The Moral Arithmetic of Humble Bundle

Someone comments on yesterday’s Humble Bundle post:

 Hmmm, if I’ve pledged to donate 10% of my income to charity, and I select an effective charity (eg. Against Malaria Foundation) as the 100% recipient on my humble bundle, should I morally count that as part of my charitable donations?

It doesn’t count for taxes or company matching. And on a practical level, I think that if $12 is a high enough percentage of your donation budget it’s worth the accounting overhead, you are probably not in a donation season of your life. Focus on savings and investing in yourself.

But maybe the overhead is cheap for you, plus Someone specifically asked about morality. And that depends on what kind of morals you’re working with.

If you’re strictly utilitarian, I think you can count the sale price of the bundle as equivalent to a donation . The fact that you got something out of it is irrelevant to the good it does.

If you’re a virtue ethicist I think it doesn’t count, because you got something out of it besides bed nets.

I’m not a strict utilitarian or virtue ethicist. I think I have an obligation to give ~10% of my income because my ability to earn that income is in part based on things I didn’t earn, like being born in America with a high IQ to parents with money and a love of education. The “luck tax” framing is why I get to deduct the costs of being unlucky (e.g. medical bills) from the income used to calculate required donations. Under this framework I also don’t count Humble Bundle purchases as donations, because I’m getting something out of it.

But I only buy bundles I would happily buy without the charitable inducement. You could argue that the difference between what I’m willing to pay commercially and what I actually pay is a donation. This is relevant right now as the current bundle is attractive to me for the Crusader Kings 2 expansion, Stellaris, and maybe Cities in Motion 2* but not quite $12 attractive, especially because missing expansions for a game I own distresses me far out of proportion to the actual expected value of the expansion. However, “I totally wouldn’t have bought this except it goes to charity” seems like an easy rule to game.

There’s another moral issue though, which is paying the developers and Humble Bundle for their work. Paying the developers feels least pressing for cases where they’re using HB as a lure in an attempt to get you to buy more, but I think it’s important when people put complete games in a bundle. Humble Bundle itself has costs, and I think it’s only fair to cover those. You might think saving babies from malaria is obviously so much more important it doesn’t matter, but that’s an overfeeding from the commons that prevents us from having nice things if it spreads. I like having nice things.

I’d feel differently if HB or the developer chose the charity themselves; that’s paying them via an indirect route. But when you’re picking the charity, it doesn’t count towards paying the devs.

So I think on a moral level you get to count the difference between what the games are worth to you and what you actually pay (but don’t inflate your price to donate, that’s just dumb), unless you’re a utilitarian, in which case you can count the whole thing. But if it’s actually worth the mental overhead to you, probably focus on building a savings cushion and improving yourself rather than donating at all.

*I love the concept but found Cities in Motion 1 disappointing

One thought on “The Moral Arithmetic of Humble Bundle”

  1. >If you’re strictly utilitarian, I think you can count the sale price of the bundle as equivalent to a donation . The fact that you got something out of it is irrelevant to the good it does.

    What about the Humble Bundle decisionmakers? Do they get to count the effect of allowing buyers to choose how much of the sales price to allocate to the charity of their choice? If not, that seems like a weirdly nonconsequentialist utilitarianism. If so, then counting the full sale price is double-counting, which leads to incorrect rank-ordering of actions.

Comments are closed.