11

The title of the question sums it up. I find it quite strange that social norms are such that discussing about charities one donates to are considered in bad taste. To me, charity seems purely a consequentialist concept. In other words, all that should matter is the total amount of charity dollars disbursed. To the person receiving the charity, the level of "bragging" of the charity donor is irrelevant.

In other words, isn't the requirement that one has to be extremely modest and even silent about one's own contributions a very high bar to set for people who are already giving to charity? In other words, if we want to incentivize more charitable giving, we should encourage this process as much as possible, and imposing such a cost seems counter-productive.

What are the arguments for the fact that one has to be of the purest heart with the most noble intentions to donate money to charities?

11
  • 2
    I suspect there's something from Kant in there. Supposed to do the Right Thing because it is the RT, not for any benefit that might come to you for it. But I can't flesh out the argument.
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 15:20
  • 4
    I'm not giving this as an answer because it's based purely on personal experience, but it seems like it may illuminate one. Talking about charitable giving can be perceived anywhere between strongly negatively to quite positively depending on manner and context. For example, "I'm doing a sponsored run. Would you help me raise money for AIDS research" is typically perceived much better than "I gave away your net worth to AIDS research." The key distinction seems to be whether the talking is itself in aid of the charity or in aid of the speaker's ego.
    – Josiah
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 21:37
  • 6
    "Why is speaking about donating to charity considered immoral?... I find it quite strange that social norms are such that discussing about charities one donates to are considered in bad taste." IMHO there is a big gulf between immorality and bad taste. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 23:01
  • 5
    "Bad taste" and "immoral" are very different things, and distaste is not rationally controlled. It isn't even bragging about one's charity as such that likely triggers adverse reactions, but rather what it reveals about the bragger's personality. No matter how much we "should" encourage charity, a dirtbag will not get favorable reactions just because they donated. That is not how emotional reactions work.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 0:53
  • 6
    Talking about donations in many instances reminds people that they could be doing more. People don't like to feel uncomfortable. Discussion of veganism can have similar effects for similar reasons. It pricks at a cognitive dissonance we typically try to ignore. Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 4:33

10 Answers 10

17

It depends on other factors in the culture.

Don't confuse "immoral" with "in bad taste"; they feel similar but are not synonyms.

Exploring the possible negative side effects of boasting about charity, though, I can see a few possibilities, numbered for reference rather than relative importance:

  1. Boasting that you have donated to a particular charity also doubles as advertising for that charity. If it is not a charity, but in fact some venture of your own, you are lying about the altruism of your actions. People do not necessarily have the capacity (in time, expertise, et cetera) to find out whether you're lying, so they may use the act of boasting as a heuristic.
  2. Boasting that you have donated, but not specifying a particular beneficiary, is difficult to verify, and likely to be treated similarly to other difficult-to-verify claims.
  3. Boasting in general is associated with a self-centered outlook, and charity in general is associated with a self-negating outlook. Juxtaposing the two can cause cognitive dissonance, which would here manifest as disgust.
  4. Boasting about donating to a particular charity may pressure the listener(s) to donate without doing sufficient research to confirm that they are, in fact, a charity worth donating to by the listener's own standards. Disgust for boasting provides countervailing pressure that can mitigate this.
1
  • 1
    There's an added possibility: Especially if it's a company bragging that they "donated $X" to the charity – but the actual money being given is simply coming from other people (e.g. those businesses that let you "round up" your total to the next dollar, with the difference being given to charity) – then the company is basically bragging about other people's money that the company gave away at no cost to itself. (An individual saying they "raised $X" by convincing other folks to donate could be perceived similarly, but at least in that case, it's clearer that others are the ones donating.)
    – V2Blast
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 20:00
12

There's a very simple deontological argument that looks like this:

Jesus explicitly says not to boast about your charitable giving (Matthew 6:1) and just do what is right for its own sake, and people will notice anyway if you're consistently doing good things. You should do what Jesus says.

Obviously this one will hold more weight with people influenced by Christianity (and maybe some Muslims) than with anybody else.


A religion-neutral parallel deontological argument that blurs with consequentialism:

You should do good things because they're good, whether or not people will give you credit for doing so. Avoid claiming credit as a general rule and focus on the internal reward of doing good things; this will orient you towards goodness for its own sake.

The last statement is an empirical claim that's hard to test, but seems plausible.


You could run an unrelated consequentialist argument that looks like this:

Many registered charities reflect ideals that many people dispute.

Bringing up ideals that many people dispute increases the probability of bringing up ideals that your interlocutor will dispute.

This increases the probability that the interlocutor will feel compelled to dispute them.

If this is the case, either the interlocutor will not dispute them, which will make the interlocutor feel bad, or the interlocutor will dispute them.

