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The Irrationality League

Mark Easton | 12:38 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Irrationality League is a charity pledged to support those who wish to act unreasonably, foolishly, rashly and illogically. It is the standard-bearer for impulsives everywhere.

Charity wrist bands


Since the Enlightenment, dreary realism has come to dominate our thinking: ideas must make sense; policy must be evidence-based; sound reasoning must guide our actions.

But what, says the Irrationality League, of the spontaneous, the madcap, the impetuous? We need to fight for the right to be reckless.

I came up with the idea of a charity called the Irrationality League at an event at the RSA last night.

Martin Brookes, chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital, gave a provocative speech [168KB PDF] in which he argued that donors to "good causes" are often "fickle, casual and lazy". They give money to organisations without rationale or proper thought.

"Some charitable causes are just 'better', and more deserving, than others", he argued. "But donors in the main don't behave rationally or morally. Donors give to feel good, rather than to have an impact."

He said that donors need help to "give well" and proposed a system of worthiness ratings so givers can see instantly how 'good' or 'moral' the cause really is.

"Something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs could be useful," Mr Brookes suggested. "This begins with physiological needs such as food and water; rising through to safety, belonging, esteem, and ending with self-actualisation (such as creativity)."

To make his point he compared a charity which saves human lives with one which saves rare Stradivarius violins.

I wondered what this hierarchy of charitable needs might look like and asked Mr Brookes to rank this range of causes:

1. Learning
2. Planet Earth
3. Human suffering
4. The arts
5. Endangered donkeys

You and I may have an instinctive view on what is the most moral cause in this list. But these are subjective ideas. How does one compare a campaign to save a beautiful object with another to save a donkey? Both have public benefit.

Sometimes, as Mr Brookes pointed out, charities can have contradictory purposes. The British Humanist Association and the Catholic Trust took very different views on the Pope's recent visit to Britain. Was one more 'moral' than the other?

"Despite their apparent conflicts, each organisation could sit comfortably within the higher echelons of Maslow's hierarchy without us having to choose between them, so long as they addressed the same level of needs. Donors could simply make their choices subject to which charitable approach or mission they preferred."

The challenge in the speech is to the simplistic notion that "charidee", as Smashie and Nicey used to say, is a homogenous good. One of the earliest examples of a charity in England, Mr Brookes reminded his audience last night, raised funds to purchase wood with which to burn witches. Another, only last century, distributed cigarettes to wounded soldiers.

Is there a difference between a donation to a charity which gives certain benefits in return for the money - special access to an art gallery, say - against a donation for which there is no reward except a warm glow?

Should we draw a moral distinction between dropping coins into a collecting tin and investing in Social Impact Bonds with the possibility of a profit if a public benefit is achieved?

I am a believer in logic and reasoning in the choices we make and I doubt somehow that my Irrationality League would be granted charitable status, but there is an issue around the freedom of people to give money impulsively without criticism for being "fickle, casual and lazy". Isn't there?


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