The question you ask–when do acts of charity produce “slacking” later on?–connects nicely with a classic debate about altruism. Dan Batson is a strong partisan for one side of this debate, but describes both sides well in a classic paper. On the one hand, people might truly care about the welfare of others: a state Batson calls empathy (though that word means different things to different people, which we can discuss another time). If your actions reflect empathy, then one good deed shouldn’t produce later laziness; your motive to help should remain as long as help is needed. On the other hand, people might use altruism instrumentally as a means to more personal ends. In that case, their helping should be flimsier, collapsing under many circumstances. Consider someone on her way to work who passes a homeless person. This commuter may feel empathy and give in an effort to help the homeless person, or she may simply feel uncomfortable, and give in an effort to reduce her distress. Importantly, in the second of these cases, a selfish action–like avoiding the homeless person altogether–serves the same purpose of reducing discomfort. A little known study from the 70s bears out this “geometry of avoidance.” Experimenters set up a donation booth on a university campus and measured how close to it people walked. Students walked relatively closely to the booth if it was unmanned, but walked in a larger circle (maintaining their distance) if someone was at the booth to ask for help, and an even larger circle if the person sitting at the booth was handicapped. Presumably these circles traced students’ unwillingness to put themselves in a situation where failing to give would be uncomfortable.

This leads me to another, closely related question: should we care about the reasons behind people’s altruism, or just care that they act altruistically? A student of mine recently presented some work on “competitive altruism:” a simple but compelling idea. In essence, it describes cases in which people act altruistically not out of empathy, but as a way to display their largesse–both material and psychological. You and I know that Larry David covered this topic better than anyone, but lots of psychologists have thought about it too. For instance, a recent study demonstrated that people who are made to desire high social status buy more “green” products, presumably as a form of social display.

Competitive altruism is pretty petty, and we might not count it as moral behavior at all. But it can still benefit people. The person who gives $1,000 to a charity in order to be listed as a “gold donor” has still helped people with his money. In fact, he’s helped exactly as much as the person who gives the same amount out of true empathy. So should charitable organizations or individuals designing policy care about the intention, or just the act? This strikes me as paralleling some religious debates, where some faiths (Catholicism come to mind) care only about one’s good deeds, whereas others (lots of Protestant denominations) care about one’s intent. So, I put it to you: if you had a choice between widespread altruism supported by petty psychological causes, or much less altruism, all of which was “genuine,” which would you pick?