A teaching of Jesus' during The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus tells us to not make a big show of our charity as you will not be rewarded, be charitable in private; it will show in your heart and God will see.

There's a line in a song by Radiohead: "Charity Standing Orders" that causes me some trouble. By giving to charity via your bank account you are not making a show of it - a good thing in Jesus' words. But the point that is being made is that it's very easy to give via the bank. I wonder if charity's worth is based on the effort of the giver? I would like to think not - while tending an old lady's garden will be considered "better", giving money to a charity will still have a good effect.

Charity: something formerly motivated by love for one's fellow man(or woman). However, though this was true in Roman times, we can see today that charity is based on playing on people's guilt. Just look at the advertisements by charities on television today; we are pressed by what is basically emotional blackmail into giving money. I don't believe charities are a bad thing, I merely object to the fact that people no longer give out of generosity, fellowship with the human race, caritas in general.

If you donate to charity, you should write one check to one charity, not smaller checks to several charities. Non-profit organizations are not quite the same as charities; most people feel differently about donating to their child's dance troupe or high school play than they do to CARE (which fights starvation) or the Cancer Society.) Economist Steven Landsburg advises you choose the charity you feel is most worthy and cut them a check. If you send CARE $100 today and the Cancer Society $100 tomorrow, you are basically saying you were wrong when you chose CARE in the first place. Imagine I told you I was going to give $100 to CARE; would you then have only sent the check to the Cancer Society? If not, do you somehow believe your $100 made a bigger difference than mine? Your donation isn't big enough to make a dent in what the organization is trying to do, and until there is a "dent" in the goal, you should keep donating to the same organization.

Charities differ from other activities and goods because the goals of most charities are practically infinite (i.e. to eliminate poverty), but no personal appetite or activity is infinite, as diminishing marginal utility sets in when buying another bookcase or in the third hour of visiting with the same friend. There are so many starving children to feed even if you feed one, there are thousands more. No major charity is large enough to help enough people to the extent that the dollars reach diminishing marginal utility. Landsburg uses economic principles to argue that we should be monogamous in our charitable contributions. We can also use economic principles to consider difficult questions, such as how much we should give to charity and how to choose the (one) charity to donate to.

There are lots of arguments about how much to give to charity. Some people argue that if they buy land and cars which appreciate in value, they can both enjoy the wealth themselves and then donate more to charity when they die. Others say, "I earned the money; it's mine to keep; let them earn their own." That may be logical, but it overlooks the benefits to society to be gained by charity, if nothing else it gives us an appreciation for our own situations. Most religions espouse some form of charity-helping the less fortunate- and on this authority we consider how much to give and to whom.

One argument for generous giving says that instead of buying luxury items, one should donate that money to charity. Is it right to drive a Lexus while children in Africa are starving? The money from the car could have fed hundreds for a day or given a few people the education to improve their lives. The problem with this approach is the impossibility of defining "luxury" or "surplus income." What is a luxury item? In some other countries, any car is a luxury. Luxury compared to who living where? If "luxury" items are morally wrong, it is also wrong to have a higher standard of living than anyone else. You should share what you have and give away your money in an effort to bring others up, closer to your own standard of living. By this philosophy, you should find the poorest people on the earth and give them the money to bring them up to a better standard of living. However, since there are so many destitutes, they would each get half-a-penny and you would be broke. The poor would be infinitesimally better off, but there would be one more starving person, namely you. The very small amount of utility gained by the poor would not at all compensate for the huge loss in utility of the donor. Society, by economic standards, would be worse off because the gains do not exceed the loss.

One penny, or one grain of corn, to each of several thousand people does almost no good, but concentrated on fewer people, it can literally make the difference between life and death. This is Landsburg's theory but applied differently: not only should we focus money on one charity instead of giving small amounts to many charities, but charities should focus on helping people enough to make a difference so that they in turn will be in a position better able to help those around them.

Savings can be looked at as a type of preventative charity, because if something happens to you or your family, you will have the means to support them without relying on society and the charity of others. But should you save all your money in the name of self-reliance and give none of it to charity? If you cannot support yourself, or your grandparents, because you donated the money to CARE instead, you have done yourself and society a disservice. Some money should be saved for basic self-reliance. How to determine the "right" amount to give a charity is still a difficult decision, but it lies between the two extremes: giving it all away or saving it all. If you can no longer provide for your family, the losses exceed the benefits. If you can "afford" to donate some money, that means that you will probably get less utility from that next dollar than the people at CARE. However, it is still your money and not theirs, so it is perfectly fair to give more weight to your own utility than that of others, but you can make a difference to someone, just as the little girl did with the starfish.

