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Is it ethical to offer incentives for charitable acts?

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Offering incentives for charitable acts is not ethical. It obscures the innate morality of human nature and can be profit-driven. The exchange of goods and services between parties is defined as trade. Just as any form of commerce, exchanging valued incentives for charitable acts is, theoretically, trading. The foundation of charitable acts is propelled by human morality, ethical instincts, and abnegation. While the act itself may be benevolent, if the incentives behind the act are founded on the desire for capital or value gains, then the act is not truly ethical. It is rational, if not selfish.

First, offering incentives for charitable acts obscures the innate morality of human nature. A true act of charitability is driven by the inert inclination to give, contribute and sacrifice for the betterment of the third party. It is the epitome of the treasured human morality that catalyzes coexistence and harmony. However, when external incentives are the driver of charitable acts, the human face a tradeoff: whether to accept the incentive and perform the designated charitable act or hold back what they were designated to give. In this scenario, the charitable act is, on the one hand, an object for exchange, facilitated by the selfishness of human nature, and, on the other hand, designated, meaning that the charitable actor did not have a free will to contribute to the particular cause. In both cases, the act is purely materialistic and meaningless. By promoting incentives for charitable acts, society is promoting selfishness over selflessness and material over good faith. The human nature hence becomes distorted until even those who would previously act ethically by their own means become driven to receive compensative incentives, in view that everyone else has received compensation for their charitable actions. If such a means becomes prevalent, the innate morality of human nature will be left unpraised and obscured, while the cold, profit-seeking, apathetic atmosphere extends.

Second, offering incentives for charitable acts can be profit-driven. In capitalist economies, the market exists under the condition of human selfishness. Therefore, every good, service, then idea, and notion, are valued and weighed. In economist Milton Friedman’s theory, “rational” humans seek to maximize their profits and minimize their losses. However, a critical escape from the selfish and theory-based society is the faith, morality and abnegation that drives people not to act “rationally”, but to act charitably and ethically at the expense of their personal capital gains. Nevertheless, chartable acts have also been, inevitably, gauged, weighed and valued. Individuals and businesses in the economy make decisions based on the size of the value return of their actions. For instance, fossil-fuel-burning businesses make a profit at the expense of environmental sustainability and peoples’ health, so many governments around the world offer corporate tax incentives for businesses to cut back carbon emissions or switch to clean energy sources. These corporations hence begin to weigh their profitability in the two cases: spend large sums to replace polluting energy sources to cut back emission and enjoy tax incentives, or continue polluting and paying high taxes but save the transition costs of capital. In this case, if the company chooses the former, the charitable act of eliminating pollution is done, but it is purely profit-driven. Many companies conduct fraud, avoid supervision, and even resort to bribing during the process of “charitable acting” in pursuit of profit maximization. Tacit collusions are reached, private deals are made, and the ugly incentives behind the “ethical” acts are hidden. Therefore, when the act of charitability isn’t holistically charitable, the engine behind the act is under question.

In conclusion, the profit-driven and immoral measures of offering incentives for charitable acts are unethical and should not be widely adopted. If humans desire a society that is not based solely on tradeoffs, value return, and selfishness, but largely on benevolence, faith and morality, then humans should at least be encouraged to act charitably under their own terms.

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