From an early age, people are encouraged to participate in acts of charity, whether for religious, moral, or civic reasons. The practice of offering incentives for these acts is very widespread, ranging from raffles for fund drives to tax deductions for contributions to charity organizations to school projects which exchange donations for grades. These acts of charity, however, have recently come under scrutiny by those who believe they are not offered in the true spirit of giving when they are rewarded. Indeed, incentives should not be given for charitable acts because they increase the divide between rich and poor and remove the morality from the acts.
Most would agree that rewarding a student for their socioeconomic class with grade improvements is unethical and undermines the purpose of popular education. Why, then, is that practice encouraged with school fund drives? In a New York Times Magazine column called “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen answers questions about ethics. On April 4, 2003, he was posed the question of whether “the exchange of donations for grades [was] O.K.?” The answer, of course, should be obvious: a resounding no. While of course school fund drives wish to encourage their students to donate, they should not reward the donations with grade improvements. Suppose a student, who had reasonable but not perfect grades, and was unable to spare funds to donate to the school drive, wished to raise their GPA. They may study, they may participate in tutoring, they may review notes; yet, still, this student will see others who did not work as hard be rewarded with raised grades simply for spending money that this hard-working student does not have. In this situation, charity would not be called charity, rather extra credit would be a more appropriate term. Free education was brought to the masses so that one’s economic status would have no bearing on whether or not they could contribute to the world of ideas and thought. By rewarding students who can donate items, schools are showing their bias towards students of higher means. This practice is not ethical and should not be continued in schools.
It is not, unfortunately, only in schools that charity is rewarded; the practice has spread throughout modern society: governments, television shows, and community organizations all offer various incentives for supporting their respective fund drives. Those who wish to donate in non-monetary ways often must pay through hours of labor, spending a much more valuable currency – time. Rewarding charitable donations with incentives further separate the psychology of the bourgoisie from that of the proletariat by encouraging the richer classes to faux pity their poorer counterparts. Indeed, they need not even experience real sympathy for those suffering; the only emotion necessary to participate in charity anymore is greed.
Of course, there is always the argument that morality is not necessary so long as the charitable acts get done. Does it really matter if someone cares about the hungry if the hungry are getting fed? This is a complex question and one that is often oversimplified. At its heart is the problem of whether one believes in morality and whether one believes that there is a true Good and a true Bad, regardless of religious beliefs. Yes, one can still work for the betterment of society through selfish means; yet one must also factor in our social nature and the fact that humans thrive in relationships. By including kindness with our actions, we are able to enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.
In the book “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the question is raised whether immoral acts matter when they are not observed. The character Raskolnikov commits a murder to bring an academic theory of his – that some people are allowed, or even supposed to commit felonies while some people are not – from the hypothetical to the practical. Throughout the book, Raskolnikov is plagued by memories of the event and a growing guilt and paranoia due to his crime. Of course, murder is very different from selfish charity, yet one may wonder whether a similar weight is present on our own consciences when we admit to ourselves that we do not care so much for the suffering of others as for our own pleasures.
Charitable acts should be just that: generous and helpful to those in need. By removing generosity from charitable acts, they cease to be well-meant and become merely cold redistributions of wealth in society. While this is a necessary act, it poisons the psychology of our culture and further rewards people for being more economically successful than their neighbor. Incentives should not be given in exchange for charity because it is an unfair rewards system and encourages selfish immorality.