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Ethics for Giving Circles: A Framework for Discussion

November 06, 2015

On a recent Shabbos afternoon, my family gathered with several other families from our Jewish community, IKAR , to talk about money. Specifically, we were meeting for the last time to talk about what to do with the $3,600 that we had pooled together as part of our Giving Circle .

At this final meeting, the discussion became quite heated. As I listened to the conversation, I realized that many of the group members’ concerns would fit well into some of the standard philosophical frameworks used in traditional philosophical ethics. I believe that these frameworks may provide a productive tool for guiding philanthropic deliberation. With this in mind, I offer below three types of philosophically-inspired questions that a Giving Circle might consider asking.

In thinking ethically, we typically ask one of two kinds of questions. We may ask: What should we do? And, we may ask: What sort of people should we strive to be? The following three approaches represent three central responses from Western philosophy.

  1. Focus on Outcomes

One way to answer the question “what should we do?” is to try to determine which course of action will have the best outcomes, and to then to pursue that course. This question draws on the consequentialist tradition in philosophical ethics.

In selecting an organization to receive a donation, the question becomes: which organization will use our money most effectively and for the largest gains? Here we are concerned to maximize the effectiveness of the dollars we give. With this concern in mind we focus on how well an organization is run, and on what the specific work of the organization involves. Will the short-term gains from the organization’s activities have long-term benefits for the communities involved? How many people will be helped, and how much? Although it is important to ask these questions, they are not easy to answer precisely. What counts as a gain? How do we compare one type of benefit to another?

2. Ensure Respect

Another way to answer the question “what should we do?” is to try to determine which course of action is the most respectful of those who will be affected. This form of ethical thinking is found in the influential work of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view, we should never treat other people merely as means to an end, but also always as ends in themselves.

For a Giving Circle, this Kantian way of thinking encourages us to ask questions about the dignity and autonomy of those whom we are trying to benefit with our donation. Is the intervention by our chosen organization actually what the people affected want and need? Have those people had adequate influence over what is happening to them? Might we be imposing unwanted culturally specific “benefits” on a population that would rather receive our aid in other ways? In asking the Kantian question, we try to avoid paternalistically assuming that we know what is best for others. Instead, we seek to find organizations in which the recipients of aid are directly involved in shaping the way that the aid is received. 

3.  Represent and Nurture our Best Selves

For those making a small donation, there is a danger of becoming disillusioned: our global problems are so great, one may wonder whether the group’s small contribution can have any meaningful impact. One way to combat this sense of despair is to ask a different question: What sort of people should we strive to be? This question is prominent in the Aristotelian tradition, which identifies and promotes the various human virtues.

In striving to be virtuous, we set an example for the people around us. And when we  inspire others, our impact on the world can extend well beyond our specific acts and donations. But even if our impact is small, I think that many of us share Aristotle’s view that we should be virtuous (in this case, generous,) anyway.

In thinking about a monetary donation from this Aristotelian perspective, we may be inclined to ponder not only what the specific money we are donating now will do, but also the way that the act of donating will impact us as individuals – and will shape the people that we are striving to become. Perhaps giving to one organization rather than another will foster in us a deeper connection to the organization with subsequent impact over time, whereas we are unlikely to develop such a deep connection with another organization. Perhaps one form of giving will do a better job of expressing our deepest values, in such a way that our example touches others in our community and shapes their development as well as our own.

I think that all three of the above approaches are useful for deliberating about personal giving. We want to maximize our impact, and do so in a respectful way, and in the process, we want to express our deepest values in a way that allows us to come closer to embodying the virtues that we strive towards. I believe that each approach, if thoughtfully considered, can add a valuable dimension to a Giving Circle decision-making process.

Ingrid Steinberg recently completed her PhD in Philosophy at UCLA, where she studied ethical questions relating to childhood. She lives in Los Angeles.