blind or disfigured, the battered child, the mentally retarded, the war-ravaged mother – can we really attribute sufficient blame to these individuals to justify our not giving.
Might others be blameworthy? Yes. Governments, corporations, international institutions, family members, social agencies – these organizations and individuals might, and likely do, bear some responsibility for putting the poor and needy in their condition, or for not getting them out of their condition. But we have already argued that government needs taxes and a consensus (both uncertain) to execute programs, and corporations are not sufficiently in the business of charity. And we can stand morally indignant at those who should help don’t, but such resentfulness doesn’t correct the situation. The needy, mostly blameless, still need help and care. We can lobby and pressure organizations to perform better, but in the meantime the needy require our donations.
Concerns Dismissed, Concerns to Weigh – So on balance, in this author’s view, a strict obligation exists towards charity. To turn a blind eye to charity, to discard the incoming mail, rates as an ethical impropriety. The needs of charity rate so high that I must recognize a deep obligation to donate, and my survey of counter considerations – just covered above – leaves me with no logic to offset, or negate, or soften that conclusion.
If one has an obligation to charity, to what extent should one give? A few dollars? A certain percentage? The amounts left after normal monthly spending? Our discussion framework here is ethics, so I will frame the answer in ethical terms. The extent of our obligation extends to the point where another obligation of equal weight surfaces.
Primary Family Duty – If a person should give up to an equal consideration, one could judge one’s obligation extends to giving essentially every dollar to charity, and to live an ascetic life, keeping only minor amounts for bare subsistence. The needs for charity tower so large, and the needs of unfortunate individuals stand as so compelling, that a greater need than one’s own essentially always exists, down to the point of one’s subsistence.
This interpretation might be considered to have good company. The preaching of at least one great figure, Christ, could be construed to indicate the same.
Now, in practice few give to such an extreme. That few do stems in part to the sacrifice such an extreme scenario entails. That few do also stems in part from not everyone agreeing, in good faith, with the conclusion that one has an obligation to give.
But would those be the only reasons? Given one agrees with the conclusions above, and one has a will and sacrifice to give, does a significant, compelling, morally worthy obligation of equal weight exist?
Yes. That obligation provides an implicit but critical foundation of society. That obligation brings order to our daily list of concerns. Absent that obligation, one could be overwhelmed by the needs of mankind.
What is that obligation of equal weight? That obligation stands among the highest, if not the highest, of one’s obligation, and that is the obligation to care for the immediate family.
Individuals work two and three jobs to care for family. Individuals spend nights in hospitals beside sick members of family. Individuals worry to distraction when family members come home late. Individuals stop what they are doing to console, or comfort, or assist, a family member. Daily, we check on the needs of family, and respond, feel obliged to respond.
We do not, daily, go down the street, in normal situations, and check the needs of the several dozen families in our block or apartment. Certainly we check on an elderly neighbor, or a family with a sick member, but we have an expectation, a strong one, that just as we must care for our family, others will care for their family, to the extent of their means. I would claim that as one of the most fundamental bedrocks of social order, i.e. that family units provide for the needs of the vast and great majority of individuals.
Now our concern for family arises does not arise primarily from our engaging in deep ethical reflections. Our concern for family arises from our natural and normal love for our family members, and our deep and emotional concern and attachment to them, reinforced in cases by our commitment to religious and church teachings.
But that we execute our primary responsibility from non-philosophical motivations does not lessen that the ethical principle exists.
Now, as mentioned earlier, this family-centric ethic provides a linchpin for our social structure. The vast majority of individuals exist within a family, and thus the family-centric ethic provides a ubiquitous, practical, and strongly effective (but not perfect, which in part is why there are needy) means to care for the needs of a significant percentage of mankind. Absent a family-centric ethic, a chaos would develop, where we would feel guilt to help all equally, or no guilt to help anybody, and in which no accepted or common hierarchy of obligation existed. The result? A flawed social structure with no organization or consistency in how needs are met. Civilization would like not have developed absent a family-centric ethic.
Thus, obligation to family, to those specific individuals to whom we are related, to feed, cloth, comfort and support our family, surpasses obligation to charity, to those general individuals in need. I doubt few would disagree. But obligation to family itself involves a hierarchy of requirements. Basic food, shelter, and clothing rate as overwhelming obligations, but a second handbag, or a slightly large TV, or fashion sunglasses, may not. So a cross-over enters, where a family need descends to a desire more than a requirement and the obligation to charity rises as the primary and priority obligation.
Where is that cross-over? Determining the exact point of the cross-over requires strong discernment. And if we think that discernment is complex (just the simple question of how many times is eating out too many times involves considerable thought), two factors add further complexity. These factors are first the dramatic shifts in economic security (aka in the future we may not be better off than the past), and second the compelling but ephemeral obligation to church.
