Status quo bias, charity, and the trolley problem

The excuses for supporting the Salvation Army, rather than one of the many non-discriminatory charities out there, are becoming progressively more flimsy. But even after I’ve addressed a number of objections to a boycott of the Salvation Army, there are still a few arguments that are very persistent. And while some of them may not actually need to be refuted, I do hope to at least disfigure them beyond recognition.

Some people have cited the Salvation Army’s near-ubiquity in providing social services, the relative accessibility of donating to them, and really just the sheer scale of their operation. But none of these constitute a reason why the Salvation Army should be considered more preferable than other charities. Even if the Salvation Army is responsible for the largest portion of charitable activities, it doesn’t mean you get more bang for the buck, so to speak, from giving to them. Your money isn’t necessarily doing more good for the dollar when it goes to the Salvation Army instead of another charity.

Besides, it’s not like charities are competing in some kind of first-past-the-post election, where whichever one provides a plurality of all charity services should receive all of the funding that would have gone to other charities. They may be the largest, but that doesn’t mean we have to support them, and it doesn’t mean the rest should be ignored. They’re only the largest because we support them, and if we stop supporting them, eventually they may not be the largest anymore.

And even if a certain charity places people practically everywhere to collect donations, that’s still not a very good reason to give to them instead of another group. Really, would you give your money to just any people who go to the trouble of putting a collection plate in front of you? Convenience alone is hardly the most relevant factor in choosing which charity you should support. And the entire purpose of drawing attention to the Salvation Army’s anti-gay beliefs is to reach people who want to make an informed decision about where their money is going and what it’s being used for.

Others claimed that the Salvation Army wouldn’t be prepared for a significant drop in donations, and that a major reallocation of funding from the Salvation Army to other charities would incur a great deal of administrative overhead that would ultimately take away from the actual charity services that they provide. But it seems obvious that an organization the size of the Salvation Army already has to be prepared to absorb shortfalls in funding that can result from a declining economy or just periodic fluctuations. This is the kind of thing they’d have to deal with regardless of whether we boycott them. Likewise, it’s not as though other charities would be completely unprepared for more donations than usual. If anything, they would almost certainly welcome this. They’re not going to be totally clueless about what to do with it all. Do you think they’ll have no choice but to spend it on Ferraris for everyone?

Perhaps the most enduring argument against a boycott is the claim that poor and homeless people would freeze to death or suffer some similar fate, and that we’re responsible for this if we choose not to give to the Salvation Army. People really love to tell me this, over and over. It’s easier to understand this argument if we split it up into two separate parts. First, there’s the attempt to persuade us with a vivid example of people dying in the streets for lack of food and shelter if we don’t support the Salvation Army. The second part, which is usually left unsaid, is the implication that we should consider this a compelling reason to keep giving to the Salvation Army. It’s important to distinguish between these two points, because I can fully acknowledge that depriving them of our money could actually mean that more homeless people will die this winter. I just don’t see why I should care. And I’ll explain why.

While the problem of poverty and homelessness is definitely something that needs to be addressed, this just isn’t a good argument for why we should give to the Salvation Army and not other charities. It relies on the kind of dramatic emotional appeal that could be made in favor of practically any cause. If this is supposed to be a valid reason to support the Salvation Army, someone else could just as easily say, “If you don’t support this charity, children in Africa are going to starve to death, slowly.” Would we then be compelled to give to that charity instead? The argument being made here is identical. Of course, someone else could then respond with another striking example of families going hungry if we don’t give to the Salvation Army, and then we’d once again have to donate to them.

So, would this ever-escalating exchange of emotional appeals force us to keep bouncing back and forth between giving to one charity, or another, or another? That seems kind of absurd, and it’s easy to realize that this isn’t a sound basis for deciding which charities we should support. And once we understand that this isn’t so persuasive after all, it’s plain to see why this argument doesn’t work for the Salvation Army either. So when someone tells me, “Homeless people are going to freeze to death and it’s your fault!”, I can feel completely confident in saying, “So?” I have nothing against the homeless, of course – just like I don’t have anything against the myriad other causes that I haven’t donated to. But in this case, the Salvation Army simply isn’t special.

