photograph of donation jar stuffed with large bills

I tend to get annoyed when people donate money in ways I think are silly. I was recently reminded of this when I saw the staggering amount of money spent first on the Presidential campaigns and second on the Georgia runoff. This annoyed me, because everything I have read suggests that money makes little to no difference to federal or state wide election outcomes (note that there is a correlation between the amount of money raised and the number of votes gotten, but that is because popular candidates receive more donations, not because donations help make candidates popular). I was not only annoyed that people were donating money to political campaigns rather than to causes that could make a difference, but I was extra annoyed that people mostly donated to the political campaigns where money had the least chance of effecting the outcome (for example, democrats across the country donated to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election fund even though her chance of losing was minuscule).

It is not just political donations. I remember in middle school being annoyed with my sister for raising money to rescue endangered species like tigers. I thought this was a silly use of money since a) humans are qualitatively more important than animals and b) the best environmental protection does not focus on the preservation of certain culturally-salient species. Likewise, a few years ago I was annoyed with people at my church who, as it seemed to me, were frivolously donating money to help build a new building and purchase a new pipe organ.

Hopefully at least some of you readers can identify with this annoyance (if not, this whole post is just self-indulgent moral navel-gazing). I bring it up because there is something odd about this annoyance — I seem more annoyed by people donating money ineffectively than I am by people just spending money selfishly.

Let’s make this oddity concrete. I am peeved when friends donate money to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s political campaign rather than donating that money to charitable causes that will likely create practical, tangible change. And yet I am not peeved when friends go out to dinner rather than donate that money to charitable causes that will likely make a real difference.

I grumble about how donating money for a new church building was a terrible witness for Christian love, but don’t similarly grumble anytime a Christian renovates their own home or buys a car nicer than they absolutely need. I openly criticized my sister for raising money for animal conservation rather than for anti-malaria efforts, but of course I was not bothering to raise money for either!

So why am I more annoyed by ineffective selflessness than I am by simple selfishness. Whatever the explanation, it concerns me. The reason I should care that people donate to the Against Malaria Foundation rather than a political campaign is because I care about people dying from malaria! But people spending money selfishly are failing to help those dying of malaria at least as much as those donating to political campaigns.

So what is going on here, why do I get so annoyed by ineffective selflessness?

I’m not sure, but I have a theory I want to toss out there. The reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness is because I’m annoyed at the thought of people feeling unjustified pride in their own goodness. In other words, if someone spends money eating out or spends money donating to a political campaign both are, in some sense, wasting their money. However, the person who donates to the political campaign is wasting their money and feels an inner glow of self-approval that they are ‘doing their part’ and ‘participating in the process.’ In other words, what bothers me about ineffective charity is the thought that people will unfairly get to feel good about themselves when they don’t deserve it.

This explanation fits well with some other things we know about human psychology. In particular, it fits with our natural concern that rewards be proportional to dessert. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Righteous Mind:

“When people work together on a task, they generally want to see the hardest workers get the largest gains. People often want equality of outcomes, but that is because it is so often the case that people’s inputs were equal. When people divide up money, or any other kind of reward, equality is just a special case of the broader principle of proportionality. When a few members of a group contributed far more than the others—or, even more powerfully, when a few contributed nothing—most adults do not want to see the benefits distributed equally.”

Some evidence for this comes from our willingness to pay to punish cheaters and free riders, even when no future benefit is secured by that punishment. In cooperation games where players can keep money for themselves or add it to a group pot to be grown and then distributed, the vast majority of players will pay money they won to take away money from those who did not contribute to the overall pot. People would rather make less money themselves if they can at least decrease the amount won by those who were freeriding. This is also why there is so much political pressure to root out cheating in the welfare system. It often costs more to find welfare fraud than we save in finding it. Yet people are still willing to pay to enforce standards because we are so bothered by the thought of someone benefiting unjustly.

All of this also makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective. Suppose there are two people, one of whom will spend resources punishing you whenever you cheat them, and the other who will only punish you when it makes financial sense to do so. Who are you more likely to cheat? Having a strong commitment to punish cheaters, even when it seems counterproductive, plays a vital role in maintaining social trust and cooperation.

My theory then, is that the reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness more than selfishness, is because my concern with ‘wasted donations’ is not actually a concern for the global poor, instead it is a concern about fairness. Just as it bothers me when cheaters do not get punished (because they end up better off than they deserve), so too am I bothered when those contributing little to others feel good about themselves for helping (because they end up better off than they deserve). It is upsetting when someone does not feel guilt over doing something wrong, and it is similarly upsetting when someone feels pride over doing something neutral. In both cases the ‘moral order’ of the world seems off, and I am willing to invest considerable mental energy in trying to set the things right.

It is useful to notice this motivation because it goes some way to tempering my criticism. It is hard to feel good about my own disgruntlement when I realize it is motivated not by a love for the poor but by a concern that others not feel better about themselves than I do. After all, the people trying to help, even if they do so poorly, probably do deserve to feel better about themselves than those who are not trying to help at all (though of course, we should all spend time making sure we are using money where it can really help those who need it).

Marshall is currently completing his PhD in Philosophy at Florida State University. His primarily studies the intersection of ethics and the nature of persons. Outside of Academia, Marshall also directs curricular design for high school debate camps with the Victory Briefs Institute.