Creative Philanthrophy?

What would you do with $100 and a case of altruism? How about giving away umbrellas during a rainstorm:

David Ibnale had no idea how tough it would be to give away umbrellas on Market Street the other day. He figured that he and his free umbrellas were going to change the world. The world had other ideas.

“People thought there was something fishy about it,” Ibnale said. “There wasn’t. It was just free umbrellas.”

Ibnale was one of a dozen people in San Francisco who had been given $100 by a startup charity that is trying to get strangers to start doing nice things for other strangers. It’s a novel concept. Most folks, it turns out, aren’t prepared for it. “What’s the catch?” a man asked.

No catch, replied Ibnale. Take an umbrella. You’re getting wet.

“No, thanks,” the man answered, and kept walking through the rain. Ibnale began keeping count. He asked 27 wet people if they would like to have an umbrella. Seventeen of them said no.

Altruism is something of a novelty these days, and most people have little time to partake. But altruism is the whole idea behind the new charity, called the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy.

The article mentions other attempts at ordinary altruism, some of which were more successful. I love this sort of thing, less for for the evidence of suspicion built into our daily interactions (“What’s the catch?”) and more for the creativity it demands of folks and the plus-sized benefits it engenders. (400 quarters on a grammar school playground is worth more than $100.)

That said, the hedonic utilitarian in me (an unpleasant man to be sure) worries that we ought not to call random acts of generosity philanthropy, or even altruism, exactly. The reason to do this kind of show-off charity is thoroughly selfish, since we end up keeping so much of the enjoyment for ourselves. On this view, the real reason we love these stories is that they sound like fun: it’s the utility monster in all of us trying to find its way out. (“I can spend $100 better than you can!”) Though this kind of creativity is certainly welcome, there’s a niggling voice who insists that a true altruist wouldn’t even need to see the benefits of her efforts, and would donate the money to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders where it can do “the most good.”

So let’s put these suspicions to rest: understood as virtue or capacity cultivation, these kinds of exercises are more effective than duties or obligations for accomplishing the goals that duties and obligations seek. We know this with children: we use enjoyable and fun exercises cultivate the virtue of charity so that they learn to cherish altruism later and elsewhere. So why not skip that fancy dinner and buy some umbrellas? Maybe it’ll make you a better person, but even if you fail to flourish, there’ll be a lot of dry and suspiciously grateful people. And if it turns out to be fun, maybe we can skip two dinners, and split the proceeds: half for Haiti, half for random acts of kindness.

Zero-sum games are for suckers. Hedonic utilitarians ought to know that better than anyone: be full of win.

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