Covert virtue – the signal that doesn’t bark?

An attitude I often come across is that if you do a virtuous thing, it is impolite to blow your own trumpet about it. ‘Give privately!’ is the catchcry. Even those who are open about their good deeds are likely to hold a special admiration for anyone they discover has been secretly helping others for years, and never even mentioned it.

I asked around and apparently this norm exists because when you go on about your altruism, it calls into question  your motivation. Perhaps you made that donation just to be able to show off your virtue and wealth to everyone else, rather than being motivated by ‘pure’ compassion. Someone who only cared about helping others would apparently keep their hands busy, and their mouth shut.

I think the reality is the complete reverse. A culture of ‘private altruism’ has some seriously perverse effects, and anyone who really cares about doing good in the world should be working to undermine it.

Firstly, it means we are less inclined to talk about and share the information we have about which causes are most valuable and effective. Given that donations to charity and other approaches to making the world a better place vary in cost effectiveness across many orders of magnitude, this is a huge loss.

Secondly, if people can’t gain social acceptance from altruistic acts, those acts will tend to be crowded out by alternatives that are unavoidably conspicuous – impressive cars, holidays, degrees and so forth – that will do a better job of signalling how rich, noble and interesting they are. On top of this, people will become biased towards conspicuous but ineffective ways of helping others. It’s easy to keep a (very valuable!) bank transfer secret, and pretty gauche to post the receipt on social media sites. But flying to Africa to help build a school, or signing up to a Facebook group? Everyone will find out about that! Sadly, signalling ‘arms races’ over conspicuous consumption and slacktivism, rather than ‘effective altruism’, are exactly what I observe around me.

In light of this, private giving, far from being consistent with a pure and virtuous motivation, is actually deeply suspicious. Someone who really cared about helping others as much as possible, and was making substantial sacrifices to do so, would want to bring up the fact whenever they could get away with it, in order to draw attention to the merits of their cause and prompt others to join in. Those who ‘give privately’, must care more about blindly following harmful social norms – or more likely, getting extra admiration for their deeds when people ‘accidentally’ discover what they have secretly been up to. This could be a ‘signal that doesn’t bark.’

So next time you do something good, find a way to shout it from the rooftops, especially if the act is particularly big, valuable or easy to do discreetly. If anyone tries to call you out for ‘showing off’, politely explain why the pure of heart have no choice.

Update: Here’s an amusing video on the topic. (HT David Barry)

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  • AC

    As a general rule, healthy societies reward prosocial activity and punish antisocial (zero/negative sum) activities.  Giving status rewards for effective altruism is trait of a much better society than the one that give status rewards for being Roissy clones.

    • healthy societies reward prosocial activity

      Whether a society that rewards financial contribution is showing the same health as one that rewards actual activity seems a question rather like whether corporate-bought propaganda counts as speech. Financial contribution may be more efficient, but it isn’t as salubrious psychologically as giving time: real “prosocial activity.” I doubt it does better by society than it does by the individual.

      Monetary charity is almost all signaling. If donor’s are shy about revealing their donations, it’s almost surely because that’s part of the signaling process.

      • Sigivald

        Volunteering is almost all about signaling, for many  volunteers – which is why they’re always telling you about it.

        If volunteers don’t tell you about their volunteer time, that must equally surely be “part of the signaling process” – or rather the “not-signaling process”.

        (Nor  do I see any reason to accept your doubt that “society” gets less benefit from a very useful pile of money than from dubiously useful volunteering because the volunteer feels more special than the donor.

        Unless “society” and the “benefit” are psychological more than material, that is. And if the benefit is really only about the volunteer’s mental state, plainly it wasn’t a real important cause in the first place, was it.

        [Also, yes, all propaganda is speech, be in corporate or personal. Note that “corporate” includes every charity, since they’re all incorporated.])

  • lemmycaution

    It is from the bible:

    and is a reaction to contemporary roman charity practices that were not at all private and which often involved inscriptions of charitable deeds:

    • AC

      That’s virtue ethics and a similar tension exists with regards to capitalism.  Yes capitalism is a great way to harness greed for prosocial causes, but it’s problematic that it does basically legitimize greed.  But from a utilitarian point of view – for the purposes of getting useful stuff done – it makes sense to harness greed to promote economic growth.  

      Similarly, as long as people are status-competing anyway, let’s make the status competition about something prosocial.  It’s hard to argue that our current system is some sort of status-blind utopia that we’d be giving up!

