Is charitable giving unethical?

One of the ongoing long-term puzzles in human society is how best to behave ethically, to practice virtue in our human relationships, especially when dealing with strangers. Few of us are very good at it, but in a complex and hazardous world with varied cultural expectations, it’s important to try.

The ongoing Federal Government scandal to do with SNC Lavalin’s bribery of foreign officials (illegal under Canadian law) illustrates this truism quite well. Bribery may be standard operating procedure in some foreign countries, and failure to bribe to obtain contracts may very well mean failure, period. Thus, it’s not surprising that when a company is operating abroad it might apply a kind of, “When in Rome…” philosophy.

Recently, students enrolled in a business ethics class at UNBC held an Oxford-style debate on the ethics of charity. The proposition argued was that, “Charity is unethical.” Leaving aside the oddball, counterintuitive and unbalanced nature of this proposition, it was refreshing to encounter this kind of academic exercise in our local institutions, particularly in a business course, a field in which profit, not charity, is generally exalted as the measure of all virtue.

But along from their concern for profit, businesses frequently donate large sums of money to individuals and communities. There are tax write-offs and good PR associated with such generosity, but these gifts provide real benefits to the receivers.

Most religions promote kindness as virtue. In the West, charity has always been a pillar of Christian doctrine. Giving is one of the ​Perfections (paramitas) of Buddhism (but to be “perfect” it must be selfless, without expectation of reward or praise). In Islam Mohammed reportedly asserted that “Charity…quiets the wrath of God and takes away one’s sin as the water puts out the fire.” Similar inclinations or directions can be found in most religious texts.

Religious beliefs provide a metaphysical justification for generosity. God says it’s good, so do it. It is arguable, however, that generosity is a good in and of itself, that is, that god or no god, charity is a desirable thing for both giver and recipient. Under either assumption, there’s a strangeness in the proposition at issue, a paradoxical claim that might as well have stated, “White is black.”

The affirmative team (who lost) tried a kind of end run on the proposition. They conceded that helping the needy and doing things that are beneficial to society as a whole are admirable actions, but argued that such charity is unethical because it is self-defeating and inefficient. This fact is evident, they argued, in that personal charity is often provided to make the giver feel good, not necessarily to address real needs. Further, most major charities have large, salaried staffs that consume donations that could be used more beneficially. Thus, they argued, charity should be operated by government at the lowest possible cost, with transparent procedures that ensure fair and effective address of needs.

The negative team (who won), successfully argued that generosity is a social duty, beneficial to both givers and receivers.

Regardless of charity’s source, most recipients that are suffering and without help probably don’t care a fig where their relief comes from, although they may be suitably grateful once their needs are met. But how best to meet those needs remains problematic for society in general, and a challenge worth discussing.

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