Considering the Corruption of Charitable Sentiments

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Charity. Here is the introductory post for the Symposium. Here is a list of all posts so far.

When THQ, a company which publishes video games, recently partnered with Humble Bundle, I was disappointed to say the least. Humble Bundle is an organization that has been extremely successful at packaging together “indie” (read: small, artsy, and/or independently owned) video games from various developers and then selling them at “pay what you want” prices, in an effort to boost the visibility of the creators and their creations, as well as occasionally funnel money to a handful of different charities.

I was not the only person who was initially unhappy with this development. For those of us who looked skeptically upon THQ’s move, their appeared to be two issues at play. First, there was the contradiction of a mechanism developed to help small and independent creators being utilized to serve the ends of a publically traded corporate entity. Historically, Humble Bundle has championed DRM-free content, and also sought to provide games for all operating systems—not just Windows. As a result, a general mood of anti-corporatism pervades the otherwise entirely commercial endeavor.

Second, there was the bad taste (left at least in my mouth) from seeing a publicly traded corporation (where the bottom line comes above all else) lead from behind in a marketing effort that brandished its connection to charitable causes in order to attact more attention and positive press. When deciding how much one wanted to pay for the Humble THQ Bundle, a sliding scale with a default that favored the company over the associated charities could be moved so as to give all of one’s contribution to just one of the entities involved, or any split it in any which way between all of them.

Considering the games involved it’s an amazing deal from the consumer’s point of view. And even if you decide to pay more than the minimum amount ($1.00), you can have all of it go to either the Red Cross or Child’s Play. Which is an even better deal, because then you get a bunch of great games for dirt cheap, as well as the good feeling of having contributed to good causes.

But something about the arrangement still doesn’t sit right with me. Most people consider it a Win-Win-Win. THQ wins (even if your stock is in the crapper, a 40% increase in its value is no small achievement). Consumers win (I can attest that at least half of the games included in the bundle would be worth paying regular price for). And charities win (since presumably most of the people who contributed as a result of the sale would not have done so in its absence—and any additional donations are better than none).

So why does the arrangement bother me so much? For the most part, I think my distaste for the partnership comes from a knee-jerk cynicism with regard to corporate motivations and practices. Would THQ really be doing this if it wasn’t going to help them out more? But such sentiment is not grounds for any valid critique.

Rather, I think my lingering negativity arises from the impression that THQ’s expedient and momentary joint venture with the Red Cross and Child’s Play is half-hearted in a way that undermines the charitable goals upon which many (most?) of the people involved will be donating.

Sometimes, doing a little of a good thing can be bad, in that it diminishes the overall capacity to do even more. Maybe (a big maybe) people would have donated more money to one of these organizations over the long term if they had not spontaneously donated a little in the short term. Maybe (a big maybe) many people will feel that, because they just gave charitably, they need not do so again, at least for a little while (especially if a person split their contribution, and feels the loss of having spent, say, $40, even though only $20 of it actually went to charity).

None of this demonstrates that THQ’s partnering with two charities was a bad thing, or will have a net negative effect. It could very well be that when all is said and done, the utilitarian calculus will prove very favorable to the outcome, and much less favorable to a universe in which the Humble THQ Bundle never happened. Even if that is the case though, other moral questions persist.

Part of the problem with moral criticism is the difference between what’s possible and what’s probable, what’s good and what’s much better. It would have been much better if THQ had made all proceeds from the sale automatically go to the charities involved, rather than allow users to give to the company or Humble Bundle instead. So the question becomes, does the fact that THQ could have done something better make the good thing they did do less good because it remains sub-optimal? There are of course many different ways to go about analyzing this issue, but all of them seem to end up at a point where we decide no, THQ did enough, and their positive moral obligations have been fulfilled.

For me this is the moral baseline, and though it remains elusive, I don’t think it’s a fiction. It’s the point at which one is liberated from the otherwise endless number of causes and needs which require financial and participatory attention. This point might exist at the intersection of optimally maximizing one’s material output (making money), living frugally (giving “excess” money away), volunteering (giving “excess” time away), and a minimal amount of personal satisfaction and contentment (as is required for a modicum of “human flourishing” and the kind of mental and emotional sanity required to do the previous three things).

Or it might exist somewhere else. Or, according to a different ontology, it might not exist at all (or the question itself could be a gross linguistic error).

In the end then I care less about what THQ did, and more about how others perceived it. And I think this perception (that by helping charities out at all THQ was going above and beyond the corporate call of duty) is so troubling because of how deeply cynical it is (we can’t expect corporations to act selflessly, so all the more kudos when they do), and how difficult it is to reconcile with the more general attitudes toward charity and morality most of us have.

For instance, very few people would dispute (I hope) that the good of making people happy (e.g. Child’s Play/trips to Disney World) is, to the degree it can be measured against other goods, less than the good of preventing starvation, chronic disease, and other forms of human misery. In keeping with the general theme of Jason’s post then, it seems clear that everyone agrees in theory, if not always in practice, that certain causes take priority over others. And I don’t think that it’s controversial to suggest that most of us, most of the time, are not predisposed to contribute to the greater good as much as we could, or think we should.

But the reward mechanism at the center of the THQ/Charity partnership seems to me to degrade this positive sense of duty even more by increasing the positive feedback associated with charitable giving. In instances where charitable giving is not accompanied by a social media blitz of self-congratulation, and where it is not accompanied by consumer products like Saints Row: The Third and Darksiders, the impetus to self-initiated, non-publicized, un-rewarded charitable giving will meet with even greater resistance.

Maybe this is why I find mixing the market with charity and public goods so off-putting, and the often positive reaction to it so frustrating. Pitting consumers against producers, labor against capital, and all of the other competitive oppositions which allow markets to successfully deliver many positive returns make sense when applied within a certain limited framework. Beyond theoretical or practical issues these limits are especially necessary because while markets can proceed amorally, the societies in which they function cannot.

And when market mechanics and charitable giving collide, there’s a fundamental incongruity between the logics and mentalities which accompany them. Public corporations, as instruments for obtaining profit, are amoral entities. Consumers, in so far as markets rely upon them to act on their desires for the lowest prices possible, are also amoral actors. People are not though, and yet when actions are funneled through a process of exchange like THQ’s Humble Bundle (and, to be clear, all of the other Humble Bundles, even if to a lesser degree) the impulses and expectations guiding them become hopelessly confused.

In the same way that contracting out the provision of a public good to a private, profit-seeking entity can, over time, lead people to forget why the project was in the public interest to begin with, channeling selfish urges through “win-win” market mechanics seems, at least to me, to degrade the charitable sentiment which originally compelled us to give in the first place.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with THQ giving away products to benefit both itself and the Red Cross and Child’s Play in this one instance, but as a normalized method for eliciting charitable giving, the way it shapes incentives and expectations might still be worse in the long run if it becomes and obstacle to spontaneous and/or more effective charitable donating.

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2 thoughts on “Considering the Corruption of Charitable Sentiments

  1. As a professional charitable fundraiser, I can assure you: corporate charitable donations no longer exist. Gone. Finis. Nada. Hopped the twig. Shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s all joint marketing in partnership with charities now. And this means that charities have some clout at the table when it comes to negotiating deals. Because the marketing that these corporations are interested in is the kind of marketing a good charity is already doing to identify those who are benefiting from its work: social marketing on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. So it’s a win-win for both.

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