Even after deciding how much to give to a charity, what criteria should be used to decide which is the most deserving? Is it better to give to a charity that is working to eliminate Alzheimer's disease, or cancer, or feed starving children in Africa? Should more effort be given to curing disease that affect children, or those that affect adults or seniors? Senior citizens have less life left anyway, but have contributed to society the longest; adults produce the most for society; children "have their whole lives in front of them". Should we give the same value to the three years of life from 70 to 73 as we do from 20 to 23?

Perhaps there should be less research on some kinds of diseases and more on others, but should we choose those that are debilitating, that kill quickly, or slowly? Maybe instead of medical research, the money should be completely given to education, which helps people improve their own lives. But then do we educate in the slums of America? Ireland? India? What is the right balance between food and education in Africa? Without food they will starve; without education they will continue to need donated food. Should warring countries get more or less aid? Of what type? How do we measure the benefits to society? Perhaps sending food and teachers to Africa is useless until the governments are established that want to help citizens. Monies might be better spent on political charities which strive for stable, non-corrupt governments before food and education.

Most charities are dedicated either to prolonging lives or improving the quality of life for a group of people. Which is more important, and to what point? Should we try to guarantee a certain standard of life before "helping" people stay alive in misery? Should we decide who to help based on how much they will be able to contribute back to society? If the amount of money needed to cure a disease could be used to educate some other people, which is the better cause? Is the man cured of a disease more likely to become a doctor and help society, or the child given an education to become a great inventor? Does education for the poor in India bring more or less benefit to society than education for the poor in Rwanda? Then we could try to ask about utility: does the poor Irishman or the poor Rwandian receive more utility from education? from food? Which can contribute more to society?

These are impossible questions, but they deal with the scarcity of resources and how to distribute them: precisely economics. I do not know how to choose who to help, but when we make the decision to give to charity, it should be based on some type of well-thought-out criteria. Perhaps you believe donations should go to the people who will get the most utility from them, and perhaps you have a way to measure that. Perhaps you think that regardless of how happy the individual is to receive aid, only those who have a high chance of contributing back to society should be helped. No matter what you think, you are probably overlooking something, but if you give your money where you think it should go, and someone else considers something you did not and contributes accordingly, as a group we will make the most optimal decision we can.

"Social-Issue Charities"

(or: why some charities may be a bad idea in the long run)

Charities. You probably have your favourite one. Protection of birds. Protection of wildlife. Food for hungry children. Recycling. War veterans. Gun victims. For every good cause in the world, there is a charity - an organisation that is happy to take your money to pressure politicians, or to use the cash to take more direct action.

I have started to notice a worrying trend, however: A trend that my aching, naive socialist heart has had trouble identifying, and of which the analysis results is nothing short of painful.

Why charities can cause problems

Imagine the following scenario: You live in a country called Runebjerg. In this country is a mountain called Stikkelsfjell. This mountain is beautiful, and harbours the life of a flower only found on this mountain. However, the flower seems to lose foothold, and seems to have taken the dirt path towards extinction.

The government in Runebjerg is aware of the problem, and has put some scientists on the case. A plan is being formulated, but things are taking time.

You, being a worried citizen, decide to start an Ad Hoc campaign to save the flower. You start a charity, and collect money from people. Suddenly, your organization, which isn't as bogged down in bureaucracy as the government, is a far better candidate for rescuing the flower. The government throws some money your way, and pulls their project.

You save the flower - for now.

However, what has happened now is that the charity is the only defendant this flower has. The government has more pressing issues, and after your charity loses its media coverage, your budget gets cut a little each year, until the charity cannot function anymore. People have moved on to other charities.

Why does this happen?

While offering a genuine interest and attempt at helping, charities inadvertently do another thing as well: They exempt the government of a nation-state of their responsibilities.

Sure, the issue gets addressed, and the charity might be very successful: But isn't the target of each charity to help one particular cause that may help many people? Isn't the work that, say, Greenpeace or Foster Parents Plan or Amnesty International do ultimately something that benefits everybody? In a nation of people - why should only the people who bother to pick up their chequebook pay for doing the world a favour? Why shouldn't most of these honourable efforts be effectively run (at least economically) by the government of the nation-states, or by state-sponsored organisations?

Some people might argue that the chequebook-support of causes is the ultimate form of democracy: you get to choose exactly what your money goes to and how much you choose to pay. The problem, however, is that this model demands that people are intrinsically good, and willing to offer part of their wages to help other people or specific causes. In today's capitalist society, however, these types of people are very few and far between.

The people who do give handsomely to charities do so they feel better about it, or so they can benefit from the publicity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it saddens me that we are in a society where nobody can give something without expecting to receive in return.

