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Can Philosophy Make People Generous?

Summary:
Schwitzgebel and Rust famously found that professors of ethics are no more ethical than other professors. Peter Singer being perhaps a famous exception to the rule. In follow-up research Schwitzgebel and psychologist Fiery Cushman tried to find philosophical arguments to change people’s willingness to donate to charity. They were unable to find any. But perhaps they just weren’t good at coming up with effective philosophical arguments. Thus, they challenged moral philosophers and psychologists to a contest: Can you write a philosophical argument that effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity? By a philosophical argument they meant an argument and not an appeal to pity or emotion. No pictures of people clubbing baby seals. The contest had 100 entrants which were

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Schwitzgebel and Rust famously found that professors of ethics are no more ethical than other professors. Peter Singer being perhaps a famous exception to the rule. In follow-up research Schwitzgebel and psychologist Fiery Cushman tried to find philosophical arguments to change people’s willingness to donate to charity. They were unable to find any. But perhaps they just weren’t good at coming up with effective philosophical arguments. Thus, they challenged moral philosophers and psychologists to a contest:

Can you write a philosophical argument that effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity?

By a philosophical argument they meant an argument and not an appeal to pity or emotion. No pictures of people clubbing baby seals. The contest had 100 entrants which were winnowed down in a series of tests.

The test had people read the arguments and then decide how much of a promised payment they would they like to give to charity. An average of $2.58 was contributed to charity (of $10) in the control group (no argument). The best argument increased giving by 54% to $3.98. Not bad.

Here’s the argument which won:

Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone going blind later in life.

How much would you pay to prevent your own child becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people.

Now here’s the kicker. The winning argument was submitted by Peter Singer and Matthew Lindauer. Singer is clearly screwing with Schwitzgebel’s research!

You can read some of other effective arguments here. I don’t think it’s an accident that the winning argument was the shortest and also the least purely philosophical. I’m not saying Singer and Lindauer cheated, but compared to the other arguments the Singer-Lindauer argument is concrete and by making people think of their own children, likely to arouse emotion. That too is a lesson.

The post Can Philosophy Make People Generous? appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Alex Tabarrok
Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professor of economics at George Mason University. He specializes in patent-system reform, the effectiveness of bounty hunters compared to the police, how judicial elections bias judges, and how local poverty rates impact trial decisions by juries. He also examines methods for increasing the supply of human organs for transplant, the regulation of pharmaceuticals by the FDA, and voting systems.

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