The evident rationality of altruism

I always enjoy it when the Economist publishes a feature called something like ‘why do people give?’ It appears to start from the principle that altruism is a behaviour so conspicuously irrational that its psychosocial determinants need to be unpacked – as if this irrationality could creep into something much more significant than philanthropy such as – er – the financial markets, perhaps. Fundraisers often play the same game at their professional conferences with seminars asking which people give and why – is it because they are from religious families? Is it for the gratitude that comes back to them from being seen as a giver? Is it for social networking or social justice?

My view is that asking why people give is a little like asking why people have babies in modern British society. Most people do not have children as an insurance policy for care in old age any more, and yet they spend thousands on clothes, holidays, bikes and ipods, which is surely as irrational as giving to charity if putting money into something which does not yield a return to the investor is always to be construed as irrational. An economist might quickly point out that we need young people and migrants to form the workforce to pay for our ageing population – but if you can find me a parent who had a child so that their tax contributions could pay for the care of the lady up the road, I’ll eat my hat. However, I can easily believe that a person might want a child just because they believe that they would love to have children, and also make a contribution to an Alzheimer’s charity because he or she would love people to be able to cope better with Alzheimers Disease.

I think that people give to charities because they see it as a means to make something happen that they would love to see in the world – such as vulnerable elderly people having better care, or children in developing countries being able to drink safer water. We know we cannot as individuals reach all the solutions by ourselves –the greatest talents in business, sports or entertainment have great teams working with them. So we form associations, and link with others by sharing our resources – emotional, intellectual, and financial – with associations we think will bring about the good thing we seek. Nothing so irrational about that, is there?

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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