Thursday, 26 April 2012

Every Little Hurts?

‘Every little helps’— it’s the feeling charities endeavor to leave you with when you donate money to them. Don’t worry if you only have small change, it will still make a difference.
Charity has become a widespread method by which we express our altruism— a characteristic which has evolved to be a valuable aspect of human nature. We give to charities supporting malnourished African children, the terminally ill, the homeless, and abandoned pets, fully aware that we are likely never to meet, or receive anything in return, from any of the people we support.
Why then, if so many of us feel this compassion for the well being of others, do we still wear clothes made by underpaid children, collect stocks of electronic gadgets assembled by poisoned workers, devour industrially farmed meat and guzzle soft drinks from factories that have polluted whole community’s water supplies? As philosopher Slavoj Žižiek puts it, are we not just damaging with one hand while repairing with the other? And, if altruism is built into our nature, why are we so comfortable with this situation?
There are a number of obvious reasons why we do, including the lack of awareness of the impacts of our behaviour, and the financial premiums and inconvenience often attached to more ethical consuming. However we often go ahead with behaviours even when we’re aware that they have unethical impacts, as what miniscule difference does our decision make when so many other people are doing the same thing? Unfortunately, considering the world’s 7 billion and growing population, this appears to be quite a rational attitude.
However, there’s a glaring inconsistency between this attitude and the ‘every little helps’ message associated with charitable donations.
From a rational perspective, If I buy a can of Coca Cola every lunchtime it makes no noticeable difference to their profits, and so neither am I making any noticeable contribution to the dried up, polluted water supplies around their factories in India or the murder of union leaders in Columbia. If I treat myself to a transatlantic flight I’ll be responsible for a few tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, but they’ll just be added to the vast quantities already up there, and I doubt anyone will be able to detect the increase. And, if I give £25 to Oxfam then it’s simply added to the millions of pounds of other donations and makes a negligible difference to the sum.
The real difference between these cases is that Oxfam will let me know that, because of my £25, an underprivileged family is now the proud owner of a new goat. This is fantastic! Now I can see my donation has had a quantifiable, positive effect. It’s stuck in my memory and I feel good about myself (and even if the goat dies prematurely its highly unlikely I’ll ever find out). As for the fizzy drinks and carbon dioxide, even assuming I’m aware of their adverse effects, I can only really see them in a global sense, which makes it so hard to pick out my individual contribution that I might as well round it down to zero and keep enjoying myself.
So it appears that this inconsistent thinking can result in us vastly underestimating the size of our ‘taking’ hand, while exaggerating the size of our ‘giving’ hand. And, unfortunately this seems a natural consequence of the fact that: (a) companies want us to feel happy buying from them and hence they’ll keep any negative impacts of their activities well concealed, and (b) charities are effectively in competition with each other for our money, so it’s to their advantage to make us feel that it’s had the most impact by giving to them.
Well if this is the case, we should probably aim to correct this problem by independently evaluating our behaviours ourselves.
To start with, we could be far more conscious of our ‘taking’ hand if an attitude of ‘every little hurts’ was routinely associated with unethical consuming. However this may be extremely difficult to achieve unless specific events can be associated with particular behaviours, which very often is a near impossible task. For instance, given all the uncertainties surrounding the impacts of manmade climate change, if I treat myself to a transatlantic flight how could I possibly know if the emissions will eventually cause the failure of an Ethiopian farmers harvest and the death of his goat, cancelling out my £25 donation to Oxfam? 
In this case, we have the other option: thinking more realistically, and globally about our charitable donations— a goat may be very useful to a struggling family, but they’re going to need much more than that to solve their problems, and there are 500 million others in poverty in Africa. And in any case, £25 is a rather meagre proportion of most of our annual disposable incomes anyway.
Well this isn’t so appealing. If we don’t feel good about giving, would we bother at all?
But there may be something more in this, as there is substantial evidence suggesting that performing acts we deem to be moral allows us to ‘morally self-license’ our less desirable behaviours. Therefore, in a sense, any altruistic behaviour within us can effectively ‘run out’ when we feel we’ve done our bit. I saw a memorable example of this phenomenon whilst myself and an ex-girlfriend were working at a homeless shelter and she whispered to me as we walked past a begger on the street, ‘keep going, we don’t have to give him any money now we work at the shelter.’
If this is in fact how we behave, then giving to charity may actually be an overly effective method of satisfying our altruistic urges, which allows us to live the rest of our lives in a guilt-free, business-as-usual manner. So if charity didn’t exist would we simply offer our altruism elsewhere, perhaps even in more involving ways? Would many of us then think more deeply about the effects of our consumption? Maybe even more readily campaign for human rights, or challenge our governments over unjustified wars?
All this is not intended to suggest that charity is a bad thing in itself: there are a great number of charities doing valuable work, and clearly donating money to proficient and effective organizations can help bring about positive change. But, whether or not the existence of charities has a positive effect overall depends upon whether its main function is to access the good in people and help it flourish, or to cheaply satisfy our altruistic urges and alleviate any guilt we accumulate from the unethical behaviours of our daily lives. And in any case, if we continue to overestimate the value of our altruistic behaviors relative to our less desirable behaviours, then the altruistic part of ourselves may remain totally bewildered and its potential to lead to a better society vastly underutilised.

Notes: (Slavoj Žižiek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce)
Anna C. Merritt, Daniel A. Effron, Benoît Monin: Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad


Energy Mix said...

There are some really great insights in this post, very thought provoking!

Perhaps it's useful to make a distinction between vaules/morals which we have deeply integrated and more superficial values which are in response to social pressure, things we have been told are good, feelings of guilt etc.

It seems the later are more susceptible to 'getting used up' or vulnerable to our own excuses and justifications as in your example of satisfying 'altruistic urges'. In a way this is comparable to eating extra chocolate cake because we've been for a run and so it's ok for our diet.

I think this is in contrast to values/morals which we have deeply integrated. In this case it can become almost impossible to act in a way contrary to our values, the psychological tension is just too great. In this case there is not an issue with behaviours such as altruism becoming used up, then the issue becomes more one of awareness. We act because our values compel us to to do so rather than to satisfy an impulse.

Hannah James said...

You might be interested in this chapter from David Mackay's book: