When Giving Really Hurts: The Intuitionist’s Fallacy of Generosity

Since the 1950’s when foreign aid was born, the concept of the rich helping the poor has often been viewed in the light of a society’s moral obligation. More recently, through globalization and an unprecedented surge in media outlets, exposure to the poor has brought the public visually closer and led some to develop this concept into an ethical issue: images of babies with enlarged bellies, skinny arms and flies in their eyes sitting in dirt. If there is no legal obligation to provide assistance to poor countries, how is it possible from an ethical standpoint, for the rich not to help the poor? “Giving aid to the poor in other nations may require some inconvenience or some sacrifice of luxury on the part of peoples of rich nations, but to ignore the plight of starving people is as morally reprehensible as failing to save a child drowning in a pool because of the inconvenience of getting one’s clothes wet.” (Andre, Velasquez, 2009) The metaphor of the drowning child in a pool will be revisited later in this discussion.

Often ethical issues deal with values and measures of how one morally feels performing a certain behavior in a given context, and can be difficult to measure, as well as those used to measure for rich and poor. At what economic level does one become a sender or receiver of humanitarian assistance? Furthermore, are there other factors beside rich and poor in the debate, and why some rich countries choose not to help certain poor countries? Scholars tend to think aiding poorer countries is detrimental, as is often supported with economic-based reasoning. “Giving aid to poor countries undermines any incentive on the part of these countries to become self-sufficient through programs that would benefit the poor.” (Andre, Velasquez, 2009) While the issue of humanitarian assistance effectiveness is not the subject of this paper, identifying failures – where situations have become significantly more harmful through assistance – based on ethical motives to help the poor is a worthy component in the debate and deserves attention.

The remaining pages of this paper will look further into the debate taking place amongst ethics scholars, and will be argued that while the rich aiding the poor may be observed through the lens of utilitarianism – the concept that an act, or behavior is correct based on the way one feels about it personally – is on the contrary selfishly motivated by the personal gain of an altruistic feeling – an often neglected area in this ethics discussion. Moreover, is it safe to assume these motivations to help are purely selfless? Inferring that firms, or individuals, make large financial donations through the new corporate social responsibility vehicle, for mere ethical reasons would be naïve. Furthermore, the idea of helping and whether or not this is possible does warrant our attention and will be explored briefly. Lastly, what attributes contribute to the ethical decision-making process when identifying a recipient of assistance and should this really matter. This may be where the largest amount of scrutiny on the subject enters the discussion because if factors vary – race, religion, etc. – there is reason to question the motives behind the deed. The most recent case might be the collective U.S. response to Haiti and Pakistan whom were both hit with a natural disaster in 2010; however, but both received strikingly dissimilar amounts of aid in response. Overlooked aspects of this ethics debate are a fundamental key to understanding why this has become an issue in the 21st century, and while uncovering those it will become more understandable to the reader while some think a moral obligation seems imperative, the opposite is true and using the word ‘ethical’ has actually become morally reprehensible.

The Morally Obligated

By applying one of the established ethical theories as a framework to address this debate, such as intuitionism, we can start to see how moral obligations have become an ethical issue. For instance, “Intuitionism is the belief that human beings have a moral sense that recognizes the moral character of an act.” and “The intuitionist appears to be correct in asserting an important role for the moral sense of ethics.” (Gueros, Garofalo) If we interpret, based on the structure of such theories, that moral action provides grounds for understanding ethical and unethical behavior, we begin to see how some view not helping the poor as unethical. Additionally, can we even reasonably assume that when observing a rich country donating to a poor country they are acting in an ethical manner, as opposed to those who do not. “Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?” (Singer 2009)