  • adrianratnapala

    Those who ‘give privately’, must care more about carelessly following
    harmful social norms – or more likely, getting extra admiration for
    their deeds when people ‘accidentally’ discover what they have secretly
    been up to.

    My Hansonian Homonculus says that the private giving norm is a conspiracy to reduce the signaling value of giving, thus reducing the cost of the pro-giving norm.  This is only partially successful because givers can choose leak the information strategically, for example when they are chatting amiably with their new date.

    And because my H.H. is a very evil minded fellow, he will point out that private givers are in on both sides of this conspiracy.

  • Richard Chappell

    Robert – agreed!

  • rapscallion

    But it’s also easy to think of ways in which norms that encourage open discussion of giving can discourage beneficial giving relative to norms that favor discretion. First, if the motivation of giving is both praise and intrinsic reward, increasing praise might sate the desire to give at lower levels than if givers had to rely solely on intrinsic satisfaction. Secondly, open discussion of giving might cause people to give more towards status-increasing causes rather than less popular, weirder causes (e.g. seasteading).

    A priori I don’t see much reason to think one sets of norms would be more beneficial than the other.

  • Jeff Lonsdale

    The societal norms you are criticizing are trying to make prosocial behavior derive from an intrinsic motivation instead of an extrinsic motivation. Getting a reward of publicity for every good act will have the same effect as a parent paying a child to learn – most do gooders will default towards only behaving well when they are getting rewarded. And then if the signal starts to degrade in quality society will have even less people acting in a prosocial manner.

  • Hugh Parsonage

    There is a difference between doing something inconspicuously and doing something invisibly. We can promote a social norm of giving generously by identifying projects or outcomes achieved by people acting charitably without actually naming the givers.

    Similarly, there are ways to anonymously share information about the best ways to give effectively. Indeed, it’s possible to do this quite well without giving at all.

  • Robert Koslover

    So, in summary, you think Maimonides was totally off base?  See .  Personally, I have always considered the Maimonides view to be a very reasonable one.

    •  Maimonides favored anonymous contributions to avoid imposing dependence on the recipient (for example, via the norm for reciprocity). That concern seems irrelevant in many cases today, when your donation is comparatively miniscule relative to most causes. But not entirely: one might wish certain billionaires accepted Maimonides’s strictures.

  • It looks better to give to a variety of charities, whereas it generally is better to choose a single best charity. This effect is probably generalizable, but you don’t consider that openness about donations may change what people donate to. (I think secret contributions will be processed more in near-mode; public ones in far-mode. I’m not sure of that supposition, but it bears consideration.)

  • Hyphonetia

    If we give too much, we deprive others of good opportunities of giving effectively. Therefore, we must get our altruistic fix in private, so that more total charity money can be wasted inefficiently without people knowing, which will give more people the illusion that their altruism made a difference. It’s a form of morality porn, really.

  • efalken

    Giving money to big causes has a very poor return: all the unsuccessful ‘Race for the Cures!’   Yet it sure is hard to emulate if you don’t have extra cash, which is why people generally find it annoying. It’s bad enough the rich use charities (eg, Women’s League) as moats to keep the great unwashed from their social circles with the veneer of public spiritedness, basically saying anyone who can burn $5k/year and afford formal wear is in my club.

    I favor Maimonides first level of giving, helping people directly, and also helping people every day through constant practice of politeness, empathy, and gratitude towards my family, friends, and co-workers.  That takes work. 

    It is nice that hospitals, libraries and such are often founded via charities, but these are exceptions.  I doubt 1-877-Cars-4-kids does much for kids.

  • > If anyone tries to call you out for ‘showing off’, politely explain why the pure of heart have no choice.

    A problem with this is that explaining the argument as laid out in this post is long and a little complex. Such explanations don’t tend to go down well in conversation, especially when the situation is a little heated and reputations are on the line (as is the case with an accusation of ‘showing off’). Unless you pitch it perfectly, the argument sounds like weak rationalisation to defend your reputation.

    In a confrontational situation like that, I’d prefer to point out that, regardless of whether I’m showing off, I expect to have saved X human lives today, and I feel really good about that and want to share it. And until the accuser can beat my achievement, they are in no position to judge, because ultimately the question of who is saving more lives totally dominates the question of who is showing off. The accuser must then either retract the accusation, admit they are doing less good in the world than you, or reveal their own charity (which somewhat contradicts their stated values). You’re then free to go on and explain the full argument, and observers are more likely to be receptive to it; they know you’re not just making up a rationalisation to defend your reputation, because you’ve already defended it directly.

