The devil’s advocate: The problem with charity
|February 15, 2012||Posted by James Harle under lifestyle|
Charity is a great thing. It’s selfless, pure, and it improves both the helper and the helped; that’s probably why it’s often recommended even in religious doctrine. Charities, however, are something rather different. The organised charity represents a group of people who, presumably, wish to be charitable themselves – however, the water is muddied when they ask for donations from the public. Suddenly, unlike in its pure form, the ‘charity’ involves a great number of people in different roles. The moral impetus is no longer personal, and the motives behind it are no longer singular. In short, things get complicated.
There are a number of problems with organised charities, and most of them have to do with the difference between them and charity as an impulse. In both cases, the aim is to do something morally right, and something which has a positive and constructive effect on the situation at which the donation is aimed. The trouble is that morality has an inbuilt geographical element. There’s a limit on the number of problems which you can devote your time and money to solving. Organised charities such as Oxfam, through advertising, imply a moral responsibility to donate to their cause. I don’t believe that is the case. I believe that morality can work most efficiently if everyone maintains moral codes within their own ‘sphere of influence’, rather than the sphere suggested by an external source. If everyone did so, then worldwide problems would be solved anyway.
I object to charities advertising exotic problems not only because I don’t believe that it’s a person’s moral responsibility to solve problems of which they’ll never have firsthand experience, but also because if someone is made to feel as if they have a moral responsibility to such things then that inevitably leads to an acceptance that not all problems can be solved. It’s necessarily defeatist: there are around 175,000 registered charities operating in the UK alone, and you can’t contribute to all of them. When you choose one to donate to, you accept that fact, and you accept moral imperfection – an acceptance which I think is detrimental.
Charities also disperse personal moral agency by setting up currency as the measure of commitment. When you donate that money you don’t know what it’s paying for, and there have been examples in the past of abuses which led to immoral actions. Consider, for example, the case a couple of years ago whereby representatives of a certain charity were trading food packages for sex in impoverished African countries. Those who donated weren’t aware of where the money was going, and had assumed that by giving the money they were precipitating something necessarily good. Sadly, that was not the case.
But we needn’t reach for these extreme examples to show the flaw in the system. When you hand your money to an animal conservation charity, you don’t know what their priorities are. Say, for example, you’re concerned with the plight of tigers. Even if the charity has advertised its desire to save tigers, your money might well go to saving polar bears, or elephants. It might go to cover the charity’s administrative costs, or defray the cost of their advertising. The fact is, you are no longer in control once the money has been donated, and you therefore cease to be a moral agent.
When it comes to pure moral improvement or problem solving, it’s clear to me that charities are a weak way to go about it. If you want to make a difference then act within your sphere of influence, within your local or even regional community. Don’t be fooled into thinking that moral agency can be deferred to another party by the transaction of money. Ultimately, if everyone could do their best locally, the world would be a better place globally.