In America, where categorization becomes easy because there are two main political parties, it is well-known that right-wing people donate more to charity. This makes sense; people who believe in smaller government should be willing to help their fellow man rather than relying on government to tax and redistribute wealth. Yet right-wing people also espouse individual initiative, so why donate more to charity when recipients have not earned it? 

A new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research explains this seeming inconsistency and suggests that moral identity decreases donations when recipients are deemed to be responsible for their plight.

Across four studies, the authors asked for donations to various charities benefiting people who donors may believe are responsible for their current situation (for example, a community health center that treats people who cannot hold a steady job due to drug or alcohol use). Results showed that not all study participants perceived making a donation to these particular types of charities as moral. Participants who placed a high importance on their own moral identity indicated they were less likely to donate money.

However, when asked to recall their own past immoral behavior, study participants could more easily take the perspective of recipients receiving assistance from the charities and felt higher levels of empathy. As a result, the likelihood of monetary donations from these participants increased.

“Our research examines how moral values of empathy and justice have distinct influences on people when they are asked to make donations benefiting others whose choices have led them to an unfortunate place in life,” write authors Saerom Lee (University of Texas at San Antonio), Karen Page Winterich (Pennsylvania State University), and William T. Ross Jr. (University of Connecticut).

“Our results can help non-profits be more cautious when describing the causes and beneficiaries they are supporting. Donation appeals should specify or imply low responsibility of the charity recipients or, alternatively, seek to elicit empathy to increase donations,” the authors conclude. “Rather than appealing to a broader spectrum of moral values, messages should focus on the moral values of empathy and benevolence.”

Citation: Saerom Lee, Karen Page Winterich, and William T. Ross Jr. “I'm Moral, but I Won't Help You: The Distinct Roles of Empathy and Justice in Donations.” Journal of Consumer Research: October 2014.