Thursday, May 14, 2020

a response to Mike's philosophical question

My buddy Mike asks (slightly edited):

Let us say that you want to donate money to a worthy charity. Let us further postulate that you can donate this money in one of the following ways: 1) You can hand a duly authorized representative of the charity cash, or 2) you can use your bank to transfer the money to the charity (electronically, or by check, or wire service), or 3) you can go on the charity’s website and use a credit card to make the donation. Now, posit further that you decide to use a credit card and choose to use a credit card that awards you “points” that you can use for yourself (or others, frankly, but let us assume that you use your points for your own wants/needs and don’t share them).

Here is the question: is the “good” of giving to a charity diminished in any way by choosing to use the credit card that rewards you for its use?

Yes, it's diminished if your stance is that the best sort of giving involves giving with no thought of reward. That being said, I'm a pragmatist: I don't think it's some awful sin to donate while also receiving credit-card points, but if Mike's question is asking about what sort of giving is, morally speaking, the best sort, then yes: giving with no thought of reward—and with no reception of a reward*—is the best sort of giving. By that reckoning, option (1), stated above, is optimal: a cash donation, preferably anonymous so that no credit is taken.

If there's one wrinkle to this question, though, it's this: if you're making the anonymous cash donation because you're aware it's the most virtuous way of giving, then your consciousness of that fact makes you accrue—how shall I say this?—a sort of vanity-karma. You might not be virtue-signaling to anyone around you, but you're keeping track of your righteousness in your own mind. This means that truly virtuous giving really does entail giving with no thought of reward. Does that sound harsh? I'd say it's no more harsh than Jesus' injunction that you pluck out your eye if it offends you, or that if you commit adultery with a woman in your heart, then it's as if you had physically committed adultery with her. The standards of virtue are high, and this material realm won't reward you for cleaving to them.

The spirit of giving that I'm describing actually has parallels in Eastern thought. The Baghavad Gita preaches "action without regard for the fruits of one's actions," i.e., action freed from the shackles of karma. Buddhism, with its present-orientation, also admonishes the person who looks forward to a benefit instead of focusing on the here-and-now. "With one eye focused on your goal, you have but one eye left to find the way."** I'd say that most of the old, great religious traditions preach some form of this austere virtue, this turn away from the self that is, of course, extremely hard to practice.

So hand over the cash anonymously. Take no credit, and don't bask in a glow of self-satisfaction. Make your donation from the standpoint of an outwardly oriented sense of love for others. And that's it. No magic, no drama. And no credit to you.

*Why is not receiving a reward less virtuous than receiving a reward, even if the reward isn't expected? Good question. Think of it this way: a possible "reward" for one's giving isn't necessarily cash or anything material: it could simply be praise for one's virtuous action. To receive the praise, the action must be, in some way, visible to (or knowable by) the public. Feel free to disagree with my hermeneutical stance, here, but I think the public nature of such giving flouts the Matthew 6:6 (etc.) injunction to conduct your virtuous activity in secret, even as your Father in Heaven is in secret. This section of the Sermon on the Mount makes clear that virtue-signaling carries no inherent virtue.

Having said all that, I don't want to give any readers the impression that I'm writing this because I think I meet the ethical standard I'm describing in this post. If anything, I'd say I'm one of the worst of the virtue-signalers out there; this blog is a long record of me saying, "Look what I just did! Isn't it great?" So, no: I'm not writing about this harsh moral standard because I've successfully met it. I see it as an ideal to strive for, and I'm still striving.

**I first read this in the context of Taoism, but it's an apt description of part of Buddhism's ethical perspective. Keep in mind the heavy overlap (both discovered and developed) between Taoism and Buddhism when Buddhism arrived in China not long after the time of Christ.


  1. Interesting. I've given in all three ways, although here in the PI most often in cash or by wire transfer. When I do a wire transfer, I use my debit card because the fee is less than on my credit card.

    I found the religious precepts you mention about giving without reward and/or virtue signaling fascinating (I remember what Jesus had to say about it from Sunday school). Like you, I blog so sometimes it's hard to avoid calling attention to charitable activities. But I've always been upfront about my selfish motivation for giving--it makes me feel good.

    I'm living comparatively rich in a poor country. When I first started visiting here I'd feel guilty and get depressed about all the poverty that surrounds me. So I resolved that when I moved here I'd find ways to make a difference for some people at least. I help a few in various ways which perhaps makes their lives a little easier. I get the satisfaction of knowing my presence here has made a small improvement for them. I'm honest about the selfish nature of my charity, but to me, it's a win-win. Since religion plays almost no part in my life I sleep just fine at night despite my doctrinal failings.

  2. "There are treasures stored up for you in heaven..."

  3. Thank you for posting this response. I made a note over on my blog that I had come to many of the same conclusions as you had. Matthew's gospel is one that is often in my mind when it comes to charity. I mused on Twitter (or Facebook) about wearing ash on Ash Wednesday for this very same reason. But in the case of charity, I believe that using the card for which I get "rewarded" does diminish ever so slightly the good of my charitable giving. I don't think it will stop me, but I am aware of it.

  4. Well, Mike, thank you for posing an interesting ethical question. I did indeed see your update, along with the replies in the comments section (2 responses + your followup comment).

    Do you remember "the fundamental question of ethics" from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever?

  5. Sadly, I do not recall the "fundamental question of ethics" from the Covenant stories. Or at least, I do not recall anything phrased completely like that. Without resorting to google, I remember the ethical questions raised by Covenant's behaviors in The Land which centered on his disbelief in The Land being real. If that is the question to which we are referring, then yes I do remember. But It has been so long since I've read those books I am sure there is detail and perhaps some nuance I am missing. Sorry.

  6. Mike,

    You're pretty much spot-on. There's that scene early on in Lord Foul's Bane in which Thomas Covenant walks into town to pay his phone bill, and he encounters the mysterious old man in the ocher robe (Donaldson's description of the man corresponds to the look of a Hindu monk, by the way; Donaldson lived for many years in India, which also explains why his demons' names [the Ravers] are Sanskrit words) who hands Covenant a slip of paper on which is written a story/scenario about a man being thrust into an alternate universe where he is hailed as a champion who must fight that universe's enemy. The man denies that this alternate universe is real, and he refuses to defend himself when attacked by the alternate universe's enemy. Is he brave or a coward? The story ends with, "This is the fundamental question of ethics."

    I found the passage here.



All comments are subject to approval before they are published, so they will not appear immediately. Comments should be civil, relevant, and substantive. Anonymous comments are not allowed and will be unceremoniously deleted. For more on my comments policy, please see this entry on my other blog.

AND A NEW RULE (per this post): comments critical of Trump's lying must include criticism of Biden's lying on a one-for-one basis! Failure to be balanced means your comment will not be published.