I stumbled across two routine DC sights in Dupont Circle yesterday – a couple of impossibly cheerful liberal do-gooders who asked if I had time to hear about their global anti-poverty organization, and a homeless person who asked for change.

What was interesting about these encounters is that both occurred within 30 feet of each other. It’s as if a team of sociologists put them there to examine how responsive I would be to helping the homeless person at my feet or the poverty stricken person 6,000 miles away.

I very often feel guilty about not giving change to homeless people, at least on those rare instances when I have loose change in my pocket. Sure, the person may use that money to buy malt liquor and crack, though even if he only uses 50% of his money on food, I still have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping to provide that person with sustenance. That’s more bang for my charitable buck than I would get had I given that quarter to the New York Public Library or some other organization. For all the good work that museums and non-profits do, most are not in the business of keeping people alive.

On the other hand, I never stop to talk to people who “Want just a minute of [my] time to hear about [ACLU/Poverty/OXFAM/etc]!!!!” It always strikes me as very intrusive. Why should I be made to feel guilty about living in America every time I step outside of work to go to Cosi?

Am I justified in giving loose change to homeless people but not listening to people who want me to donate money to Africa? Probably not. As is often the case, my moral intuition here is likely the opposite of what I “should” do from a strictly utilitarian perspective. The people living in mud huts thousands of miles away die of diseases that can be prevented by mosquito netting and penicillin. They also suffer from poor nutrition that can be made better for pennies. As bad as many homeless people have it in DC, they at least have access to a wide variety of social services and people like me, who occasionally hand over a nickel. Plus, giving money to a charity (hopefully) guarantees that none of my money will go to malt liquor and crack—no deadweight loss!

Adam Smith had it right in the Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an       earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened…If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Will I change my attitude towards the two groups of people who ask me for money on the street? Probably not soon: it’s difficult to rehabilitate moral intuitions. I may be more inclined to make donations to such organizations online, though.


5 Responses to “Charity”

  1. Emily Says:

    Nicholas Kristoff talked about a very similar issue a few weeks ago in the times:

  2. Alex Harris Says:

    Better hope Peter Singer doesn’t read this blog.

  3. Andy Says:

    you go to cosi? you yuppie. heh. i like to take the middle road with the homeless. whenever i have leftover food and i run into one, i’ll give them what i have. but yeah not a fan of the intrusive solicitors out there with a cause. sometimes i will talk to them but usually its like they try making you feel bad that you’re not taking the time out of your “busy” day to talk to them. my sister and i were discussing this recently, and she said that what she did was ask them what she could do besides donating money and they gave her no real answer.

  4. Jon Lange Says:

    Trotskyist comedian Mark Steel did an interesting radio program arguing that anybody who gives to charities should be put in jail. You might find it interesting.

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  5. problematicknowledge Says:

    Emily and Alex: I’ve always enjoyed Singer’s relentless utilitarianism even though I think it occasionally brings us to crazy conclusions. Tyler Cowen talked about something very similar here:

    Jon: Thanks for the link

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