Philanthropy and Atheism/Freethinking.
#1
The question is dead simple but equally tricky.
Is it a moral responsibility of a freethinker to be philanthropic?
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#2
(30-Jan-2011, 11:36 PM)United_Floyd Wrote: The question is dead simple but equally tricky.
Is it a moral responsibility of a freethinker to be philanthropic?

One philosopher who has written much on the subject is Peter Singer, who explains his stance on the moral necessity of philanthropy in this interview.
This excerpt from his book The Life You Can Save is what he calls a 'logical argument from plausible premises' which attempts to establish philanthropy as a moral obligation (italics mine).

Quote:First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
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#3
(31-Jan-2011, 12:15 AM)arvindiyer Wrote:
Quote:First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

I'm a big fan of Pete Singer. I would agree with his reasoning here, but instead of calling the first two premises "plausible premises", I would simply say these are intersubjective moral premises given which these particular conclusions can be drawn. The premises themselves are neither plausible nor implausible, since they are observer-dependent and subjective. But its possible Singer was using "plausible" as shorthand.

"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#4
(31-Jan-2011, 02:07 AM)Ajita Kamal Wrote: I'm a big fan of Pete Singer. I would agree with his reasoning here, but instead of calling the first two premises "plausible premises", I would simply say these are intersubjective moral premises given which these particular conclusions can be drawn. The premises themselves are neither plausible nor implausible, since they are observer-dependent and subjective. But its possible Singer was using "plausible" as shorthand.

Singer does indeed seem to be using "plausible" as shorthand here. He places these arguments in a chapter immediately after one that discusses our 'moral intuitions'. To illustrate what he means by 'moral intuitions', he cites how an 'unconscious moral grammar' underlies surprisingly similar responses across societies and ethnicities to Peter Unger's trolley problem. He then proceeds to crystallize this moral intuition into a set of premises, and therefore one could say that these are intersubjective (and not 'fact-claims' as the now table-banging Sam Harris would have us believe). In other words, these claims maybe 'informed by science' as Russell Blackford would concede (the science here being the surveys/imaging studies with the trolley problem), but people who reject these claims and act differently may do so even without holding wrong conceptions about the science.

Peter Unger himself seems to have quite a bit to say on the subject in the essay Living high and letting die.
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#5
Is there a measure for the success of philanthropic activities in the developed world? Probably only this factor interests me than the moral obligation.

I think welfare of the society should rest solely on the government. Citizens only need to pay their taxes dutifully. My understanding is that;
- Government can make long term and comprehensive plans
- Self-image of the aid recipients would not be dented in such situations as they would view it as a government duty

I'm not convinced that the Indian government doesn't raise enough money from the taxes to uplift the poor people.

I give for charity during natural calamities but beggars don't move me. I guess the idea is natural disasters are momentary setbacks and momentary donations are good enough. However, beggars are a long term problem and I won't make a difference and the government should take care of them.

Then sometimes I need to spend money on needy relatives. I don't mind spending on their education but it frustrates when I have to give money for their marriages. However, I can't offer them an alternate society or find a groom for them who completely understand their situation. This in-group altruism also disturbs me that those relatives may lose their dignity.
Manju Vadiarillat
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#6
(01-Feb-2011, 10:41 AM)manju Wrote: Is there a measure for the success of philanthropic activities in the developed world? Probably only this factor interests me than the moral obligation.

I think welfare of the society should rest solely on the government. Citizens only need to pay their taxes dutifully. My understanding is that;
- Government can make long term and comprehensive plans
- Self-image of the aid recipients would not be dented in such situations as they would view it as a government duty

I agree that we need no-nonsense measures of success for philanthropy, which can be seen as 'returns on an social investment'. While there is no substitute for good governance, civil society initiatives like Rang De (FAQ page here) offer a promising model in which (i) there are inbuilt measures of progress in terms of loan repayment percentage etc. (ii) self-image of aid recipients is duly respected (a donor cannot even waive the interest on his/her loan)

(01-Feb-2011, 10:41 AM)manju Wrote: I don't mind spending on their education but it frustrates when I have to give money for their marriages. However, I can't offer them an alternate society or find a groom for them who completely understand their situation.

In this recent article, Dr. K P S Kamath emphasizes that to bring about this 'alternative society' there are no shortcuts and it may take more time than freethinkers in their justified restlessness are willing to wait.

Quote:The third step would require thousands of dedicated volunteers trained in teaching, guiding, empowering people in distress. The enormity of this step might be discouraging to Secular Humanists who want quick results. The truth is there are no short cuts in the business of reforming people. In my own practice, I have found it so hard to convince my clients to change their behavior even after they acknowledge that their behavior was the cause of their problem.
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#7
To the question "Is it a moral responsibility of a freethinker(or for that matter anyone) to be philanthropic?", a response that emerges often from socialist circles is that private charity is a response to social injustice that is at best inadequate and at worst counterproductive. It is sometimes said in as many words that charity is a distraction from the 'Revolution' and detracts from the fervour and urgency of bringing about structural overhaul. Such a stance has a considerable history and was articulated notably by Oscar Wilde. This post examines the assumptions and real-world implications of such a stance from the point of view of Enlightenment thought on Ethics, as well as the contemporary conception and practice of Philanthropy.

In his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism Oscar Wilde describes thus the effect of charity on human suffering, and suggests that it be eschewed.

Quote:The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim.

