Against Charity

The proponents of Effective Altruism believe that if a business entity (or a person) is extremely successful it is morally obligated to donate part of its proceeds to charity to alleviate world’s ills. It is interesting that they invoke ‘moral obligation’ as a reason here – if the logic is structured this way it’s hard to find a skeptic of such an idea. But why should moral obligation, in which world’s biggest donors like to wallow, only be applicable to the ‘giving’ part? Why doesn’t anyone ponder on the moral obligation of ‘not taking it in the first place’? If you think of yourself as moral, shouldn’t you be moral all the way? That’s what this article tries to uncover.

I often criticize big charity because I find most charitable foundations to be vehicles for self-promotion rather than social change. But here I will give the benefit of the doubt to the donors and assume that their benevolent urges are really coming from a deep human need to help those less fortunate. And this is where the narrative really starts to break down.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the world’s biggest donors really do have a genuine benevolent streak. Then it would be difficult for them to ignore the way that the biggest industries (which they themselves run or have holdings in) contribute to the rise in the very poverty that they then seek to alleviate. To be honest with themselves they would have to address the disease as well, not just the symptom. But Effective Altruism absolves the current capitalist model.

The irony of Effective Altruism is that it implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place.

It is curious then that as possessors of those very necessities that people need (food, clean water, medicine), Effective Altruists fail to ponder on a much simpler solution: why not just give those resources directly to people who need it, skipping the foundations and the black-tie galas? If this is a moral obligation, as they claim, then why would this kind of ‘direct’ charity be different from writing a check after reaping the profits? Are profits the necessary and unavoidable step to being an altruistic person?

But that leads to a big dilemma. It is capital’s inherent trait – search for profit – that is clashing with attempts of humans trying to be good: capital will let the drowning stranger die unless it receives adequate payment. Moreover, the capital creates those drowning strangers. Further yet, capital’s commodification of necessities directly undermines the self-sufficiency of entire populations by determining how resources are allocated. As I pointed earlier on my blogpost about globalization, people who used to be self-sufficient are being priced out of the lands they used to cultivate and live off. Then they, in turn, are being sold the products that they used to produce themselves, at a premium. Sold by the very entities that later claim to be their saviors. And when they can’t afford, well, that’s where the Davos crowd comes in on a high-horse.

Meanwhile, the capitalist class is transformed into our most potent possible savior, and the moral philosophers behind it all turn into accountants and marketers for charities with pretensions of “acting now to end world poverty” and figuring out “the most good you can do.

And when people of the Third world die from hunger or disease, such a capitalist would say: “It’s not due to me, it’s due to the market.”

Rather than asking how individual consumers can guarantee the basic sustenance of millions of people, we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.



2 thoughts on “Against Charity

  1. The article is full of generalizations, but I’m having trouble understanding how it would work in specific situations. Take the giver du jour, Mark Zuckerberg. How does Facebook control any resources, and how does it contribute to impoverishment of people (other than belonging to the fuzzy concept of “capital”)?

  2. Facebook doesn’t control any life-sustaining resources, that’s true. However, Zuck’s philanthropy, while generous and headline generating, hasn’t produced any tangible results. Just look at what happened after his $100 mln gift to Newark schools.

    Which is another problem with industrial-scale giving: pet causes and lack of planning.

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