Charity vs. Taxation – What is the Difference?

Rob Gressis,

Release Date
July 30, 2015


Role of Government

What is the difference between paying a tax and donating to a charity? Many Americans support charities ranging from the American Red Cross to PETA, but is it moral to make others donate to a charity of your choice?
Rob Gressis, a professor of philosophy, went on campus at California State University – Northridge, to ask students two questions on philosophy:
Is it moral to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Is it moral for the government to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Do you think it is ethical for individuals or the government to force you to donate to a charity? Watch the video and let us know your thoughts on the relationship between free will, philanthropy, and taxes in the comments below.
Interested in seeing more of Prof. Gressis? Check out the extended version here.

The Morality of Taxation (video): Eamonn Butler discusses the morality of taxation, which he wrote about for the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s report, The Single Income Tax.
The Interactive Great American Taxing Game: Intro (video): Play the interactive game with your host, Professor Art Carden, and answer the age old question: Who Should Be Taxed?
Is Fixing Inequality A Matter of Justice? (video):This Learn Liberty-sponsored debate presents arguments for and against more government assistance to help the poor in the United States.
What Can Adam Smith Teach Us About Tax Policy (article): Evaluate our current tax system against the famous economist’s four maxims of taxation for public funding.

Prof. Gressis: Hi, I’m Rob Gressis. I’m a professor of philosophy at California State University Northridge, where we are right now. We’re doing a little philosophy experiment today. So here’s the first question. Are there any causes, political, charities, anything like that, that you agree with.
Speaker 2: Yeah. I think funding for cancer research is really good.
Speaker 3: PETA. I would donate some money to PETA.
Speaker 4: I like Habitat for Humanity. I think it’s a great cause, building homes for people.
Prof. Gressis: Okay, great. Great answer. Here’s another simple question. Do you think it’s morally okay for you to give your own money or time to Habitat for Humanity?
Speaker 4: Yeah. I think it’s a good cause, so I wouldn’t see why not.
Speaker 2: I think so, yeah.
Prof. Gressis: It’s your own money. You can do with it what you want.
So now here’s another question. Is it moral to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Speaker 5: No.
Prof. Gressis: No. Okay. So we’ll put it no.
Speaker 6: Force is a really harsh word.
Prof. Gressis: Yeah. So you said, “Do it or else I’ll fine you.”
Speaker 6: No.
Prof. Gressis: So would it be okay for you to, say, stick a gun in my face and say, “Give money to the Red Cross or else-”
Speaker 7: No.
Prof. Gressis: “I’ll shoot you in the knee.”
Speaker 7: No.
Prof. Gressis: Okay. So that’s one kind of force. How about just lightly beating me up?
Speaker 7: No.
Prof. Gressis: What about just the threat of force?
Speaker 8: No.
Prof. Gressis: So, why not? Why is it not okay for you to use force to get me to give my money to St. Jude?
Speaker 5: Because you should be doing it off of your own will, not because you’re forced to or obligated to do so.
Speaker 9: It’s essentially extortion.
Speaker 3: I would belittle your autonomy by using force to make you do what I will.
Prof. Gressis: Let’s go to the net board, here. Is it moral for the government to force others to give to the cause of your choice?
Speaker 10: No.
Speaker 11: I think that it is morally okay to do so.
Speaker 12: I think in some cases, yeah.
Speaker 7: I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s right.
Prof. Gressis: Is it okay for the government ever to use force to get people to give money? Like taxes or anything like that.
Speaker 7: Well, hmm, I don’t think so.
Prof. Gressis: Oh.
Speaker 7: I don’t think so.
Prof. Gressis: Doesn’t that make you an anarchist or something?
Speaker 3: I wanted to say yes, given what we understand government is. I just couldn’t say yes. I just followed my logic there and brought it over here.
Prof. Gressis: This collapse argument, it seems like it’s your big thing.
Speaker 13: Yeah.
Prof. Gressis: And if you could be shown that there’s a society that could work pretty well, or as well, or even better, than our current society and it had no taxes, right? Everything happened voluntarily. Then you’d be on board with that.
Speaker 13: Absolutely.
Prof. Gressis: Do you think most people ever even think of this question?
Speaker 3: No, I don’t think so. I think we just blow right by it and if more peoples topped by and saw only this question, I think the tax would be filled.
Prof. Gressis: Maybe it’d all be yeses. When you do this question first and this one, things change. Which is an interesting lesson about the power of philosophy. I think we’re going to leave it there. What have we learned today? Here’s one thing I might want to say. It’s okay for the government to use force when it’s okay for you to use force, but when it’s not okay for you to use force, maybe it’s also not okay for the government to use force. What do you think?