The Ethics Sage Explains the Ethics of Giving

The Ethics Sage
The Ethics Sage

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage, has written a post on charitable giving. He has very kindly offered me the opportunity to put it up early. As always, I am privileged to be a party to his writing and his continued drive for ethics. (His web site is here!)

James Pilant

Global Survey: U.S. Now #1 in Charitable Giving: American Exceptionalism Lives On

The Ethics of Charitable Giving and the Goodness of Americans

The United States now ranks the highest in terms of charity in a comprehensive global survey conducted by Charities Aid Foundation  (CAFAmerica), a member organization of the United Kingdom based Charities Aid Foundation International Network of Offices, providing charitable financial services to individuals, global corporations, charities, and foundations.  The 2011 survey reflects an increase from fifth place (2010) to first place.

According to those surveyed, two out of three Americans said they donated money to charity (65 percent), more than two out of five volunteered their time (43 percent) and roughly three out of four helped a stranger (73 percent).

This is an impressive example of the goodness of the American people and one reason why the U.S. is a beacon of hope for so many in need of help to survive, to better themselves, and to thrive in an increasingly global competitive economy.

For the past five weeks I have blogged about the decline of ‘American Exceptionalism.’ From excessive and senseless violence, to fraud and corruption ingrained in our systems of government, to a declining work ethic and level of competency that goes along with it, to a perpetually troubled education system that is failing so many kids, to our inability to effectively establish an immigration reform program, the U.S. has remained stagnant and developed ineffective approaches to solving the most important problems of our time, especially those that deal with quality of life issues that are a symbol of an exceptional society.

This is why it is so heartening to me that the U.S. is the most giving nation in the world. Clearly, this is a sign of an exceptional society. From the Bill Gates’ and Donald Trumps’ to middle class Americans, to low-income people, the U.S. has a long record of helping others to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and provide a foundation to improve one’s lot in life.

We certainly do this for our own citizens. Think what you may of unemployment insurance, SNAP (i.e., food stamps), Medicaid, and other government assistance, these are programs that demonstrate the humanity Americans have as citizens towards their fellow citizens in need of a helping hand.

Returning to the CFA report “World Giving Index (WGI) 2011”, the second through fifth countries are all English-speaking — Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The four new countries in the top 20 compared to the 2010 WGI report are Thailand, Morocco, Nigeria and Liberia. Of these, Liberia has enjoyed the biggest rise from 39th to 14th place, although Morocco’s increase from 33rd to 12th is equally notable.  Other major shifts in the rankings include the rise of the United Kingdom from eighth to fifth, and Thailand’s neighbor Laos moving to tenth place. Perhaps not surprising, although somewhat concerning given their rapid economic development in the past twenty years, China, Russia and India are among those near the bottom of the list. 

The WGI report is based on over 150,000 Gallup polling interviews with members of the public in 153 countries. The 2011 report looks at three aspects of giving behavior of individuals in the preceding month, asking if they have donated money to a charity, volunteered time to an organization, or helped a stranger. The U.S. has shown a steady increase in each of the three measures over the past year, ranging from four percentage points ‘volunteering time’ and to eight percentage points ‘helping a stranger.’ It is this even progress across all three measures that underlie the country’s rise to the top of the Index.

Charitable giving does have an ethical component to it. Aristotle and Aquinas assessed it using such factors as the object of the action, the circumstances of the action, and the end of the action.  Aristotle believed that the act of charity is a virtuous one if it is done for its own sake and not some external reward. 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. In other words, the charitable act should be done because of the commitment to aid others and the way it makes one feel inside, not for the sake of getting a tax break.

What about those who give because their religion demands it? Here, we need to examine why the religion holds such a position. Typically, it is for good reasons – to help others and express our humanity towards others. No doubt peer pressure works in these cases.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher and central figure in modern philosophy, claimed that what matters morally is the good will and not what the good will accomplishes. Reasoning from that premise, 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.

From a utilitarian perspective, what matters is not the intention of the giver, rather it is the consequences of one’s giving. If a large portion of one’s giving never gets to those in need, but is swallowed up by bureaucracy in administering the charity, then a utilitarian might reason the ends of giving and helping others do not justify giving freely of one’s own resources.

So, in this journey I have identified one very important reason why the U.S. is an exceptional nation. While it is true our government gives generously to many countries, there almost always is an ulterior motive for the giving making it less than a virtuous act. Our motive may be to win friends and influence people, or gain help in monitoring and controlling terrorism, or for us to help develop a country economically so its markets expand; business opportunities increase for American capitalists; and low-cost alternatives to needed products emerge to the benefit of the American consumer.

It is not government aid that makes us exceptional. In this season of joy and wonder we should remember that our charitable nature is linked to giving by the average citizen. This is the heart and soul of America – the essence of our giving spirit. We do so out of goodness, caring, compassion, and to help in the effort to wipe clean the image of starving people with little food and water to sustain themselves. This is the exceptionalism of America.

Ethics Sage — December 6, 2013

From around the web.

From the web site, Little Laos on the Prairie. (Which is just a fun site!)

How and why do the Lao choose to give?

Have a ‘sue kwan’ blessing for your first born and the Lao will come in droves. Your aunts, uncles, cousins and cousin’s cousins will shower you with lump sums of money and food. Have a fundraiser for a charitable cause like say, UXO removal, and maybe one or two Lao will show up with a few bucks to donate here and there. Beyond the excuse of being constantly broke, it’s the current reality of Lao American giving. It’s not to say that the Lao are terrible charitable givers, but it raises the discussion about what, how and why do Lao Americans give in the first place.

Dad said the true soul of Lao people consists of two main characteristics: humility and generosity. The Lao will cherish a single grain of rice under the most difficult financial times, yet they will tell you they don’t need any pity saving (or as some will call it “vow keu” aka they’re just pretend-saying that they don’t need saving, but really they want you to save them in some significant way).

The Lao in need don’t just need your money. They want a sustainable way of improving their livelihoods. Show them. Teach them. Provide them with resources and training. You’ll see how they pave the path towards prosperity on their own terms.