Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Altruism & Charity

The term "altruism" was coined by French philsopher Auguste Comte (as altruisme) in 1851 {Source}. Comte was putting forth a theory, as philosophers are wont to do, that the only moral acts are those intended to promote the happiness of others. This is not an idea of morality that I would agree with. I prefer Kant's Universal Maxim (also known as the Categorical Imperative), which, summed up in simple English (not a skill Kant is known for, if you've ever read his writing. Fun times), states that any action which could, without contradicting itself, become a universal law, is a moral action.

So, for example, say you steal something and say "hey, it's okay to steal." Well, no, it's not, because if everybody stole, there would in essence be no true property. If nobody owns anything, then it is impossible to steal. This concept could not be universally applied, therefore, it is not moral. Pretty simple.

This is not a man known for stating things simply.
{source, also a cool article}
According to Kant, if you can keep from doing things like stealing or murdering, you know, the basic moral no-nos of almost any society, you're fulling your perfect duty. You're basically a good person. In addition, you're expected to fulfill your imperfect duty. These are things that are morally good to do, but they aren't required, like developing one's own creative talents (Kant was a fan of this one), or doing volunteer work. This leads back to the concept of altruism, right? Kant also believed that, in a lot of cases, the expected consequences of an action are morally neutral; the moral of the situation has more to do with the subjective intent of the person acting.

For me, I think about when Dick Cheney donates money to charities:

"I just love those tax deductions!"
I don't believe he's doing it because he truly believes in these various causes and feels good about giving them money; rather, it's a great tax write-off, and he ends up getting a refund. I'm not saying that keeping money out of the federal government's hands is the only reason that he does it, just that I'm pretty sure it's one of the reasons. It would line up with his own philosophy & morals. I don't think Comte's conception of altruism allows for evil plot laughs at the thought that you've screwed a government program out of your tax dollars in favor of funding the private sector (evil plot laughs are supplied by my own imagination).

Of course, playing devil's advocate with myself, maybe Cheney truly believes that's for the greater good and he is, in his mind, being truly altruistic. I'm just not so inclined to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. I'm doing exactly what was recently done to me: questioning the intent behind one's charitable donations. Behold:

The more I thought about this comment, the more it kind of made me angry. I wasn't particularly looking for credit, I had honestly asked for input from Facebook about where to donate, and I wanted to let my friend know I was supporting her and her workplace. Perhaps I was bit cheeky by adding the "you're welcome," but it wasn't meant to be self-important. Who would be ridiculous enough to be self-important about $15/paycheck of total contribution? It's not a huge amount, but it's what I can do at this time.

Here I was excited about supporting two new organizations this year - the US Dream Academy, focusing on serving at-risk youth in several cities (see their web site for more info), and the Carver Center Foundation, which provides funds for Carver Center for Arts & Technology, where I obtained my high school diploma, and somebody kinda came & shit on it a little bit, for me. I've wanted to give back to my high school for a while, and this year I figured out how to do it while participating in my company's annual United Way fundraising campaign (you do not have to contribute to the United Way to donate), so that's cool, since my company then does a matching donation. I'm trying to do some good.

I've been guilty of judging people about their altruistically intended acts, though. We are all quick to make snap judgments about where people donate, and how. Watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator are important, since they help those who give determine where their money is going and which organizations in a given field might be best to give their money to, but do we all need to be watchdogs? Kant would say that the intent behind the act is more important than the act itself, therefore the altruistic nature or moral is subjective, and can only really be known by the giver. We all like to speculate about one another, but I'll disagree with Kant on this point: the consequences of giving to a charity are not morally neutral. Regardless of why you've chosen to give, the fact that you have will be having a positive impact on somebody's life. I don't think the recipients of your generosity will want to examine the pureness of your intentions; they'll just be glad you gave at all.

Some organizations have decided to play around with this idea, like On Time Pledge or Stickk, where you pledge to an "anti-charity," or a cause you do NOT support. If you don't meet your goal/pledge, boom! There goes your money! Supporting a cause you hate. It's genius, really, and everybody wins in the end. 

So, what does this have to do with wellness? I would consider acting in a way that could be considered more or less morally good to contribute to one's overall wellness. We all do things we know are wrong from time to time, and it often eats us up inside. Giving to charities may not right every wrong, but it's a good place to start. People often say that giving to charity makes you feel better, but an interesting paper from Harvard Business School points out that the links show correlation, not causation. I can't promise that giving to charity would magically make you a happy, well person, but it's worth a shot. Even the most cash-strapped among those of us with an internet connection and time to spend reading blogs could probably spare $10 now and again. Hey, you can even donate to some causes via text message! 

This is no longer the face of giving (thank God).
Don't forget to check out Charity Navigator and research an organization first, though. I found this breakdown of where our dollars are going - I was surprised to see environmental & animal-related causes coming in at 2%, while religion has the plurality at 35%. If you are planning to give, or give already, leave me a comment and tell me where!


  1. Right now I can't exactly rationalize giving away my money. Since I have no health insurance and tons of student loans... if I gave away money then I'd end up in the poorhouse and someone's donations would go to feeding me! Hah...I would like to volunteer my time though. Clean up a park or something that's in my community. I like your thoughts though and I'm proud of you for thinking of others and doing your part even in hard times.

  2. Donating time is great! I wish I did it more. That's the next step, really, but I kind of have to wait until I know that my basic physical needs are okay and I'm not going to end up in the hospital or passed out for 20 hours due to labor-intensive volunteering. I would love to volunteer to do something like bookkeeping for a non-profit. That's something I could probably handle at this time.