The controversy of morality

1 October 2010

I gave a lecture earlier this week at the RSA in London called ‘The morality of charity’. You can read the lecture here or listen, and video should follow shortly on the RSA website.

The lecture has provoked a considerable reaction, which is both encouraging and unnerving; I honestly thought that much of the lecture was uncontroversial. Interesting hopefully, and provocative too, ideally, but not especially controversial in terms of its logic and argument.

Let me rehearse the basic points of the lecture.

The first key point is to argue that some charitable causes are inherently more worthwhile than others, morally so. Giving to these is “better” than giving to other causes.

Second, with enough effort, we could create a listing—a ranking even—of different charitable causes according to their worth. I do not detail how this should be done but I posit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as an illustrative and potential starting point (though I am not proposing this be used).

Third, I question whether we should do this because it is not clear donors care enough. Generally, donors don’t seem to want or use data to inform their giving decisions. This might be down to the way our brains are wired rather than due to indifference.

Lastly, I think a classification would be desirable, but it is premature to build and promote one. We need more debate first.

That is about it, more or less (hopefully though, expressed nicely and with evidence and argument to back it up!).

Objections to the lecture seem to focus on the reports that I recommend a system of classifying charitable causes. But I wonder where their criticisms ultimately stem from?

I think there is an important distinction between dismissing an idea because it is undesirable from rejecting it as impractical.

Let’s start with those people for whom a system is not desirable. If they reject the idea of classification, is this because they think all causes are truly equal so any system is not possible, even theoretically? Or, maybe they think there is something inherently wrong with pointing out to people that some giving is better. In this latter case they are then presumably more interested in protecting the rights, and ignorance, of donors, than in maximising the impact of charitable giving. Perhaps they think donors would simply ignore a system. Or the opposite—that such a system, through pointing out foibles to donors, could risk putting them off giving.

Some people have chosen to disagree with me on a purely practical note, saying that it would be impossible to design a system. If so, any theoretical desirability is purely academic and irrelevant. Often these dismissals seem rather casual and premature.

Some people seem to suggest I want to direct giving. Stephen Bubb of acevo, for example, says “charity has to remain a matter of individual choice.” I happen to agree with this and do not deny it in my lecture, so I dismiss it as an objection. (Providing information and encouraging people to use this is not telling people where to give; that distinction seems to get lost at times.) Elsewhere, Stephen seems to object to the idea on grounds of both desirability and practicality.

We need more debate and discussion about charitable giving in the hope this will create insights into how we can encourage more and better giving. To that end, I want to carry on this debate and welcome ideas or thoughts on how we might do this, as well as on the content of what I said this week.

If you have thoughts about the practicalities, do share these (though I am not especially interested in casual dismissal on practical grounds). A prime interest at this stage though is in exploring further whether a system is desirable. If so, then we should start to fret about practicalities. Let’s really explore whether, in theory, such a system of classification might be a good thing.