Harford carries on his attack against altruism in charity :

In fact, the closer you look at charitable giving, the less charitable it appears to be. A recent experiment by John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, and a team of colleagues, showed that donations are less than magnanimous after all. Using controlled trials to compare different methods of door-to-door fund-raising, professor List's team discovered that it was much more effective to raise funds by selling lottery tickets than it was to raise funds by asking for money. This hardly suggests a world populated by altruists seeking to do the maximum good with their charitable cash.

More effective still was simply to make sure that the fund-raisers were attractive white girls rather than a dowdier assortment of males and females representing all shapes, races, and sizes. This dramatically increased the average contribution, because many more men decided to give money. Altruism?

Following Frank's classical work, he points out that many people buy charity Christmas cards, effectively giving to charity and then posting the receipts to their friends and colleagues, displaying their own good behavior towards the needy.

However, I disagree with him when he point out the irrationality of the choice of charity's beneficiaries :

Even the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with $100 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the check. We don't. Instead, we give $5 for a LiveStrong bracelet, pledge $25 to Save the Children, another $25 to AIDS research, and so on. But $25 is not going to find a cure for AIDS. Either it's the best cause and deserves the entire $100, or it's not and some other cause does. The scattershot approach simply proves that we're more interested in feeling good than doing good.

The argument comes from Steve Landsburg who writes :

CARE is a noble organization that fights starvation. It would like your support. The American Cancer Society is a noble organization that fights disease. It would like your support, too. Here's my advice: If you're feeling very charitable, give generously--but don't give to both of them.

Giving to either agency is a choice attached to a clear moral judgment. When you give $100 to CARE, you assert that CARE is worthier than the cancer society. Having made that judgment, you are morally bound to apply it to your next $100 donation. Giving $100 to the cancer society tomorrow means admitting that you were wrong to give $100 to CARE today.

Landsburg say that charity is different than investment or leisure :

An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it's time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it's time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

Landsburg thinks that people irrationally think they are powerful enough to affect CARE :

"OK, I think I've pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let's see what I can do about cancer."

His explanation is that :

You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you'll pick the worthiest and "bullet" (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you'll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, "I gave to all those!"

I agree with Landsburg, against proponents of strong reciprocity and group selection, that people are not truly altruist. As recent experiments by Kurzban, Haley and Fessler, Rigdon, Kitayama et al., people give more in economic games when they are observed. Charity is likely to be a way, like guilt, to advertise one’s own willingness to cooperate.

Here's a thought experiment for charitable diversifiers. Suppose you plan to give $100 to CARE today and $100 to the American Cancer Society tomorrow. Suppose I mention that I plan to give $100 to CARE today myself. Do you say, "Oh, then I can skip my CARE contribution and go directly on to the American Cancer Society?" I bet not.

But if my $100 contribution to CARE does not stop you from making CARE your first priority, then why should your $100 contribution to CARE (today) stop you from making CARE your first priority tomorrow? Apparently you believe that your $100 is somehow more effective or more important than my $100. That's either a delusion of grandeur or an elevation of your own desire for satisfaction above the recipients' need for food.

However, I disagree with Landsburg on the irrationality of charitable diversifiers. There are plenty of evidence that people are not utilitarianists : they do not want to maximize the global welfare of the group, for example by concentrating on the worthiest in term of utility (I give to CARE because helping the people who die starving produces more utility/happiness/welfare/fitness than helping people with cancer). They also care about justice : the wealth have to be distributed in a fairly manner. And it could be that they think to give everything to the worst-off is unfair for the other (for example for those who are disadvantaged but less than the worst-off).

In a previous post, I was wondering if Ségolène Royal did agree with Rawls and though that we always had to give “the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”. I took the example of handicaped people : one can agree that society has to help them in priority. However, since even millions of euros would not give them the average standard of living, society can choose to divert a part of this money to the second worst-off (say the very poor). The fact is that in our societies, people do not think that it is immoral to give money to opera when many people cannot even afford a ticket to go see a movie, or to finance health programs for expensive surgical operations when many public programs of prevention for the poor need money. Just think of "orphan diseases": these diseases concern very few people and hence pharmaceutical firms do not fund research on these diseases. In an utilitarian way of thinking, our duty is to fund in priority big diseases in order to save more people and maximize global welfare. However, people feel that it is very unfair for people suffering orphan diseases and they think that, even if it is very costly to the society, one ought to help them.

Going back to Landsburg thought experiment, if people are not sensitive to other’s gift, it is not because they believe that their $100 is somehow more effective or more important than other’s $100, it’s because it’s their own responsibility to be fair to others.

Hence my hypothesis is that people are charitable diversifiers because they do not want to be unfair with people suffering from cancer by giving all their money to starving people. I’m not saying they are right, my point is only factual. If I am right, it may mean that charity is not (only) a question of empathy and compassion, as an utilitarian philosopher would think, but also a question of justice.