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.