Philosophy and Philanthropy

Being somewhat new to philosophy, I might be getting this wrong, but I thought it was the study of what is true, no matter what. When I saw there was a contest to: write a philosophical argument which effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity, I wondered if they were trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

A philosophy can describe the structure which supports the fulfillment of an altruistic demand. But could it be true that individuals are always talked into, through argumentation, relinquishing more of their resources to others? On the square side we have the mechanics of the transaction, and on the round side we have the motivating factors that provoke action. I find the structure of the transaction, the trade devoting funds to charity, to be the more interesting question to investigate.

The winning entry keyed into that structure well. Here’s their answer:

Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone going blind later in life.

How much would you pay to prevent your own child becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people.

This is what they did. First, they set up two groups who are at great distance from each other both geographically, socially and financially. Most groups are nested. We are part of a family that is part of a kinship that is part of a city that is part of a state that is part of a country that is part of the world. The only overarching commonality between the two parties to this transaction is shared world citizenship.

Now you might say that people would give more to their own kin, or to folks at closer proximity, which is true.  But folks at closer proximity are already being aided by a multitude of overlapping structures like public health insurance, or county assistance, or their own rich uncle. At proximity, it is difficult for the donor to know if their donation would have an impact.

In the winning response, the author clearly describes the recipient as ‘children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor.’ The financial separation between the groups is further emphasized by asking the reader to entertain exactly how much they would relinquish for their own child, provoking a numerical comparison: my own in $25,000, versus a child across the globe $25. 

The last item to note is that there is no reason to believe the treatment for trachoma will not work. If you are giving to a cause like residivision reduction, you know the chance of failure is high. In this scenario the treatment is well known with concrete outcomes.

Who can’t see that this is a bargain?! A low risk, high return transaction in an exchange fulfilling our impulse to help those who share our humanity. The winners did not write a philosophical argument. They set up a scenario where two groups could experience a reliable exchange.

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