5  Do people care about ‘impact’?

Do people care about impact? Does utilitarianism matter?s

5.1 Are people utilitarian?

Fundamentally, our base values may be non-utilitarian. A universalist cause-neutral ‘desire to help others’ might not be what drives most giving.

Most of our discussion largely assumes that an individual is, at least to some extent:

  1. Other-regarding/pro-social: Her preferences or the “utility function she is maximizing” incorporates the well-being of others, at least to some extent

  2. A moral utilitarian (or otherwise consequentialist; but see fold below): The value she places on helping others (or on others’ outcomes) is principally increasing in some measure of the amount of good they have done for others, or in others’ welfare. For a given personal sacrifice, she will always prefer to have made more people more well-off than to have made fewer people less well-off. In Economics terms, she strictly prefers and values Pareto-improvements.1

Jason Schukraft:

Non-consequentialists still care about the consequences of their actions (they just think other things matter, too). As far as I can tell, effective giving is required by every plausible moral theory.

  1. Agent-neutral (‘universalist’): In considering others’ welfare, she values all others equally regardless of their identity. (Unfold for a precise example of this.)2

Agent-neutrality: a more precise example:

Consider a world with three other people (B,C,D). Suppose each begin in a poor state. Consider outcomes such as:

  1. B and C are well off and D is poor

  2. D is well-off and B and C are poor

A universalist, as I define it, would always prefer outcome 1 over outcome 2. She would also rather achieve outcome 1 over outcome 2 with her charity, no matter the identity of persons B, C, and D.

  1. Not ‘deontological’: She faces no other relevant absolute moral constraints (constraints such as ‘do no harm in your actions, even if others are helped’)

To what extent does a ‘moral utilitarian’ (MU) consequentialist ethic govern beliefs and behaviour? To the extent it does, limited effective giving represents a puzzling intention/action gap.

However, for non-utilitarians this is no puzzle. If other forces and motivations drive our giving choices, we might not expect these to be aligned with effectiveness.

It could be argued that the above is posed too starkly. People may embrace concepts such as utilitarianism, universalism, and cause neutrality, and at the same time be largely driven by other concerns and sympathetic to other moral frameworks. We may agree with statements that “all lives are equal” and “we should strive to do the most good for the largest number” but also support maxims such as “charity begins at home” and “giving is about supporting something you have a personal connection to.”3

Perhaps moral utilitarianism (MU) is relatively unimportant in most people’s charitable choices. Even if this is the case, understanding the ways in which people do pursue their giving goals—and their obstacles and “biases” in doing so—may suggest ways of making giving more impactful. For example, many donors may prioritize their local community, leading to their less-effective giving (from a universalist point of view). However, they might be persuaded to expand their definition of their own ‘community’, or more generally, expand their “moral circle” (discussed in (Crimston et al. 2018)).

Examples of concerns (other than Moral Utilitarianism) that might drive giving/charity-choices:

  • Perfectionism/deontological aversion to ‘waste’

  • Social pressure

  • Signaling virtue to others

  • Emotional empathic reactions to particular images and situations

  • A desire to identify with particular causes or particular groups of individuals, perhaps in opposition to other groups

  • Religious motivations

  • Fairness concerns

5.2 (Evidence)

We consider the evidence that people ‘are utilitarian’ in this sense. However, it may be particularly difficult to get evidence about what people’s core values and ethical beliefs are, whether they even have a consistent moral framework, and when and whether they are consistent in acting on this framework.

(berman2018?) suggest that charitable decisions are viewed as choices in which it is not appropriate to consider effectiveness. See “market versus social norms”.

  1. To do: A mathematical statement of this may be helpful here.↩︎

  2. I believe this corresponds to a ‘symmetric’ welfare function in Economics.↩︎

  3. While these statements may, strictly speaking, be contradictory, we shouldn’t expect perfect consistency or constancy. Most people are not asked to rigidly join the deontological or utilitarian camp, and those who have not studied philosophy or social science may never have contemplated these issues directly.↩︎