    • Sieben

      It is unlikely anyone will openly call you out for “showing off”. Call-outs are anti-social. That’s why my girlfriend’s morbidly obese coworkers talk about how healthy yoghurt is for you, and she just smiles and nods.

      Far more likely is that the conversation will not happen at all, and people will walk around silently judging you as a “show off”.

      The best way to inhibit this is to break the “show off” stereotype. They’ll be thinking you’re full of yourself, seek attention from your peers, and deep down are a shallow person.

      But if they already know you to be reasonable, well adjusted, and serious, it is much more difficult for them to fit you into the stereotype.

      Don’t be beta!

    • accoladeA

      > A problem with this is that explaining the argument as laid out in this post is long and a little complex.

      A concise phrasing proposition:
      As I feel very strongly about this cause, I mustn’t pass up the opportunity of bringing it up at the occasion of my engaging in it. (So, while I admit I would be happy about rising in your esteem for it, I much moreso hope my talking about it may inspire you to consider taking part in this as well.)

  • The effective charity should give donors an option to have a member of the charity staff thank them via social media for their donation.

    Twitter has it’s direct messages. Facebook has the Timeline posts. If the charity sends me a public message thanking me for my donation the risk of being seen as showing off is lower. 

    Directly giving someone that choice when they make a donation also makes the whole process more smoothly.

    • accoladeA

      Great idea!!

  • Sigivald

    Someone who really cared about helping others as much as possible, and
    was making substantial sacrifices to do so, would want to bring up the
    fact whenever they could get away with it, in order to draw attention to
    the merits of their cause and prompt others to join in. Those who ‘give
    privately’, must care more about blindly following harmful social norms
    – or more likely, getting extra admiration for their deeds when people
    ‘accidentally’ discover what they have secretly been up to.

    Or they have a personal, philosophical, or religious motivation (eg. the Jewish and occasionally Christian tradition of anonymous charity) to avoid publicity.

    Or they’re exceedingly dubious of the benefit of attracting people to “join in” knowing that the “joining in” is likely to be slacktivism with no effect.

  • Epiphany

    I am so glad somebody said this. I’ve been thinking the same thing myself. As an altruist, I have felt that need to keep it to myself. But this is my work, this is my life. This is what I want to be doing 24-7. If I don’t tell new people I meet that I’m an altruist, my personality doesn’t make sense. My lifestyle doesn’t make sense. *I* don’t make sense.

    What does a true altruist want more than anything else in life? To spend as much time as you can making a difference in the world. To have an opportunity to be an altruist full-time, doing what makes the best use of my potential, I *have* to advertise that this is what I want to do. Whether I collect donations, work for free, ask for funding, or start a non-profit organization, I have to advertise that this is what I am and what I am going to be doing. Not only do I need an income if I am going to switch to an altruistic career, but I need people to work with – people who complement me and amplify my potential.

    If I heed this taboo around talking about altruism, it will cripple my ability to spend the most time making the most difference.

    I think this is religious in origin, and even in it’s original context, it doesn’t make any sense. There is a quote from the bible that says something like “Those who speak about their good deeds receive their reward here on earth and will not get a reward in the afterlife.” Well, you know what? Doing something in order to get a reward in the afterlife isn’t real altruism anyway. Real altruists care about the world for it’s own sake. That’s the only way to be a real altruist.

    They’ve shown that when people see others behaving altruistically, they behave altruistically, too. I agree that if people see more selfish behavior than altruism, that this is encouraging the wrong behavior and it can result in unchecked arms races to the top of the selfish behavior pile. This is very disheartening for me. I need to see that other people want to do good in the world, or I wither. The dearth of altruism that I see around me creates an unhealthy environment for me which discourages me from being altruistic because when the world seems so selfish I feel like “why bother?”

    I do not want to feel like I give to be taken from, help others only to empower their greed. I want to contribute to the beauty of the human race. For that, I need to see it’s beauty. Regularly. I hope other altruists read this and decide to inspire me. (:

  • Michael Wengler

    A friend of mine in Silicon Valley is interested in giving secretly because he says people who are known to give are approached by many people seeking money.  I don’t think the costs and benefits of this aspect of secrecy have been mentioned in the OP or in the comments.  

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