Disputes about ideals most often make everyone feel bad and solve nothing.

Either outcome has net negative utility. Weight according to their estimated likelihood and compare to the utility of discussing your donation.

7
  • 4
    LOL. You mention the caveat "The last statement is an empirical claim that's hard to test, but seems plausible" about a non-religious, logical argument, but you're happy to write "You should do what Jesus says" in the paragraph before. Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 8:19
  • 4
    @EricDuminil It makes sense though. Some people who follow a holy book will reject logic-based humanist morality, because its conclusions often differ from the rules in their book. If in this case you can point to a section of their holy book which says the same, you've covered both angles. (Of course there are plenty of other holy books, but that one covers a large percentage of the world's religious people.)
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 14:58
  • 2
    @Graham: Okay. I'm just intrigued that the holy-book-based-argument is in the first paragraph, followed by logic-based-arguments with a weird disclaimer. Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 16:15
  • 4
    While this is indeed a Christian thing, it pre- and -postdates Christianity. E.g. histphil.org/2018/07/25/…
    – fectin
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 22:56
  • 2
    "Obviously this one will hold more weight with people influenced by Christianity" - Jesus having commanded something should only hold weight with Christians (arguably it shouldn't hold weight with them either, but that's a discussion for another day). And if you take "You should do good things because they're good [and] avoid claiming credit" as a deontological claim, without any further justification, that would basically be you making the commandment, which shouldn't be compelling to others (it works much better from a consequentialism perspective).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 11:34
9

I think you are conflating the morality of donating and the social reaction to boasting. Imagine any n highly laudable moral acts- then imagine a person boasting about having performed them. The moral qualities of the acts would not stop you from disliking the fact that the person was boasting about them.

1
  • I see. I did not flesh this out properly in my head. But, I guess my concern is, the fact that we choose to dislike the fact that a person was boasting about the act might result in a lower equilibrium value of charity, as part of doing a costly action for the greater good is the social appreciation one would receive from that act. By removing that, we are reducing the benefit from the cost-benefit calculus of this act. Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 14:37
8

Giving to charity is supposed to be an act of altruism, meaning that you do good for the sake of doing good with no expectation of receiving something in return. When someone boasts about their contributions to a charity, that makes me question their motives for giving to charity, as it appears that they are exchanging money for the positive image associated with being altruistic.

This is a practice you will frequently see with extremely wealthy people, you'll read the phrase 'entrepreneur and philanthropist' in plenty of people's biographies who have made their fortune through exploitative means. They give a tiny fraction of their wealth to charity, make it a tax write off and use the positive coverage to distract from the questionable nature of the way they go about their main business. Similarly social media types and politicians will use charities to boost their image.

That is at least why I don't want to hear people boasting about their contributions to charity, it seems dishonest about their supposedly altruistic motives and manipulative.

1
  • This can be especially true when you see companies bragging about the money they've donated or the causes they support – such as a big oil and gas company claiming to donate/take action to help the environment.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 20:02
8

There are a few possible ways to talk about charity.

Broadly mentioning which charities you support (e.g. as a recommendation to others)

I see this happen all the time, on, say, YouTube videos, possibly in the context of some story (e.g. someone speaking against eating people, and mentioning their support for an anti-cannibalism charity) or as part of a charity drive or stream.

There is typically little to no objection from others, so there isn't much to say there.

When people specifically say how much they donate, this is sometimes received well, and sometimes not received well. But more on that later.

Stopping strangers on the street to talk about some charity

The issue here is not so much about talking about charity, but rather about stopping strangers to ask them for things (often by trying to make those strangers feel bad, or otherwise trying to manipulate their emotions).

This is as an aside to whether or not the charity is doing a net good. It's more about whether that one stranger feels you talking to them personally is a net good (if the end result is them getting frustrated and not donating, then it probably isn't), or possibly whether you going around talking to strangers is a net good.

"Bragging" about how much you donate (or that you donate)

One could say from a consequentialist perspective, a donation might be a net good, and bragging about it might be a net good as well. The latter may not be a given, because that could conceivably encourage people to care more about the concept of charity, rather than what individual charities are doing, which could shift donations from good to less-good, or even bad, charities.

But the objection here is more from virtue ethics, i.e. which virtues the person in question has, whether they're a "good" person. Charitable donation is typically viewed as a selfless and virtuous act. But when this is used in a selfish way, to create a positive impression of yourself, that's not virtuous. It's considered particularly unvirtuous to take something good and use it in a bad way, rather than just doing the bad thing by itself. The reason for this might have a lot to do with what I mentioned above about caring more about the concept of charity, and the potential harm this could do.