The New Reality of Income and Security – Our typical family for this discussion, being of modest means, generates sufficient income to afford satisfactory shelter, sufficient food, adequate clothing, conservative use of heat, water and electricity, some dollars for college saving, contributions to retirement, plus a few amenities, i.e. a yearly vacation, a couple trips to see the pro baseball team, a modest collection of fine antique jewelry. In this typical family, those who work, work hard, those in school, study diligently.
At the end of an occasional month, surplus funds remain. The question arises as to what should be done with the surplus? Charity? Certainly I have argued that donations to charity fall squarely in the mix of considerations. But here is the complexity. If the current month stood as the only time frame, then direct comparisons could be made. Should the funds go to dining out, or maybe saving for a nicer car, or maybe a new set of golf clubs, or maybe yes, a donation to charity?
That works if the time frame stands as a month. But the time frame stands not as a month; the time frame is several dozen decades. Let’s look at why.
Both parents work, but for companies that have capped the parents’ pensions or maybe in unions under pressure to reduce benefits. Both parents have moderate job security, but face a not-small risk of being laid off, if not now, sometime in the coming years. Both parents judge their children will obtain good career-building jobs, but jobs that will likely never have a pay level of the parents’ jobs, and certainly jobs that offer no pension (not even a capped version).
Further, both parents, despite any issues with the medical system, see a strong prospect, given both are in reasonable health, of living into their eighties. But that blessing of a longer life carries with it a corollary need to have the financial means to provide for themselves, and further to cover possible long-term care costs.
Thus, caring for family obligations involves not just near-term needs, but planning and saving sufficiently to navigate an incredibly uncertain and intricate economic future.
That stands as the new economic reality – diligent parents must project forward years and decades and consider not just today’s situation but multiple possible future scenarios. With such uncertainly within the immediate family’s needs and requirements, where does charity fit in?
Then we have another consideration – church.
Church as Charity, or Not – Certainly, gifts to the local church, whatever denomination, help the needy, ill and less fortunate. The local pastor, or priest, or religious leader performs many charitable acts and services. That person collects and distributes food for the poor, visits elderly in their homes, leads youth groups in formative activities, administers to the sick in hospitals, aids and rehabilitates drug addicts, assists in emergency relief, and performs numerous other duties and acts of charity.
So contributions to church and religion provide for what could be considered secular, traditional charity work.
But contributions to church also support the religious practice. That of course first supports the priest, or pastor, or religious leader, as a person, in their basic needs. Contributions also support a collection of ancillary items, and that includes buildings (generally large), statues, ornamentations, sacred texts, vestments, flowers, chalices and a myriad of other costs related to celebrations and ceremonies.
And unlike the nominally secular activities (the priest distributing food), these ceremonial activities pertain to the strictly spiritual. These activities aim to save our souls or praise a higher deity or achieve higher mental and spiritual states.
So donations to church, to the extent those donations support religious and spiritual aims, fall outside the scope of charity, at least in the sense being considered for this discussion.
So where on the hierarchy of obligations would such donations fall? Are they an important obligation, maybe the most important? Or maybe the least? Could donations to church represent a desirable but discretionary act? Or a folly?
Many would claim that no conclusive proof exists of a spiritual deity, and further that belief in a deity represents an uninformed delusion. However, while proving the existence of a deity may stand as problematic, proving the non-existence of a spiritual realm stands as equally problematic. The spiritual inherently involves that beyond our direct senses and experience; so we us inner experience, interpretation, extrapolation – all in the eye of the beholder – to extend what we directly experience into the nature of the spiritual and transcendental.
This renders, in this author’s view, the existence and nature of the spiritual as philosophically indeterminate. If one believes, we can not prove that belief incorrect logically or philosophically, and if another does not belief, we can not demonstrate that they should believe.
Working through the Complexity – This article has concluded that strict obligation to charity exists, and further concluded that obligation should be carried out until other equal obligation enters. Obligation to family stands as the paramount competing obligation, and obligation to church, to the degree based on legitimate faith and belief, also enters. A baseline obligation to self, for reasonable sustenance, also of course exists (one can not give to charity if one is hungry, sick, tired or exposed to the elements.)
Given this slate of obligations, competing for an individual’s monetary resources, what strategy provides for a proper ethical balance? Or more simply, since, even after all the words so far, we still haven’t answered the question, how much does one give to charity?
The answer lies not in a formula or rule. The balancing act between obligations, the time frames involved in financial considerations, and the presence of the ephemeral spiritual component, present too complex a problem. The answer lies in a process. The process is to plan.
Planning – When commuting or traveling, to reach the destination on time, whether it be the office, or home, or a hotel, or a campsite, or the home of a relative, requires planning. The traveler must consider all the various factors – distance, route, method of travel, congestion, speed, arrival time, schedules and so on.
If simply arriving on time takes planning, certainly the much more complex task of fulfilling and balancing the obligations to family, self, charity and church, demands planning. What type of planning? Given that our discussion centers on monetary donations, the requirement is for budget and financial planning. Many reasons drive a need for financial planning; our ethical obligation to charity adds another.
