I am a skeptic when it comes to charity– I believe most charity efforts are inefficient ways to make the desired impact, misunderstand the nature of the problem they seek to address and are doomed to treat symptoms rather than causes or, at worst, create more problems than they solve. I believe that this is partly due to the incentivizes and mechanisms of philanthropic activities versus monetary/commercial exchange activities, and partly (mostly) due to the fact that most people interested in charity do not spend much time thinking philosophically about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.
As I do intend to contribute to (or even create) some philanthropic entities over the course of my life and I do not wish to be a hypocrite, I have attempted to identify and outline some important tradeoffs which must be considered before engaging in charitable activities.
Spectra of tradeoffs
Short-term vision vs. Long-term vision
This tradeoff involves the consideration of looking at problems which are immediate, present or developed in nature versus looking at problems which are distant, in the future and developing or potentially could develop based on a particular trend playing out. This tradeoff also has implications for questions of fund-raising and financing methodology and the construction of a strategy to meet the problem (ie, building a strategy which is active in the coming year versus a strategy which may only become active many years from now). This tradeoff has a generational component– looking at one’s own generation or the immediately following generation, the generation of one’s grandchildren or even more distant successors, or looking at the general inheritance of mankind for all time.
Physical issues vs. World of ideas
This tradeoff involves considering problems related to things that affect the material well-being versus predominant ideas, values, culture, etc. An example would be providing books to schools, versus influencing what is in the books in schools.
Treat symptoms vs. Prevent problems
This tradeoff is one of both urgency and quantity. It implies a certain metaphysical reality for the tradeoff to exist, that is, that a smaller good can be had now at the expense of a larger good later. The tradeoff demands that we consider which is more important: ending present suffering or ending the the cause of suffering. An example is providing malaria medication, versus providing mosquito nets.
Act locally vs. Act globally
This tradeoff involves the radius of impact and the desire to improve one’s own community versus the potential to affect a more desperate community further afield. An example would be trying to end homelessness in your own city, versus trying to provide clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.
General application vs. Specific application
This tradeoff is similar to the impact radius consideration but the question asked is more precise: “Given that resources are limited, do you seek to relieve the problem as it affects one specific group, or as it affects all groups?” A person may choose a specific group far away or a specific group they know familiarly, that is why this is not a question of acting locally or globally. An example might be seeking cures for childhood cancer, versus seeking cures for all cancers.
Verifiable impact vs. Difficult to measure
This tradeoff involves considerations of the empirical measurement of philanthropic influence. You may decide only to support a cause which has a clear and objective metric to indicate the influence your contribution is making, or you may decide to support a cause where the impact is subjective, mixed up with other independent variables or is simply on too vast of a scale to easily measure. An example is delivering computers to third world classrooms, versus improving the happiness of a community.
DIY vs. Pay to fund others
This tradeoff is a question of agency and considers whether one will serve as the agent of change himself, or whether he will hire others to do the work for him. It is not just a question of leveraging the efforts of others through the division of labor– it is about whether it is personally desirable to be involved as an agent oneself or whether it is preferable to provide things like ideas, organization and money while leaving others to actually execute on the plan. An example is going on a mission trip and building houses for the poor, versus making a donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Change the system vs. Work within it
This tradeoff involves an analysis of the contribution the social system (rules, laws, cultural customs, traditions, economy, etc.) makes to the existence of the problem in question. You might see the problem as a necessary outcome of the system itself, necessitating a “revolution” to resolve it, or you might see the system as largely disinterested in or detached from the problem meaning it’s possible to use the system, or channel its energy differently, to resolve the problem. An example is abolishing the tax code, versus seeking a privileged status within it such as 501(c)3 designation.
For-profit vs. Non-profit (Self-sustaining vs. Dependency)
This tradeoff examines the proper method of financing a charitable activity. It signifies an awareness of the way that the existence of a charitable resource might influence the supply or stickiness of a social problem. It also provides consideration for the likelihood of strategically resolving a social problem with a potentially uncertain, inconsistent or mismatched method of finance. It understands that the design of economic systems and the consideration of incentives is often background for the existence of certain social problems. An example is a business that purposefully hires various “at risk” demographics to keep them out of trouble, versus a charity which spends significant time and energy ensuring its continued financing by others; a corrolary example is a charity with a substantial endowment which is intelligently invested over a long-period of time allowing it to grow, versus a charity which comes hat in hand every year asking for new donations to continue its operations.
Individuals vs. Families/communities
This tradeoff involves the philosophy of “If you can change the life of just one person, you’ve made a difference” as opposed to “It takes a village” or “Only together may we truly prosper.” It asks one to focus their consideration on whether the problem is truly being solved if only some are relieved or whether a wholesale solution must be put into affect to feel a sense of accomplishment. An example is a scholarship for a talented student, versus constructing a school for an “underserved” community.
One causes vs. Many causes
This tradeoff considers whether one can do the most good by having many plates spinning and doing a little good in a lot of places, or if it’s better to dig deeply and do a lot of good on just one issue. An example is putting all your effort and resources into diabetes research, versus supporting the local children’s hospital, a charity sports league, providing scholarships to handicapped students and funding a legal defense fund.
One project vs. Many projects
This tradeoff is similar to the one immediately preceding it. The difference is simply that one could have one project at each of many causes, or many projects at one and only one cause, or some other combination of the two. It is partly a question of finishing what you started before going on to something else. An example is just feeding the poor, versus feeding the poor, providing job training for the poor and organizing community awareness seminars about the challenges of the poor.
Mankind vs. Other Organisms
This tradeoff is self-explanatory– do you seek to resolve human issues, or ecological issues (including issues related to the state of the environment, the welfare of non-human animals, the prevalence of plant species, etc.) An example is building a church, versus saving a species of river smelt from extinction.
When it comes to philanthropy, I believe the most important epistemic principle is that you should have a rational, deeply contemplated answer to the question, “How do you know you aren’t making it worse?”