On a very closely related note:

Charity as a distraction

There is also a potential issue in e.g. some billionaire donating some fraction of a fraction of a percent of their income to charity, and they're praised for it.

This may be regardless of any objectionable business practices they may engage in (which may be the very source of their wealth), or specifically to distract from such practices.

Here one could argue that, from a consequentialist perspective, their charitable donation might be a net good, but overall they aren't doing a net good. Someone shouldn't be praised because of the good they're doing, when they're doing more harm than good.

Talking about donating to certain charities

Not all charities are equal, and not all people view all charities equally.

If you talk about donating to the pro-cannibalism charity (or a "help the homeless" charity, which also supports cannibalism), you could expect some objections, because people wouldn't view that charity to be doing a net-good.

4

A society where everyone donates money openly and competes to do the most good seems like it would be a perfectly functional society.

My suspicion is that when someone mentions how much they've given to charity, we instinctively want to treat them as immoral, and then we retrospectively try to justify it.

For example, if I mention that I (somehow) donate 90% of my earnings to charity, that's an immediate threat to your social status. You don't donate anywhere near that much, so the implication of what I'm saying is that you're a much worse person than me. You're not content to accept that the world should look down upon you as a bad person, so you immediately go on the defensive and start constructing arguments against me:

  • I must be ridiculously wealthy to be able to afford to live off 10% of my income, so I'm not really sacrificing anything.

  • The fact that I mentioned how much I donate is evidence that I don't really care about the lives I'm saving; I only care what other people think of me. So I'm not a real good person, I'm a vain person who happens to be doing some good.

  • If I'm going so far to donate money, maybe that means I'm doing awful things in secret and this is my way of compensating.

  • The causes I'm donating money to probably aren't really the things that need money the most. I might even be doing more harm than good by cultivating dependency.

These arguments might be valid, or they might not, but arguments are just the weapons used in the eternal war for social status. They're not the cause of the war.

The same battle happens any time people are suspected of virtue-signalling: vegans, people who refuse to own a car, people who plan to stay virgins until they're married, people who don't pirate media, people who don't cheat on their taxes...

Anyone who acts worse than me is a scoundrel. Anyone who tries to act like they're better than me is a different kind of scoundrel.

2
  • I haven't seen anyone object to someone donating 90% of their earnings to charity. I may only ever have heard of 1 or 2 people donating that much of their money. I have seen plenty of people mention how much they donate to charity without objection from others, and plenty of people mention it with objections. So the story is at least a little more complicated than perceived threats to social status, even if something like that may be a factor for some people.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 9:50
  • But more generally, the type of argument you're making here is unfalsifiable: any counter argument made can trivially be dismissed as a retroactive attempt to justify it. One could use a similar approach for many other beliefs too. In fact, one might say you're objecting to people who object to charitable donations, because you'd rather live in a world where people get mad over nothing as opposed to a world where people are two-faced, and your answer is just a retroactive attempt to justify that. It's trivial to claim and impossible to disprove, which demands a very high burden of proof.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 9:51
2

There's nothing wrong about discussing charities that you give to or support in other ways. It would be in bad taste to discuss the amount you gave, for example, but simply saying "I support GoA" is fine.

There may be some cultural nuances. You didn't note where you are from, but in the USA, discussing charities in any context, boastful, modest, or anywhere in between is neither moral or immoral. As mentioned by others, it's simply in bad taste to boast about how much you gave and any holier than thou feelings you get from it.

Give to whomever you deem worthy of your time and resources. Tell your friends if you want to. Just don't brag about it or belittle someone because they might not support the same charities you do.

2

Giving to charity has three effects: The charity has more money. You have less money. You demonstrate that you are a good person.

“Speaking about donating” has different effects.

If you try to show people what a good person you are, that’s very dubious. You shouldn’t donate to show that you are a good person, but because you are one.

If you went to a charity event, and it cost you money, but you enjoyed yourself and feel it was worth the money without even considering the charity, by all means tell people. It’s free advertising for the charity, and you help them making more money the next time.

Feel free to discuss the most tax-effective way to donate. In the UK, if I donate £100, I can make the tax office donate another 25 pound. If someone doesn’t know that, they should be told.

And I am notoriously tight with money. If I donate, then you can be sure that it is a really deserving cause. And that donating is the right thing to do. So I will tell you to convince you to donate as well. That’s absolutely appropriate.

1

Charity is associated with something pure and honest. But often people do charity and publicly announce it, based on their selfish goals. In this case, good is done not for the sake of good, but for the sake of recognition or status. Therefore, I think the discussion of charity is not entirely correct.

1

The thing is lots of people try to justify their own self-centered actions with "Everybody does selfish things" or even "every action is ultimately selfish". So in this case the argument would be "You're just doing it for the positive PR".