That might appear strange. Serving family, community and God involves financial plans? That strikes one as an improbable and illogical linkage. Serving is action, caring, doing. Why does financial planning become such a central ethical requirement?
A moments reflections reveals why. For most, we cannot grow food to meet our family obligation, or deliver medical care for disaster assistance, or weave the garments used in church celebrations. What we generally do is work, and through work, earn a salary. Our salary literally becomes our currency for meeting our obligations. That is the essence of our modern economy, i.e. we don’t directly provide for our necessities. Rather, we work, and acquire food, shelter, clothing and so on through purchases, not by producing those items directly.
The Value Trade-off – Let’s assume we accept charity as an obligation, and planning as a required step to executing that obligation. The rubber now meets the proverbial road. We are doing financial planning, and have reached the point where we are allocating dollars to specific expenditures.
Given a typical family, this allocation, with or without charity as a consideration, poses direct, immediate and personal questions, and on very basic items – how often should we buy new clothes and how many, when should we purchase a new car and what type, what foods should we select at the grocery store and how exotic, at what temperature should we set the thermostat in winter and again in summer, for what college expectations should we save and how much should we rely on loans and grants, how frequently should we go out for dinner and to what restaurants, what assumptions should we make about saving for retirement, what plan do we have if one of the family becomes unemployed, and, consistent with our theme here, how much should we contribute to charity and church.
While money provides a common currency for commerce, value provides a common currency for ranking that which money purchases. Value consists first of utility (what objective functionality does the item provide us, e.g. auto gas mileage, basic nutritional value of food, interest rate on savings) and second of preference (what of our subjective likes and dislikes does the item satisfy, e.g. we like blue as the exterior car color, we like fish more than chicken, putting college savings into international stocks seems too risky).
Now we have it. The concept of value frames the central imperative in our moral obligation to charity. Specifically, our moral obligation to charity involves our consciously evaluating and adjusting and optimizing what we value (in terms of both the utility provided and the preferences satisfied) to fit in charity.
What are example scenarios of such evaluation and adjustment? For the average golfer, do elite golf balls provide significant added utility (aka lower score) and would not regular, and less expensive, golf balls be sufficient? Could equivalent family consideration be shown with less expensive, but carefully selected and wrapped, birthday gifts? Do generic store brand items often provide the same performance and/or taste as name brands? Could an occasional movie, or dinner out, be skipped, with a family board game as a substitute? Could a weekend vacation of hiking substitute for a trip to a theme park? Could an occasional manicure, or trip to the car wash, or restaurant lunch at work (aka bring lunch) be skipped? Can the kids help out around the house so mom can stay late and work overtime? Can a family member skip a TV show to become more effective at financial planning? And can all these actions increase both the family security and allow contributions to charity and church?
Note these examples do not just imply sacrifice. They imply substitution, i.e. finding value in replacement items or activities. There lies the core of value adjustment; that adjustment involves breaking routines, finding new preferences, exploring new options, to uncover activities and items that are more effective value producers, and in doing so make room for contributions.
Another example? While a designer tote bag carries a certain prestige, which we may like, the inexpensive tote bag we might receive back for a donation can also carry for us a different, but equivalent, prestige. Or maybe we simply judge in our heart we have done a noble thing to contribute, and come to value that highly.
Now, many families (far too many) must do all the above examples simply to meet family obligations. Affording golf, or any leisure sport, as a hobby might be an unreachable dream for them, much less worry about what type of golf ball or equipment used.
But in a sense that demonstrates the point. Individuals almost without hesitation or deliberation adjust their expenditures to maximize meeting their obligation to family. The conclusion here is that we have a moral obligation to extend and expand that process and thus adjust the (objective and subjective) value of our expenditures to not only maximize executing our obligation to family but to also maximize meeting our obligation to charity.
Final Thought – Agree or disagree, the logic here has traveled from the simple charity solicitation in the mail all the way to financial planning and value evaluation as moral obligations. That is a long road. And despite any counter-intuitive reaction, and even absent charity considerations, doing the best for ourselves and our family with our money requires traveling that road of planning and evaluation.
A commercial for an investment company asked, during its run, do you have a plan to reach your number, with your number being the amount of funds needed to survive retirement. Similarly, just few minutes of the any message from Susan Orman, an irrepressible financial advisor and TV personality, will almost certainly contain an admonition for us to do financial planning. (“Show me the numbers,” she has been fond of saying.)
So counter-intuitive or not, the need to evaluate our finances and spending, and more importantly evaluate the value of what we get out of that spending, stands as a key, critical activity. That our moral obligation to church, and family, and charity, and self, require that same planning and evaluation, simply means that executing those moral obligations involves not much more than something we should do anyway.
For More Thoughts – To get added perspectives on this and other subject areas, visit the website The Human Intellect. The site contains a wealth of short and medium length discussions on topics ranging from ethics to Einstein, as well as a selection of a few longer articles such as this one.
About the Author – My background includes engineering and business, and my interests cover philosophy, theology and science, as well as sports, hiking and umpiring.
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