I’m a contrarian by nature. If something is trending on social media, my natural inclination is to figure out what’s wrong with it, and hopefully spoil some of the fun (I can be a real sourpuss). For instance, here are two goofs in everyone’s favorite movie, Frozen:
So you can imagine my frustration when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge exploded over my Facebook newsfeeds, and I was nominated (more on that later). As is my wont, I began reading up on some of the contrarian literature to figure out how to respond.
But I found myself annoyed by the arguments and the poor philosophy involved, so much so that I dumped a bucket of ice over my head. This piece by William MacAskill for Quartz, in particular, gets it seriously wrong.
The key problem [with the Ice Bucket Challenge] is funding cannibalism. That $3 million in donations doesn’t appear out of a vacuum. Because people on average are limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities… Research from my own non-profit… has found that, for every $1 we raise, 50¢ would have been donated anyway… So, because of the $3 million that the ALS Association has received, I’d bet that much more than $1.5 million has been lost by other charities.
Sure, I buy the crowding out argument—it seems reasonable that people have a budget for charity, and increased giving to one area can mean less giving to another. But it ignores the possibility of expanding the overall pool of charitable funds. A campaign like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with a highly visible commitment mechanism (i.e. if you get tagged and don’t donate or pour ice over your head, you’re an asshole) seems to me like an excellent way to force people into giving when they ordinarily wouldn’t have. Implicitly, MacAskill even acknowledges this: if 50¢ on the dollar is crowding out other charities, then 50¢ of new money is going to charity. That’s $1.5 million that wouldn’t have gone to charity otherwise.
Almost every charity does the same thing — engaging in a race to the bottom where the benefits to the donor have to be as large as possible, and the costs as small as possible… We should be very worried about this, because competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.
… There is a countervailing psychological force, called commitment effects. If in donating to charity you don’t conceive of it as “doing your bit” but instead as taking one small step towards making altruism a part of your identity, then one good deed really will beget another. This means that we should tie new altruistic commitments to serious, long-lasting behavior change. Rather than making a small donation to a charity you’ve barely heard of, you could make a commitment to find out which charities are most cost-effective, and to set up an ongoing commitment to those charities that you conclude do the most good with your donations
I find critiques like this odd, because they’re essentially critiques of human nature. I view the “competitive fundraising” and the “minor acts of altruism” as responses by charitable organizations to the constraints of human behavior. People have limited funds to give, and there are a lot of good causes out there, so of course there’s competition. Moreover, human beings are naturally myopic, prone to recency bias, and vulnerable to sensationalism, so charities respond by trying to catch people’s attention and attract one-time donations—the “minor acts of altruism” and loose “pocket change” that MacAskill derides. In this sense, the slickly-filmed Kony 2012 campaign and the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaigns were exceptionally well-designed.
But the correct response shouldn’t be to complain (as MacAskill does) about how people don’t make long-term commitments to charitable giving, because human beings don’t seem inclined to act in that way to begin with. Given the choice of trying to alter human nature or fitting the incentive structure of charity to fit human nature (á la Kony or ALS), I would prescribe the latter.
Prescriptive philosophical arguments should deal exclusively with the world we live in, not some moral fairyland where we can assume away problems of human nature. That’s the realm of economics.
And, in large part to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig’s Disease (and in small part to stand by my argument), here is me dropping a bucket of ice over my head.