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Sins of Omission and Commission

February 14th, 2013
giving, morality

In response to yesterday's post some people wanted to know whether I see a difference between doing something bad as opposed to simply failing to do something good? I don't think there is, so someone asked:

You see a hundred dollar bill on a deserted street, pick it up, and notice a charitable collection box a few feet away. It is well sealed, so you have no reason to believe that the bill came from the box. You continue on your way. Is that distinct from coming down that deserted street, seeing the box, and taking one hundred dollars out of it?
This is really two hypothetical actions: whether to pick up money you find in the street, and whether to take money from charity donation boxes. Let's consider them one at a time: do we pick up the $100? If we don't take it then probably someone else will, and they'll probably spend it on themself. So leaving it there is kind of like a donation to the average person who walks down the street. If we pick it up, it's ours to spend as we will. I think the best thing to do with the $100 would be to spend it in whatever way most improves the world, which is probably donating it to an effective charity. So I'd suggest picking up the money and giving it to GiveWell's top charity. [1]

What about the charity donation box? Well, how good is the charity? If you think giving money to this charity is one of the best ways to improve the world, then you clearly shouldn't take money. But what if it's a charity you don't think is very good at all? One that funds programs that make donors feel warm and fuzzy but don't actually have much positive impact and certainly aren't competitive with the best charitable interventions. Then, assuming we're really in thought-experiment land, where we can be completely sure that no one will ever know we robbed from one charity to give to another, I would say it would be wrong not to take the money.

[1] You may be wondering:

The observation that "you have money, it will go farther via effective charity than spending on yourself" is pretty general. It applies as much to your regular income as money you find on the street. Does this mean you should never spend any money on yourself?
It doesn't. If I stopped spending any money on food, clothing, or housing I probably wouldn't be able to keep my job, which would dramatically reduce my income, my donations, and the people I can help.
Does this mean you shouldn't spend any money except that which you need to keep producing your maximum?
It does.
But don't you spend more on yourself than that?
Why do you keep doing that if it's wrong?
I'm human. I try to be good but I have limits in how much I can get myself to trade off costs to myself for benefits to other. So I divide my money into two piles as I earn it: money to donate and money to spend as I like. The world would be better if I put more in the "donating" pile and less in the "self-spending" pile, but I'm not willing to do that. I do the best I can.

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