One of the consequences from using certain theories like those mentioned above is that several contextual variables are excluded and conclusions drawn to the reason and motives behind why rich countries help poorer countries:
“Why do aid organizations and their celebrity backers want to make African successes look like failures? One can only speculate, but it certainly helps aid agencies get more publicity and more money if problems seem greater than they are. As for the stars — well, could Africa be saving celebrity careers more than celebrities are saving Africa?” (Easterly 2009)
Taking into consideration that people of rich countries recognize by helping poor countries this will produce an altruistic, positive feeling and present an image to facilitate certain ethical traits contained within that specific society; we are then justified to question the validity of the perceived ethical behavior. This argument need not be limited to countries, but firms as well as individuals. It is a fallacy to infer that celebrities and corporations perform generosity on the grounds of only feeling ethically obligated, and they do not consider their acts as those in the self-interest. “Business-sponsored philanthropy benefits the corporation through cause-related marketing activities as public relations, good will, and political access.” (Wulfson, 2001)

In general, measuring ethics is a difficult task when you have variables like values and morals. Moreover, how exactly would a question on a survey, or in an interview read which was sent to Bill Gates, “What was your reason for giving X amount of dollars to X country?” Nevertheless, observing trends of what follow these charitable donations in the market or political system could be used to extrapolate a small degree of the rationale behind their moral obligatory-based reasoning. Such as, every time Oprah Winfrey dedicates an episode highlighting a new school that was built in sub-Saharan Africa, what happens to a network’s rating? Is there substantial boost in viewership that could generate revenues from enlarged advertising prices? The same logic could be applied to public opinion in poor countries receiving large amounts of foreign aid for the purposes of political objectives.

Acting Ethically and Failing

Thus far we have addressed the motives behind ethical decisions among the rich countries to help poor countries and how it can offset the theories that observed acts of morality are ethical and the traits accompanying them are rooted in ethical behavior. Potentially even more detrimental to this theory are not only motives, but the effects of rich countries helping poor countries. Again, intuitionists claim this may be irrelevant and a charitable act itself should be isolated and viewed as ethical and moral if one is financially capable; rather than seen as a vehicle to achieve goals that are in our own self-interest. “The failure of people in the rich nations to make any significant sacrifices in order to assist people who are dying from poverty-related causes ethically indefensible.” (Singer 2002) Based on this statement are we to assume when they do, it is defensible? “After $568 billion, donor officials apparently still have not gotten around to furnishing those 12-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths.” (Easterly 2005)

On the contrary, the effects of morally-based, ethical reasoning to help can actually make poor countries worse off; thus calling into question whether or not rich countries should have a moral obligation, or not. One of the most severe cases of miscalculated assistance distributed from the rich to the poor took place during the famine in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s when a group of well-intended musicians decided to help by raising money during a Live Aid concert. “Claims have been made by former rebels, who told a BBC investigation they posed as merchants in meetings with charity workers to get aid money. Insurgents would dress up and show sacks filled with sand, rather than grain, to ensure they were handed millions of pounds.” (Ballinger 2010) Precisely what happens afterwards on the ground, from financial donations by citizens of highly industrialized nations, is not factored into the decision making process of giving, and shouldn’t be according to certain scholars. It is the knowing that you are living in a world, that can actually reduce poverty, but acting otherwise that is unethical. “If everyone who can afford to contribute to reducing extreme poverty were to give a modest proportion of their income to effective organizations fighting extreme poverty, the problem could be solved.” (Singer)

Additionally, the response to the natural disaster which devastated Haiti in 2010 saw an outpouring of donations from people feeling morally obliged to help the citizens of the Caribbean island. Much of the generosity came in the form of physical goods: clothing, canned food, medicine, etc. While this might seem to the casual observer as ethical behavior on part of the rich, the amount of goods shipped caused a backup at the Port Au Prince airport delaying the arrival of crucial medicines, and often times preventing the intended good from reaching its destination; further suggesting that although a moral, or ethical obligation seems unquestionable to perform, is it justified whether or not the party helping disregards its effect?

