Sunday, January 31, 2021

This Is Your Brain on Altruism

 In service to a discussion of charitable giving with a friend, I have been reading her book suggestion, The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer. The premise of the book is simply that basic decency requires pretty much anyone in the middle class (or up) in a developed country to give a decent amount, probably more than they're already giving, to the poor in the third world.

So I entirely agree with that premise, and I think a decent amount about my charitable giving and try to give a lot, and don't necessarily think I give enough. And still, reading through an explicit argument about it somehow engages, if not my actual hackles, then at least my argumentative streak. I want to quibble with him SO MUCH.

Some of my quibbles are pretty reasonable, I think. He comes from a philosophy background, but he uses arguments from both philosophy and social psychology to back his premise. He includes a lot more evolutionary psychology than I generally like to see in a good argument (as my son would say, evolutionary psych is suss), and even standard social psych studies always have me picturing how the undergrads who participated in the study do not in any way represent me. 

I'm sure part of it is that I just feel attacked; "you should give more" = "you aren't giving enough" = "you are doing it wrong," which will always coax a knee jerk out of me. Again, I went in agreeing that I should give more, and he has even convinced me of the point my friend was making when she suggested the book, which is that charitable giving to prevent people dying of poverty in other parts of the world is separate from the more feel-good charitable giving to more local, subtle, and/or optional improvements, like Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and local theater.

I think the key thing I want to argue about, though, are things that I think are missing from his list of "why people don't give." His reasons include things like the diffusion of responsibility, the sense that the problem is too big to solve, and the parochialism of caring about your neighbors more than people you've never seen. These are all real reasons that affect people, but they don't really resonate with me.

The problems I see with giving money to help people who are thousands of miles away are problems of trust and efficacy. When I give my money to a local organization, I have access to some amount of information about what it's doing, who is using it. I don't always look deeply into that information, and of course there can be corruption or mismanagement. But I know where my local food bank sets up shop, and I've sorted food at the regional hub. I attend shows at local theaters and listen to public radio; I follow the news enough to know what the ACLU is doing and I know plenty of people who have utilized the services of Planned Parenthood. 

So first, I have to trust that I am giving my money to an organization that is going to use it appropriately. Second, I have to believe that giving money to them will actually help the people at the other end of the transaction. Is the difference I hope to make going to be made? Does my money actually go toward food or medical care or clean water? I keep picturing the Sally Struthers commercials from years ago and feeling manipulated, not hopeful.

Marketing is what has ruined this. The only way to communicate how my help is needed is through marketing--junk mail, Save the Children commercials, etc. And I have learned enough of the world to know that marketing is mostly lies--or at least, enough lies that it's not worth paying much attention to. 

So when I'm offered to add a dollar to my purchase for a random charity, I say no, pretty much always. Because are they really going to get that money? And if they do, is that really going to help anyone?

That's why his arguments that are based on social psychology, where they ask test subjects to donate to a cause and look at what variables influence their decisions, don't resonate with me. I would say no, always.

And then I'd go home and give the money to the causes I've chosen. In case you're interested, I give to MercyCorps (because my friend who works with refugees identified them as people who have been on the ground helping her clients), Doctors Without Borders (famous and well-regarded enough that I have some idea of what they do), and Give Directly (endorsed by Peter Singer, the author of the book I'm reading, so presumably super well-researched).

And this book is convincing me that I should donate more. And that instead of totaling my giving to these places in the same category as my donations to local radio and theater, the PTA and my local library, political candidates and advocacy groups, that I should count those as two separate categories. Call them causes I support for the latter and basic obligations to my fellow humans for the former.

I am not religious at all, but I know how lucky I am in this world, and that a tithe is the least I can do.

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