What’s interesting is that even once I’ve pointed this out, people are still reluctant to choose not to give to the Salvation Army. Even when they’ve been doing essentially the same thing all along by choosing not to give to other charities, they still insist that we should support the Salvation Army only. Somehow, supporting the Salvation Army at the expense of other charities is good, but supporting other charities at the expense of the Salvation Army is bad. But there’s really no reason why the Salvation Army should be considered exceptional here, any more so than any other charities. Many of them do just as much good, usually with equal or greater efficiency.

It seems that for some people, their perspective here isn’t derived from the actual outcome of giving to one charity and not another – which is roughly equivalent – but rather based on another factor entirely. I suspect that there may be some, to use the technical term, “weird stuff” going on in their heads. Obviously, feeding a starving child in India is in no way inferior or less valid than feeding a starving child in America. People are people, and people are equal. There’s no particular reason to prefer giving to the Salvation Army versus another charity, so there’s nothing wrong with choosing a group that doesn’t endorse openly homophobic religious views. So why do people still insist on supporting the Salvation Army, even to the point of claiming that anyone who gives to another charity is basically killing the homeless?

I’m inclined to think that they consider donating to the Salvation Army to be a sort of default state, almost like something that’s been chosen for them ahead of time, and they don’t seem to act like they have as much responsibility for that. But once we make the decision to give to another charity instead, it’s like we might as well have unleashed a pack of rabid wolves on families in poverty. What’s up with that? It seems like there’s something about actually thinking about this, and then making an intentional choice, that makes people more uncomfortable with the results of this, and causes them to feel more personally and directly responsible for the ultimate outcome. Even if that outcome is effectively identical.

This is actually a well-studied phenomenon in the field of ethics. There’s a certain thought experiment known as the trolley problem which helps illuminate the differing attitudes toward making choices like this. For example, just hypothetically, would you prefer for one person to die, or five people to die? Most people would say that one person dying is preferable.

Now suppose that a train is speeding out of control, and there are five people on the track directly ahead of it who can’t get out of the way. However, there’s another track with only one person who can’t get out of the way. You have the opportunity to pull a switch that will divert the train onto the other track, killing one person but saving the other five. Should you pull the switch? In this situation, not as many people are willing to choose for one person to die rather than five, when they’re the one who’s actually pulling the switch.

For another scenario, suppose you’re standing on a bridge above an oncoming train that’s about to run into five people. There’s also a very large man next to you, large enough that if you push him off the bridge, his body will stop the train and save the other five people. Should you push him off the bridge? In this case, even more people refuse to do it, regardless of the fact that it would have the same result: one person dies instead of five.

Overall, the trolley problem isn’t really about figuring out what the right choice is, so much as it’s meant to demonstrate the interesting variations in people’s decisions under different circumstances. It seems that people aren’t as concerned about the actual results of their actions as they are with their perceived degree of personal involvement: from making an abstract choice, to pulling an actual switch to kill a person, to actively pushing someone in front of a train. Even when the outcome of taking action would be objectively better, many people still don’t want to have anything to do with this.

And something similar seems to be going on here. For some people, continuing to give to the Salvation Army like they always have is viewed as the equivalent of just not touching the switch. They see it as something that was already going to happen, and they don’t want to make an active choice to change this. But when we do consciously decide not to donate to the Salvation Army, they see us as becoming more personally involved, like throwing someone in front of an oncoming train. And that’s when they tell us that we’re effectively leaving homeless people out in the cold because we chose another charity instead. All of a sudden, we somehow become morally culpable in a way that they seem to think they aren’t.

What they’ve failed to realize is that they’re already just as involved as we are. They flipped that switch when they decided to let children around the world die for lack of food or clean water or medical care, so they could give to the Salvation Army instead. Yet this doesn’t seem to bother them. So how can they expect us to be persuaded by the same argument that they themselves don’t find convincing? They’ve made practically the same choice already. Why is it okay for them, but not for us?