Selection Bias
Thus far it has been argued while the motives and consequences of rich countries helping poor countries have unintended negative consequences often driven by self-serving purposes, an even more crucial aspect to the debate is missed by many. Particularly, when the rich have a criterion towards which poor they decide to assist, this becomes considerably more erroneous. Ethically-speaking, should this really matter when arriving at a decision to help the poor? A recent example of the amounts of humanitarian aid to Haiti versus Pakistan in 2010 suggests this might actually play a role. “Almost twice as much money has been raised for Haiti ($3.3 billion) in comparison with Pakistan ($1.6 billion). The US has contributed twice as much to Haiti as to Pakistan ($1.165 billion for Haiti in comparison with $482 million for Pakistan). (Ferris 2010) Several possible answers enter the debate with scholars as to why. Of them, the most compelling as it relates to our purpose of assessing ethical behavior is the attitudes of Americans towards those in the Islamic world. “The polling shows Islam to be especially unpopular among U.S. conservatives, many of whom are part of the same Christian humanitarian network that was so active in responding to Haiti.” (Fisher 2010) Conceptually, this is the same as interviewing a beggar about his or her background before depositing coins into their plastic cup.
Selection of whom will be a recipient of assistances supports the argument that moral obligations can shroud the real reason some choose to help, and inserting the word ‘ethical’ as a means to justify their announced good deeds. If we assume that charity and generosity are acts independent and can be perceived as ethical, the absence of a bias towards one group of peoples, or another, needs to be required in order for the theory to be credible. Unfortunately, more often than not, we see this is not the case and thus violates the necessary requirement for ethics and morals to be linked. We can observe those who are selecting whom to help – from both private and public institutions – that this significantly hurts and is detrimental to actually helping. More often than not, Africa seems to be the target of most aid money. “In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa.” (Moyo)
This reverts back to the argument about motives from an earlier section, which along with selecting whom will receive help, is often found to be the most unethical of all behaviors. “Unfortunately, this campaign is so far spending most of its effort on causes that will not help the African poor. Excessive debt and insufficient aid – history has already shown that insufficient Western generosity is not the main cause of Africa’s woes.” (Easterly 2005) By continuing to place emphasis on poverty and not on improvements, Africa, like so many other parts of the world, will remain in a constant state of stagnation and be deflected from receiving such sustainable sources of growth as increased foreign direct investment to bring people out of poverty. Scholars are quick to suggest successes in other impoverished areas of the world, not resulting from generosity, or charitable donations. “In the last nine months he (Muhammad Yunus) has raised over $1 billion from rural Bangladesh to invest in rural Bangladesh. I’m going to repeat that because I am still shocked … It’s not aid money. He has a policy of not taking aid.” (Moyo 2009) Depending on how you measure the poverty level of rural Bangladesh, or a rural part of an African country, this concept of ethically-justified giving is starting to be more closely examined as a disappointing method for reducing poverty.

Since ethics joined the debate regarding moral obligations to help the poor, we have witnessed a reverse effect. To that end, it is morally reprehensible to use ethics as a means for justifying generosity. Referring back to the aforementioned metaphor cited in the introduction, one important factor is overlooked: proximity. The ability to physically help someone, rather than monetarily, was the key. To contrast writing checks to rescuing a drowning child who can be seen by the rescuer, is misleading and shouldn’t be compared.
Whether it is direct foreign aid, private or personal philanthropy, the combination of motives and selection criteria can have a direct negative impact on the poor. As the level of awareness rises regarding the poor of the world, the rich will continually feel ethically obligated and justified when displaying their generosity without regard for its consequences. Passive humanitarian assistance does not qualify as ethical behavior, is translates into a selfish reconfirmation to oneself that he or she is acting morally responsible and therefore ethically.
Furthermore, when firms and governments provide large amounts of financial assistance, it is interpreted as politically-motivated alongside market-driven strategies intended to produce returns in the form of revenue and leverage. Whether it is a multi-national corporation or government, philanthropic adventures in the form of humanitarian and foreign assistance to the poor countries of the world should be properly analyzed to investigate ethical motives. Failure to do so will result in a persistence to use morally-based reasoning for their generosity and can potentially be even worse for the poor. The only difference being the devastation can be seen on a larger scale.


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