Bioethics Blogs

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can a Contractarian Rationally Donate to Charity? by Benedict Hardwick.

This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Benedict Hardwick, is one of the four shortlisted essays in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Can a Contractarian Rationally Donate to Charity?

 Charities Act 2011:

1.1 For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, “charity” means an institution which is established for charitable purposes only.

2.1 For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, a charitable purpose is a purpose which…is for the public benefit.

Although a moral theory, contract theory is concerned with rational decisions rather than “good” or “right” decisions. ‘Rational actions’ are here conceived, following Gauthier[1] (rather than, say, Scanlon) as maximising one’s own personal utility and so the theory already assumes that there are no rational justifications for purely altruistic/non-utility-maximising behaviour (“purely” because it is possible to maximise one’s utility by maximising that of someone else’s – but this is not what we would call “purely” altruistic). This is no bad thing since I believe such justifications are at best unnecessary complications and at worst demonstrably false, but that debate will not be had here. Instead I shall here show that charity, the supposed epitome of good moral action, is not good at all.

For an action to be considered rational on the contractarian view, the expected utility of that action must have been greater than the expected utility of any of the other known available options. With charitable donations, then, the utility assigned to the donated cash must be lower than what is gained by donating.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.