Now giving to charity without any positive side effect for you personally, meaning a net negative side effect for you as you have less than before, would often serve as a counter example of selfishness called "altruism", as it is purely for the benefit of the other person. Now of course a particularly rigorous observer might raise questions like "But doesn't it just give you this warm feeling of having done the right thing? And isn't it ultimately about giving yourself that feeling rather than for the sake of itself or the other person?". But a) that's almost impossible to prove or disprove and b) that would kinda warp the definition of selfishness, because it's somewhat different in both motivation and effect from the negatively connotated destructive short-sighted self-centration that regards other either with antagonism or apathy.

And if you follow a consequentialist perspective you might even argue that telling other people about it is good, precisely because it introduces more motives to do something and if selfishness breeds virtuous acts than even selfishness could be seen as a virtue.

The problem is that what you set as your goal determines your path or rather "judges the effectiveness of your path". So if the goal is to create good publicity you might find "more effective" means to boost your public standing than solving societal problems; in fact grand gestures and oversized symbolism might perform even better than actually doing something, because the end goal is not to solve a problem but to get people to talk about how you are great for tackling a problem. So in the worst case it might even be counterproductive to actually solve the problem. Like a doctor who instead of treating a disease keeps you in a cycle of pain and relief. They'd certainly improve your quality of life through the relief, but not sustainable, not for your sake but for theirs.

The problem is, again, what is in your head when doing something is in your head. Like people can speculate that if you're not talking about it that you're doing it for the sake of it, while if you're talking or even boasting about it you're doing it for the sake of something else, but in the end you could just be more subtle about the boasting, like you don't have to talk about it when others already do. Like "XYZ gave me that house and he's so humble to instruct me not mention that to anybody" might end up being more effective word-of-mouth propaganda than if he had bought nationwide television coverage about it. While actually doing it for the sake of it and being brought into a position where you're forced to disclose something like that against your will might look more damaging.

So that's not technically about morality but about perception.

On top of that you have questions about the morality of charity to begin with. Because its effects both financially and morally don't scale with money. Like life is a money drain and the cost of staying alive is often something of a fixture. Now for poor people the ratio of (necessary cost of living)/(income or wealth) is rather high in the worst case even bigger than 1, so if they give x% of their income that might already cut into the segment that was dedicated for necessary expenses and thus marks a real sacrifice, while if you are rich that ratio becomes much smaller and so the impact of a donation is much smaller. So individually the donation of a poor person has more moral weight than that of a rich person. Financially it's the opposite.

However beyond the pure financial aspect, the higher you go, the more you enter a new aspect and that is power and agency.

Like when you're donating millions you reach the level where it's debatable whether that was "your" money to begin with. Because you likely only are able to reap that amount of money by being the figurehead of an enterprise where you take the credit for the work of thousands or more people. So to an extent you're not speaking with your voice but with theirs. And your charity is at least partially also theirs, but you're the one taking the credit.

Even worse when "your charity" is directed towards your employees. Because in that case you're essentially taking their money than giving it back, and while financially that's without consequence, doesn't matter how the money moves what matters is where it ends up, but socially that's a transaction and the implication of that might be overlooked but they are HUGE.

Like many cultures have a morality of "giving is better than taking" and "being grateful if something is given to you." and that makes a lot of sense if you have a mutual society of equals that has a share and barter economy. It becomes a lot more sinister if you have a price based transactional economy.

Because what that essentially says as a consequence is that "being poor is being immoral". Like if a rich person gives to you, you're expected to pay it back to not be immoral and to pay back more to be virtuous, but you can't because you don't have that money, so in kind there are quite some people in dire situations that reject help because their moral compass tells them that they can't pay it back. Only those at rock bottom have no choice but to accept the donation and that's immoral and they don't see themselves as such. And even at "rock bottom" you have people with that attitude.

So if something like that is your societal morality, then charity is essentially a transaction "money vs dignity and self-respect", by showing how generous you are you're also exposing how "selfish" this poor person is for taking it, for being dependent on your charity.

So finding ways to redistribute money subtly and without making a fuzz about it, like paying people fair wages, paying your taxes and treating entitlements as rights rather than charitable donations can make a huge difference to the individuals self-respect and dignity, showing people that they are part of society rather than an endangered species that is seen as external matters a lot.

So yeah talking about charity might actually be immoral if you end up buying prestige at the price of utterly annihilating another person's dignity.

That being said that's just one interpretation; as I've mentioned in the beginning there are lots of other motivations for charity and even if you end up doing that, it doesn't need to have been your motivation or goal. Also in some situations help is more important than pride, but as said it's not even uncommon to reject much-needed help.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .