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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Philanthropic Graffiti

Peter Singer says Jesus is wrong about charitable giving:

Give and tell: In defense of philanthropic graffiti, by Peter Singer, Project Syndicate: Jesus said that we should give alms in private rather than when others are watching. That fits with the commonsense idea that if people only do good in public, they may be motivated by a desire to gain a reputation for generosity. Perhaps when no one is looking, they are not generous at all.

That thought may lead us to disdain the kind of philanthropic graffiti that leads to donors' names being prominently displayed on concert halls, art museums, and college buildings. Often, names are stuck not only over the entire building, but also on as many constituent parts of it as fundraisers and architects can manage.

According to evolutionary psychologists, such displays of blatant benevolence are the human equivalent of the male peacock's tail. Just as the peacock signals his strength and fitness by displaying his enormous tail - a sheer waste of resources from a practical point of view - so costly public acts of benevolence signal to potential mates that one possesses enough resources to give so much away.

From an ethical perspective, however, should we care so much about the purity of the motive with which the gift was made? Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor's name is chiseled into the marble facade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

A substantial body of current psychological research points against Jesus' advice. One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is their beliefs about what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same. ...

We need to get over our reluctance to speak openly about the good we do. Silent giving will not change a culture that deems it sensible to spend all your money on yourself and your family, rather than to help those in greater need - even though helping others is likely to bring more fulfillment in the long run.

[I'm late for an appointment, so I'll leave any commentary to you...]

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 02:07 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (22)

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