Oscar Wilde sees a surer end to human suffering in a classless society of tomorrow rather than through individual acts of kindness today. However, taking such a view literally, to the literal extreme of forswearing charity, is fraught with the sort of moral peril that Utilitiarianism was prior to the Neo-classical Synthesis. Utilitarianism a priori privileges the 'greatest good for the greatest number' (a condition that would in theory arise in the classless society of tomorrow, and serve as an ideal end for Bentham) over the plight of a lone suffering beggar (whose 'right to life', recognized as sacrosanct and paramount by Mill, may perhaps only be upheld by an act of charity). The moral hazard makes itself felt in questions like, "Is the preventable starvation of even one person who might have been saved by charity, a justifiable sacrifice for hastening a promised Utopia for all?" or "Is the fact (or claim) that an act of charity won't help as much as a Revolution, by itself good enough reason enough to withhold the help, however little, which charity would have amounted to?"

Besides the insistence in Mill's Neoclassical Synthesis that any policy proposal must be mindful of potential harm (especially to minorities)[1], there is another concern about the grounds on which Wilde bases his prescription for society. Among Wilde's assumptions, there are some empirical claims, notably about the outcomes of charity and the outcomes of political overhaul. From the standpoint of the Neo-classical Synthesis, conveying a poetic vision alone is no case for a policy change, unless its empirical claims are themselves supported by the results of empirical investigation[2].

To Wilde's prescription of according primacy to institutional change, a caveat Prof. Amartya Sen might add citing historical precedent is the proneness of 'transcendental institutionalism' to failure [3]. Wilde to his credit, however, clearly distinguishes his ideal of a socialist state from an authoritarian model though the historical proneness of socialist experiments to lapse into authoritarianism is all too apparent[4]. The oft-raised objection to philanthropic aid that 'it simply doesn't work' is addressed from an empirical standpoint by Peter Singer in his book-length statistics-laden response to aid skeptics, The Life You Can Save and related media contributions[5]. Efforts such as Give Well encourage reasoned outlays by donors rather than impulsive actions of do-gooders who 'sentimentally set themselves to remedying the evils that they see'. 'Sympathy with suffering' and 'sympathy with thought', far from being treated as irreconcilable as Wilde assumes, are increasingly being recognized as mutually intertwined[6a,6b] as well as observed to be mutually reinforcing in several instances[7].

Whatever debates there maybe about the relative urgency or comparative effectiveness of acts of individual goodwill and the implementation of institutional overhaul, they are not fundamentally mutually exclusive. Since they are in theory compatible, attempts to harness the spontaneity and engagement of personal altruism even while simultaneously ensuring the durability of the sought outcomes by sound institution-building, maybe a worthwhile humanitarian pursuit [8a,8b].

References:
[1] Justice Harvard Episode 2 (Link)
[2] Moral Foundations of Politics, Yale, Lecture 7 (Link)
[3] The Idea of Justice : Book review by David Marjoribanks, U Kent (Link)
[4] Jonathan Haidt speaking at Secular Ethics, USC, May 3 2011 (Link)
[5] What should a billionaire give? And what should you? Peter Singer, NY Times,Dec 17 2006 (Link)
[6a] Forum Thread (Religion in the Abattoir) (Link)
[6b] Forum thread (The Secret) (Link)
[7] The Why and How of Effective Altruism, Peter Singer, TED (Link)
[8a] Forum Thread (Curriculum for Value Education) (Link)
[8b] Forum Thread (Understanding causation in social/cultural contexts ) (Link)
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#8
The following lecture by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah addresses a more general version of the question asked in the OP. The question of "Is it a moral responsibility of a freethinker to be philanthropic?" can be treated under the larger question of "When is it a moral responsibility of a citizen to be philanthropic?"





A portion of the talk that is particularly relevant here, is a comparison of two principles that are used to make a case for philanthropy.

Singer Principle : If you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you ought to do it.

Emergency Principle: If you’re the person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and if it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.

Thought experiments are presented in the talk where these principles can have very different consequences when invoked, in an attempt to examine which of the principles would be a more reliable aid to moral behavior. Consider for example, that is suggested to you to "Empty your bank account to aid the relief efforts of MSF." The Emergency Principle can supply an argument against emptying your account (though not against donating itself) because there is no compelling reason why you and not anybody else with a similar bank-balance must do the emptying. However, naively applying the Singer Principle would not stop short of 'emptying' the bank account since the loss of life or loss of limb that MSF can prevent would trump the loss of savings which an empty bank account would mean.

The Singer Principle, championed also by Peter Unger and discussed earlier in this thread is typically illustrated using a shallow-pond/drowning-child scenario. Appiah points out several limitations of applying the shallow-pond analogy to real-world philanthropy. Some notable ones are (i) Unlike the shallow-pond scenario where the act of saving is simple and with immediate and guaranteed results, donations to aid organizations are not, and how they relate to 'saving' the recipient or even serving the cause is often fraught with more questions. (ii) Unlike the shallow-pond scenario where there is no other adult around, real-life scenarios present a "Why me?" question when there are others equally equipped to help. In other words, the question of individual vis-a-vis collective responsibility is left unaddressed in the shallow-pond exercises. Another question that is left unaddressed is resolving conflicts between close family obligations and obligations as a 'citizen of the world'. A summary of Appiah's critiques of the case for philanthropy by Peter Singer and Peter Unger can be read here.

Having said all that, Appiah nevertheless hastens to add in that very lecture that none of the above is an argument against giving more than we currently do (just an argument against basing the case for more giving on principles whose application can also lead to counterproductive consequences). This is a useful exercise because thought-experiments like Singer's shallow-pond inevitably involve a degree of abstraction, and an examination of considerations which the abstractions ignored can serve to lessen the gap between the principle and practice. We can see how the addition of a single clause which changes the Singer Principle to the Emergency Principle can yield a more practicable principle.
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