The Ethics of Giving:  How Demanding?

How much of your money should you give to effective charities?  Donors are often made considerably happier by giving away substantial portions of their income to charity.  But if they continued giving more and more, there’d surely come a point at which they’d be trading off their own well-being for the sake of helping others.  This raises a general question:  how much of your own well-being are you morally required to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others?  I’m currently in Australia giving some talks on the ethics of giving (at the ANU and at CAPPE in Melbourne and Canberra), and have been thinking about this topic a bit more than usual.

 According to utilitarianism and several other forms of consequentialism, everyone’s well-being, including yours, gets exactly the same weight.  These views entail that there is no limit, in principle, on how much of your own well-being you could be called upon morally to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others.  If, for example, the only way to stop a runaway trolley from running over and killing one person and crushing another person’s hand were for you to dive directly in front of the trolley, sacrificing your own life, then these consequentialist views would imply you are morally required to do this (assuming this act would result in the most well-being, of all available acts).  Many authors claim that morality is not this demanding, and defend the existence of agent-relative permissions or reasons.

 Suppose, in Singerian spirit, we are seeking a relatively modestly demanding principle that would nonetheless yield powerful implications about the ethics of giving to effective charities. 

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.