Again, the Salvation Army is not special. There’s no reason to think that they’re the best charity out there or the only good option, and as I’ve explained, there are actually plenty of reasons not to give to them. And we don’t have to feel bad about supporting other charities instead. Someone’s probably going to die no matter what. But someone is going to be cared for, too. So don’t be afraid. Pull the switch.

Status quo bias, charity, and the trolley problem

11 thoughts on “Status quo bias, charity, and the trolley problem

  1. 1

    It’s good to see that you are blogging once again. Very well thought out, I completely agree – choosing to give to one organization is the same as not choosing to give to another. It seems that most people just want to pretend that it doesn’t involve them somehow.

    A big part of it is that the SA is ingrained into popular consciousness as “the good guys,” people just don’t like going against popularly held notions. Most people just want to be comfortable and live in base pleasures, challenge them and they lose that comfort and see it as an attack on everything they stand for – thus only adding to likelihood that they will act unreasonably.

    The sad truth is that most people subsist entirely on emotional appeals and social norms, logical arguments won’t work on them; they don’t want to change or grow stronger or create new systems of ethics to live by.

  2. 2

    The Salvation Army has been around for over one hundred years and since that time the homeless population has exploded.There are so many other charitable organizations that help homeless people such as Feeding America,American Family Housing,Goodwill Industries, people should donate to them instead.Maybe people should just stop giving money to any charitable organazition that helps homeless people because it only adds to the problem.Across america the way a lot of communites deal with the unemployed and homeless people is to send them to california.In some cities in the USA it is illegal to donate food to homeless people.

    In cities such as San Franciso and Los Angeles they have a higher than normal number of homeless people that come from across america.This is a burden to the already overwhelmed homeless shelters in those cities.The logic behind not donating money that supports homeless people is if giving money to them only increases the number of more homeless people who do not want to find a job than your’re hurting them not helping them.In my area the majority of homeless people are older white people who look like they have been released from prison.Yesterday I was driving through a small strip mall to get a haircut and I saw this older homeless man who looked real dirty,he didn’t look hungry,he had a potbelly,he was white but his face face looked completly black from sleeping outside for too long,to make a long story short he looked frightening.Noone will ever hire this person for a job of any kind.If this person did not recieve assistance from people or any homeless shelter he may be motivated to get cleaned up and look for a job.I hardly ever see any homeless hispanic immigrants that are homeless they will take any job they can find to support themselves,it’s sad that a lot of people who are born in this country do not have the same work ethic.

    I hope anyone does not bother leaving a angry reply about this posting.If someone has a better idea to dealing with the homeless problem what is your solution? It seems giving money to homeless organazitions and shelters is not helping at all,it only creates more homeless people.

  3. 4

    Here’s a little something that I have noticed.. I have seen that like afew years ago, when the Internet was fairly new
    that peopel could interact on forums, chat, and have conversations. In late 2010, it seems like people barely know
    their own name, yet want some intimate connections with morons like several states away…

    Alot of peopel don’t know HTML or FTP is, barely know how blogs and forums work, yet they want to add people on
    Yahoo/MSN, just to “get off”… People like that need to “bow down”..

    Mike’s Ramblings

  4. 5

    As per usual the maltheists squeem and rant about religious charities while offering no alternative. Yes there are atheist and gay charities, but they will not help anyone who isnt either atheist, gay or even both.
    Simple solution….let believers donate to their own charities for the sole use of other believers and let infidels donate to their own charities solely for the use of infidels.

