by Jakub Synowiec
To many, effective altruism and Christianity seem to be at odds. For example, effective altruism might encourage people to make their charitable activity public, in order to encourage similar actions and ultimately more impact. This might seem morally questionable for many Christians. There is also a tradition within Christianity which supports the idea that giving in secret is the right approach. In this post, I will explore this tradition and, in the final part, present two answers to the “sounding a trumpet” critique.
Effective altruism and sounding a trumpet
Many prominent effective altruists suggest that charitable acts should be publicly displayed, in the sense that one should show how much their actions help those in need. This can be done by displaying the total amount of money pledged or sharing one’s story about how they came to giving and how giving changed their lives. Peter Singer explains this approach in his The Life You Can Save. He believes that people are more likely to do right things if others are also doing it as we tend to do what people in our reference group do. People are more likely to support a charity if they believe that others are doing it as well. Therefore, “sounding a trumpet” when we give to the poor is for Singer a good thing if it encourages others to do similar good.
Jesus and not sounding a trumpet
Singer’s idea seems at odds with Jesus’ famous quotation on helping the poor in Matthew 6: 2-3:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”.
Many people – including Christians inspired by Jesus’ teaching – believe that the right approach to charity is therefore to give in secret, to be “anonymous donors”. Most Christians would be uncomfortable about displaying their charitable acts as it can be construed as “sounding a trumpet” – perhaps to draw attention to how generous one is.
Some philosophers encourage to give in secret
The idea that one should give in secret is also supported by some European philosophers. Immanuel Kant claims that for a charitable act to be of moral value, what matters is solely one’s intentions. If one is rich enough to give the others without sacrifice, then, for Kant, acting according to this duty is not to his or her merit (seine verdienstliche Pflicht). Instead, the rich should not give the slightest impression that the poor owe them anything. They should act in complete secret to avoid giving this impression. According to Kant, our acts of charity which have their origins in love (caritas) put the recipient down and our duty is to spare him humiliation. In other words, we should not toot our own trumpets.
Meanwhile, for Arthur Schopenhauer, loving one’s neighbor (caritas) is the second highest level of compassion, where another’s suffering becomes as important as the one’s own suffering in motivating action. If we are motivated by compassion, our action has a moral value. According to Schopenhauer, if our motive is anything else – including rewards from God in heaven, the good opinion of others, or even the personal satisfaction of being morally decent, then our act has no moral value. This seems similar to Jesus’ instruction to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”. If acts of charity are motivated by anything other than the desire to do good, then, according to Schopenhauer, they are not truly charity.
For both Kant and Schopenhauer, sounding one’s trumpet is morally wrong. Publicly displaying charity seems to violate the recipient’s dignity. If our actions reveal our motivations, our displaying of charity actions may be seen as an attempt to self-promote in order to be perceived as noble or generous.
Why intention matters
There are, however, some arguments that might defend the “sounding our trumpet” approach. First, one can easily find examples of where Jesus encourages an element of publicity in one’s actions. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus says:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”.
From this passage, we might infer that followers of Jesus should display their good actions. Are the two passages therefore contradictory? I think not. In Matthew 6:2-3 Jesus focuses not on external things accompanying our giving but on what is happening inside, about our intentions. A hypocrite is a person who acts “in accordance with what is good” but not because it is the good thing to do. His real intention is not helping others but helping himself – and specifically, helping himself by seeking human approval. This is why Jesus acknowledges that he has ‘already received his reward’.
However, this is quite different from sounding our own trumpet for a different purpose: not to seek approval for ourselves, but to help encourage more charitable giving.
Equally, effective altruism helps preserve the dignity of those who receive charitable aid. The charities that are often supported by the movement often focus on helping people in distant countries. Recipients of aid tend to remain anonymous to us, and we are anonymous to them.
Sound a trumpet to help others do good better
For utilitarians, intentions do not have intrinsic value, but only instrumental value in promoting good outcomes. Thus, many utilitarians might not think about whether their motivations are selfish or not, so long as good is being done. However, Christians have to think differently because Jesus emphasized motivation.
There is always a threat that doing good in public, displaying one’s good actions, may be motivated by vanity rather than love. Sounding one’s own trumpet is therefore, in itself, neither good nor bad. What matters is how it is done; whether it is an expression of self-promotion and pride, or whether it is motivated by love to help more people do more good.