How and why we give

An article in the Washington Post examines the reasons we are willing to give to charities and the reasons that we balk. Apparently there is evidence that large gifts are primarily motivated by the self-interest of the giver rather than the need of the recipient.

The primary motivation for most giving seems to be how personally we feel connected with the situation.

Peter Singer is arguing that such thinking needs to be challenged because it often creates situations where the greatest needs go unmet. He argues that we’d be better off using Utilitarianism as a criteria for donation decisions. Not everyone agrees.

“‘The first donation was the hardest to make,’ he said. ‘The first time I wrote a check that had at least a couple of zeroes at the end — that was the hardest thing.’

Fiery Cushman, a graduate student in psychology at Harvard who studies how people’s moral intuitions can clash with deliberate reasoning, said the unfolding disaster in Burma highlights another dimension of the warring moral compasses we have within ourselves: People are more willing to help in the case of disasters such as the cyclone than with ‘mundane’ and ongoing problems that are equally deadly, such as malnutrition or malaria in poor countries.

‘Our reasoned judgment says people are suffering in both situations,’ Cushman added. ‘That is a good example of the mismatch between our emotional responses and rational responses.’

Still, Cushman questions Singer’s utilitarian approach, because he argues that emotions undergird even our most rational responses. And there is abundant evidence that even though people value reason and rationality, human beings are biologically programmed to react emotionally to visceral moral challenges.”

Read the full article here.

(One of the few organizations that is actually delivering aid in Myanmar is the Anglican Church of that region. You can give to that effort through Episcopal Relief and Development.)

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