  5. 6

    Hi, I’m 19 years old and I’m portuguese, so don’t botter too much if my english isn’t perfect.
    I really like your videos and to hear what you have to say about some topics, but, seriously, you talk too much about relligion and homossexuality thing. I really don’t botter if you’re gay or not. I’m a boy, I’m straight, and as far as I can know from you, you’re a very knowledgeable and interesting person.
    I’m atheist, like you, and I really suport your opinion about religion, but you should talk about otter things, like human behaviour, the world situation, economy, etc. As an example for that subjects, I can give you your video “You treat women like that?”. I think that video is brilliant, and its my favourite. And I tottaly identifyed myself with what you said in the “Birthday” video.
    I hope that you understand what I’m trying to say. I would love to hear what you have to say about Stereotypes; Love; The 2012 thing that says the world will end; Economy of the world; World statement; World crisis; etc
    I really hope you read this, so I will wait for your answer.
    I am your subscriber and active follower of your videos, and it would make me really happy if you consider my sugestion.

    Thank You —

    1. 6.1

      -I really like your videos and to hear what you have to say about some topics, but, seriously, you talk too much about relligion and homossexuality thing.

      Whaaat? There are so many people who need to listen to the points ZJ makes on religion and homosexuality, and the more videos he makes about them the more likely they will see them.

      -I hope that you understand what I’m trying to say. I would love to hear what you have to say about Stereotypes; Love; The 2012 thing that says the world will end; Economy of the world; World statement; World crisis; etc
      I really hope you read this, so I will wait for your answer.

      Don’t think he’s gonna answer dude, but he did cover love. As for the other topics, he must not be too interested in talking about them: 2012 well we all know where he stands. Economy? Bo-ring. He’s clearly looking for social, not economic change.

  6. 8

    @Zinnia: I’ve always been bothered by that particular formulation of the trolley problem, because it hinges on the assertion that pushing a fat man onto a track WILL stop a train right in its tracks and save five people. That just seems so implausible to me that I tend, unconsciously, to conceptualize the hypothetical as some sort of last-ditch effort that might work, instead of how it’s stated. In general, I won’t kill someone for only a chance at saving a larger number of people, except perhaps if it’s some colossally large number. (It’s certainly not a linear relationship; I wouldn’t want to kill 1 person for a 17%* shot at saving 5 people. Because 83% of the time you’ve just killed six people and made the problem worse. Your odds of causing a net improvement or not are a factor.) There are many other variations of the trolley problem that don’t have this flaw, e.g. Unger’s man in the yard, but I tend to come up with utilitarian responses to those, personally.

    @Ted: Shaw’s criticism of the Salvation Army 100 years ago (basically, what he saw as excessive idealism) is very different from the criticism that Zinnia’s mounting against them today. I disagree with Shaw but agree with Zinnia. But I love Shaw for making plays that I enjoy the hell out of even when I disagree with their message. There’s always enough moral complexity to make it interesting.

    *I almost wrote 20%. Ugh, math fail.

  7. 9

    Hi Zinnia. You seem really fucking cool!

    I completely agree with you on this. As a kid growing up in a poor white trash family in the midwest, I dealt with the food pantries of the Salvation Army and similar organizations a lot. Every time we went to them, we had to go to their fucking church and listen to hours of Christian indoctrination before we could get any food. They treated us like shit, though the cans of pie filling and stale crackers did prevent me from starving as a kid.

  8. 10

    The accessibility issue for me isn’t how easy it is for me to donate, but how easy it is for people who need it to reach the services. I don’t think there’s an easy answer–this question is more complex to me than simply, “Are they good? Circle one! Y / N.”

    The end result of a boycott is punishing the people using the charity for the charity’s behavior. The consequences are many, ranging from minor to major, and certainly the people running Salvation Army are assholes, but I can’t get away from that first conclusion. I’m really glad I blogged about it in the first place because I’ve found a lot of good information on the topic, and a lot of food for thought. I’m especially glad I found your original post (and that you responded to my Tweet!).

    On a side note, the person above who accused charities for the homeless of creating more homeless people needs to try being homeless and living on what charities give them, and see how long they *intentionally* remain homeless. 😛 We have a growing homeless population because Ronald Reagan was an over-privileged, near-sighted douchebag.

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