Corporate sponsorship as charity

Corporate sponsorship is, in many ways, an extension of the charity-system described above, except its deviousness is far more evil. With corporate sponsorship, the corporations cannot lose:

Imagine if a company went in and solved the solution above. They buy the entire mountain against the promise that they get to use part of it, and save the flowers on the rest of the mountain. Or they might funnel in a lot of money, against getting to put up commercial banners etc. This practice does not only relieve the government of their responsibilities (What? McDonalds want to save the flowers? Let them – save us some cash), but it does the same to the public, while earning the rights to use the land, or the right to advertise.

A far more sinister thing is currently happening within education. Corporate sponsorships are popping up in schools around the world – particularly in the US. Sponsored educational TV programmes, sponsored school books, Pepsi schools versus Coke schools etc. The sinister bit is that the more the corporations decide to sponsor the schools, the more the government is inclined to think that "Hey, they are shelling out for the schools, which are about to fall apart and have been using books from the mid-70s, so why should we bother?". The more capitalistic a society is (yup, referring to the US of A once more), the more likely it is that this school of thought is utilised, and the more likely it is that the school systems will be branded with corporate logos and (far worse, but ultimately unavoidable), ideas.


Both the examples above – the problems with charities and the problems of corporate sponsorship in community issues – are caused by a terminally ill society, infected with capitalism.

So what could have been different? In an ideal society, the government would take responsibility for everything directly affecting its citizens. That means that schools should be well taken care of. War veterans should be taken care of. Wildlife resources, libraries, recycling, and children from abusive homes should be cared for. By the government.

Every time I see a television advert for a charity covering one of these things, it makes me sick to my stomach. "Every day, an elderly person is subject to abuse. For only X pound a day...". The adverts, while being honourable for trying to make a difference, are effectively transferring the responsibility from the government to whoever is willing to pay, because they feel bad for the elderly.

Personally, as a solution, I am all for higher taxes. And not just for the people on the lower rungs of the money ladder. Let everybody pay a significant part of their wages, and make the government spend the money wisely* on the things that really matter. Okay, so many people will argue about what "really matters". However, I challenge anybody to convince me that issues of general welfare – such as education, health and environmental issues – are worth of charities or corporate sponsorships.

If anybody wants to spend more on the variouse causes, let them. But don't let governments off the hook. If these cases are anybody's responsibility, they are everybody's responsibility.

*) Yes. I said "Let the Government spend the money wisely". And I mean it. I have a strong believe that governments can in fact spend money wisely. That does demand, however, that the government in question is in touch with what the people (the "demos" part of democracy, remember?) want**. That also means that I wouldn't trust a government with strong commercial or corporate interests to be able to pull this off. Which means that in some countries I could think of, charities are the only hope. That, or a decent-sized revolution. Ah. One can never give up hope.

**) What the people want other than lower taxes. Which is altogether utterly ironic, but luckily well outside the scope of this writeup, or we'd be here all week.

All of which isn't to say that the causes I believe most in will be without my donations this year. I just wish the government gave the proverbial flying fuck.

Char"i*ty (?), n.; pl. Charities (#). [F. charit'e fr. L. caritas dearness, high regard, love, from carus dear, costly, loved; asin to Skr. kam to wish, love, cf. Ir. cara a friend, W. caru to love. Cf. Caress.]


Love; universal benevolence; good will.

Now abideth faith, hope, charity, three; but the greatest of these is charity. 1. Cor. xiii. 13.

They, at least, are little to be envied, in whose hearts the great charities . . . lie dead. Ruskin.

With malice towards none, with charity for all. Lincoln.


Liberality in judging of men and their actions; a disposition which inclines men to put the best construction on the words and actions of others.

The highest exercise of charity is charity towards the uncharitable. Buckminster.


Liberality to the poor and the suffering, to benevolent institutions, or to worthy causes; generosity.

The heathen poet, in commending the charity of Dido to the Trojans, spake like a Christian. Dryden.


Whatever is bestowed gratuitously on the needy or suffering for their relief; alms; any act of kindness.

She did ill then to refuse her a charity. L'Estrange.


A charitable institution, or a gift to create and support such an institution; as, Lady Margaret's charity.

6. pl. Law

Eleemosynary appointments [grants or devises] including relief of the poor or friendless, education, religious culture, and public institutions.

The charities that soothe, and heal, and bless, Are scattered at the feet of man like flowers. Wordsworth.

Sisters of Charity R. C. Ch., a sisterhood of religious women engaged in works of mercy, esp. in nursing the sick; -- a popular designation. There are various orders of the Sisters of Charity.

Syn. -- Love; benevolence; good will; affection; tenderness; beneficence; liberality; almsgiving.


© Webster 1913.

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