The Morality of Charity: Five Key Questions

This blog is written by Dr Eddy Hogg, Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent

On Friday myself and 5 Kent colleagues attended a seminar at Bayes Business School on The Peculiar Institution of Charity – the morality of charitable giving and receiving.  As a relatively new topic of academic study, the day threw up more questions than answers for me. Here are my five key questions:

  1. Does distance affect morality?

Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer uses the example of a drowning child  to explore the question of distance between donor and recipient: if you saw a child drowning and could save them but in the process ruin your £50 trainers, of course you would save the child – to walk past would be seen by all but the most cold-hearted as immoral. Yet when your £50 could be spent on trainers or could be donated to save the life of a child thousands of miles away, is this the same moral decision? To what extent should distance affect morality?

  1. Are tax breaks on charitable giving morally defensible?

The UK’s Gift Aid scheme allows charities to reclaim tax on charitable donations. When a donation is made using Gift Aid, therefore, the government loses tax income. In 2012, this was estimated to be worth over £1 billion in lost revenue for the government. Is it moral that such a significant sum is redirected away from government spending and into causes which are preferred by donors?

  1. How moral is fundraising?

Fundraising is a crucial and well-regulated function of the charitable sector. Research shows that being asked to give is the most common reason that people donate. Therefore, while the ask may feel uncomfortable for some donors, that fundraisers continue to ask is essential to the work of the sector. Users are generally relatively pragmatic about how charities fundraise – work by my colleague Beth Breeze and Jon Dean  found that recipients of charity understand the need to bring in money and the role that a heartstring-tugging advert can play in that.

  1. Is choosing which charities to give to a moral decision?

Is it moral to donate to donkeys while children starve? It is moral to volunteer at a foodbank while not protesting against policies in the name of austerity which continue to sanction people into poverty? The voluntary nature of giving means that donors can choose whether or not to engage with the question of whether it is more moral to give to one cause over another.

  1. Where is power in all this?

In the donor-charity-recipient relationship, who has the power? Donors can dictate which organisations are well resourced. The organisations can choose where to spend their funds. What power do the recipients have, apart from to refuse a gift?

The final question, of course, is what do we do next? Should we accept that such moral questions are inevitable given the voluntary nature of giving, and if so should we be encouraging donors to think more about them? Or should we seek to find answers to these questions, in doing so accepting the risk of imposing an absolute morality on what are voluntary decisions?



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