The Ethics of Charitable Giving

Most of us would agree that sharing our good fortune in the form of charitable giving is an ethical thing to do, maybe even an ethical requirement. If we’re blessed with more money than we need, whether by hard work, good luck, or a combination of both, we ought to lend a helping hand to those who need it. Right?

But what does it mean to have more money than we need?

The tax law passed in 2017 doubled the standard deduction, which means far fewer people get a tax break for their donations. As many warned, that led to a drop in individual contributions, but the drop was only 1.1 percent, according to Giving USA. That’s going in the wrong direction, but it is still less of a drop than feared. That’s good news, but it didn’t surprise me that much.

Charitable giving is a subject I often think about. As a volunteer tax preparer for the low-income and elderly, I’m frequently surprised by how many people who have little still give away a lot. The bulk of those donations tend to go to a church, and there may be complex reasons for the commitment, but I’m still impressed that people who have little voluntarily live on less.

Certainly there are plenty of wealthy people who donate a lot—people like Michael Bloomberg and Bill and Melinda Gates, to name a few—but a lot of relatively well-off people do not give much. Should that be a strictly personal decision? Or is turning a blind eye to the less fortunate an unethical act?

Princeton University Professor Peter Singer, in his lectures and books, especially The Life You Can Save, tries to understand not only why people give or don’t give, but also where they should give to have the most effect. The two questions are inseparable because some people don’t give because they’re not convinced it will help or because they can’t see it helping.

Singer often uses the classic example of the drowning child. Imagine you’re walking along and you see a young child struggling to stay afloat in a nearby swimming hole. You look around for parents or a babysitter but see no one, so you wade in and pull the child to safety. In the process, you’ve ruined a $200 suit and an $85 pair of shoes. But so what? You feel great for having saved a life. You’ll gladly fork over $285 to replace the damaged items.

But would you just as quickly and easily write a check for $285 and send it to feed starving children in a nation 5,000 miles away?

You may, but all the evidence indicates that we’re more likely to help when we have personal contact with the person in need. The farther away, the more abstract, the harder to see the results—all these things make charity a less likely outcome. Why do charities use the telephone to solicit help? Because even though we all hate those night-time calls, we’re more likely to say yes to a human being on the other end than we are to respond to a piece of mail.

Those of us in the United States and other developed countries are in a particularly strong position to help those most in need. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), about 2.5 billion people of us are “affluent” –defined as having money to spend on non-essential items. An equal number, according to the OECD, live in abject poverty, without adequate food, clean water, or protection from preventable diseases.

Singer notes that it wouldn’t take much of a sacrifice for those of us in the affluent category to cut our spending by $2.50 a day and donate that money to charity, and $2.50 is about what it takes to feed a family in many parts of the world. We might spend $2.50 a day on an expensive drink, for example, when we can just as easily drink tap water. Or we can go to ten movies a year instead of twelve, or eat out twenty times a year instead of twenty-five. None of these would be a huge sacrifice. Still, relatively few of us are willing to do it.

And even if we do, how do we get the $2.50 to the other side of the world in a way so that it really serves its intended needs? That turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds.

To help with this problem, several groups spend a lot of time studying charitable organizations. Charity Navigator is relatively well known for its work in ferreting out those groups that are efficiently run, with low overhead and minimal waste. But that doesn’t address the effectiveness of their programs. Give Well tries to do that, picking a couple of charities at a time and actually funneling money to them from donors. That gives Give Well more access to the inner workings of the charities they pick and more influence over how they are run.

That’s helpful and important. If we’re going to give, we want to make sure our money is going to really help. But it still leaves the question of whether and how much to give. Ultimately that’s a question of personal conscience, and yes, personal ethics.

How do you decide how much to give and to whom?

Book Review: The Good Ones by Bruce Weinstein

Good onesThis is a book that anyone concerned with ethics in the workplace—and we all should be—needs to read for a number of reasons and on a number of levels. It’s packed with practical information and telling anecdotes that together provide an easy, informative and enjoyable read. Most important, it explains not only what “the good ones” do to earn the title, but also how we can learn from their success and why we ought to try to emulate it. That will help us become better people and, yes, will  help create a better and more profitable business. Continue reading

Greed Trumps Ethics Again–And Again

Can business ethics get any worse?  Later this summer, the Justice Department is expected to announce charges of criminal wrongdoing in GM’s handling of faulty ignition switches that led to a series of fatal accidents. The New York Times says GM will likely agree to a record settlement—more than the $1.2 billion that Toyota paid for a sudden acceleration problem. And Tanaka has finally admitted after years of denial that its explosive airbag problem justifies the largest recall in auto history (and that’s saying a lot). Continue reading

Family Values: Not What You Think

family valuesI wish Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift hadn’t called their new book Family Values. The title makes it too easy to pass over this important examination of the ethics and morality of family relationships in the mistaken assumption that it’s just another empty contribution to what passes for political debate. I hope the subtitle, The Ethics of the Parent-child Relationship, will catch enough eyes to bring the book to the fore because this work has something important to say, and whether you agree or not, it’s worth a healthy debate.
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In Defense of Lying

On more than one occasion, Talking Ethics has looked at the ethics of telling so-called white lies that may seem like they’re not doing much harm—“Dinner was delicious.” “I like your new haircut.” In doing so, we found that our readers (a self-selected group who take their ethics seriously) generally frown on lying of any kind, though most reject the absolutist view of Immanuel Kant and others who insist lying is always wrong because it undermines trust and constructive discourse. Now comes a new study suggesting that not only is lying sometimes okay, but it actually can be the right thing to do.
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The Redskins Need a New Name

The NFL season is still more than a month away, but here in football-crazed Washington, the Redskins already dominate the sports pages. And with that kind of coverage staring me in the face every morning, I can’t help thinking anew about the team’s controversial name—specifically, whether its continued use constitutes unethical behavior.
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The Slippery Slope in Business Ethics

Tempted to take an extra shampoo bottle from your hotel room? Or to say you’ve got a bad headache so you can leave work early to get ready for a big date? Be careful. What may seem like a small ethical transgression now could lead to much bigger problems in the future. At least that’s the result of a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Researchers trying to understand big corporate scandals found that when a small ethical sin goes unchecked, bigger sins are much more likely to follow.
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Business Ethics: Some Progress, But….

Corporate compliance officers—those hard-working, well-intentioned executives who worry about obeying the law and acting ethically—have had some good news recently. There are definite signs of progress on several levels. But some very high-profile failures, most notably the scandal at General Motors involving faulty ignition switches, make the rest of us wonder whether progress is really being made. The answer, I think, is, “Yes, but…” There are signs of improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.
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No Free Pass for Lying Politicians

When we conducted an informal survey last year asking people when it’s okay to tell a white lie, a large majority, 71%, came down hard on politicians, saying it’s wrong for them to shade the truth, even when it’s just a matter of emphasizing facts that support their point of view and ignoring those that don’t.

But lying by politicians remains rampant. Continue reading

Five Ethical Failures in the Sterling Affair

The NBA’s decision to ban Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is a reasonable first step, but it doesn’t begin to deal effectively with the underlying problems – or even address some of the ethical failures by the too-many actors involved.

Five separate failures immediately come to mind.
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Getting Help With Ethical Issues

Most of us know the difference between right and wrong, and can easily decide what’s ethical in a given situation if the problem is simple and straightforward. But when a complex dilemma leaves you uncertain, there are some tools that can help you work your way to a good decision. They can’t tell you what to do, but they can certainly help you figure it out for yourself.
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