Blog post

Whose fault is it? Attributing responsibility for solving social problems

8 min read
17 Feb 2015

Some of my previous posts have discussed how we come to identify and define social problems. Once we have identified and defined them, we then need to decide who should solve them.

A recent survey reported in the Guardian can help us understand how we go about doing that.

The survey was carried out by the Charities Aid Foundation and appears to show that UK donors respond much more willingly to natural disasters than to war or conflict. This trend appears more prevalent amongst older donors than younger ones.

It might not be obvious at first glance, but this finding can shed useful light on how we attribute responsibility for problem solving.

The survey's main finding is fascinating, but it does not make clear on the surface why the attitudes it identifies are held. We can suggest a couple of plausible reasons.

Why do people care more about natural disasters than war or conflict?

One possibility is that the emotional impact of natural disasters is greater than that of other issues because we could potentially be affected by the same phenomenon, wherever in the world we live. We can therefore empathise more readily with those suffering. Their emotional impact and their sudden appearance also lend themselves well to media headlines.

By contrast, other problems have complicated local contexts which, while difficult to understand, suggest that we're probably OK as long as we stay home. A local war is unlikely to affect us unless we actively seek to get involved. Poverty in a distant country isn't something that's going to cause us harm. In essence, this explanation is about self-interest – we help people out when we think we might one day need helping out ourselves in similar circumstances.

I think there's some truth to this explanation. But it's easy to come up with counter-examples. Some natural disasters are mostly local or regional occurrences (like hurricanes or droughts), affecting some parts of the world more than others – but that doesn't necessarily affect our willingness to donate to relief efforts.

A second plausible explanation is to do with human agency. Natural disasters are not caused by us – there is very little that we can do about them (at least in the short-term; long-term, human impacts such as on climate change are important). Problems that have an obvious short-term human cause, on the other hand, must surely be soluble – if we can provoke them, then we can stop them happening.

This is the argument that the Guardian article makes, quoting an official from the Charities Aid Foundation as saying: '...There seems to be a perception that the victims of human-caused tragedies are less worthy recipients of their donations.'

Without wanting to simplify too much (our motivations for charitable giving are many and complex), I would suggest that this question of human agency or responsibility is key to understanding how we react to these different kinds of charitable cause.

This is where working out who should solve particular problems comes in. If we accept that the degree of human responsibility involved is important in determining charitable donations to a particular problem, then it's a short step then to suggest that we're more likely to donate to the solution of problems where there is no-one obviously placed to solve it themselves.

Turning that around, if we can say that a particular problem is someone else's fault, we're more likely to leave them to solve it.

Agency, responsibility, and solving social problems - a look at immigration

Adopting this perspective can shed some interesting light on our approaches to existing complex social problems – immigration, to continue our theme, is a good example.

In its most basic terms, immigration is about people moving from one country to another in search of some advantage – maybe they want physical security, a better job, to be with their family, etc. Which means that people only move if they have a reason to do so. That reason might be anything from conflict to poverty to a dearth of sufficiently attractive jobs and so on. Immigration is therefore a response to, or symptom of, underlying issues.

Another key aspect of immigration is the degree to which attitudes towards it differ so widely. The debate around immigration – particularly in a net-recipient country like the UK – is fiercely polarised.

One reason that might be the case is because attitudes towards the the conditions that motivate people to migrate differ. In particular, I think they probably differ with regard to who we think ought to be responsible for addressing each of those issues.

If we extrapolate from the survey findings, we should expect that we are more welcoming towards immigrants who are fleeing natural disaster than we are those who are fleeing conflict. Adopting the human agency explanation, that would be because there's nothing you can do about a natural disaster – it's no-one's fault.

We should also expect that we are generally more receptive to refugees (from whatever cause – natural or manmade) than we are to economic migrants – because the former seem to have less control over their circumstances than the latter. When we get to economic motivations I suspect there is a general tendency to think that there's nearly always something you could have done – worked that bit harder, searched more for a better job, or even just elected a government more competent at creating jobs in the first place.

I don't know if either of these predictions are true, by the way – I'll leave that for others more expert than I am. But the second, in particular, would be an interesting finding since it would support the human agency argument. Plenty of refugees come from situations that are not particularly salient in the media, which means that if our attitudes towards them do differ from our attitude towards other groups of migrants then there must be some other reason at play.

You might have spotted at this point that I've been a bit inconsistent in how I've defined agency. Initially I was implicitly talking about governments and the extent to which they could be expected to solve a particular problem. Now, with immigrants, I'm talking about the individuals feeling the effects of a problem in some way.

This nuances the idea of human agency somewhat. It reveals an important point – we don't just assume that whoever caused a problem should be responsible for solving it. Sometimes we'll place that responsibility elsewhere, at least in part. An example is someone who migrates looking for a better job. We might (hypothetically) think that the government of the country of origin caused the lack of decent jobs there. But equally we might think that the individual concerned could have done something towards addressing that problem – such as searching harder or being more entrepreneurial.

In other words, there are three kinds of people to whom we can attribute responsibility for solving a problem: those who caused it in the first place, those affected by its consequences, and those who observe it from a distance (i.e., in this scenario, us).

Whose feet we decide to lay a particular problem at depends in part on the degree of agency involved. If it's no-one's fault, it makes sense to help out. If it looks like the government should have done something, then they probably ought to. If the people caught up in the problem could do something about sorting it out, maybe we should expect them to.

Obviously this is a substantial simplification. But if we all agreed about the agency involved in particular problems we would all presumably agree (or at least agree more than we do) about immigration. There are many reasons why we do not, but I would argue that one reason is our disagreement about the agency attached to the different issues underlying immigration.

In other words, when it comes to any particular cause of immigration – whether that be conflict or the desire for a bigger salary – we disagree about who exactly is responsible for solving the problem.

When it comes to controversial categories like economic migrants in particular, there is likely a spectrum of opinion about the degree to which an individual really had 'no choice' but to try to come to the UK for work. If you think there was more they could have done to find work in their home country you're probably less likely to welcome them into this one. Correspondingly, if you think they were a victim of circumstance and had no option but to migrate, you're probably more likely to receive them with open arms.

This disagreement relates to a much more fundamental issue – the degree to which we think of ourselves as controlling our own actions as opposed to finding them determined by our surrounding circumstances.

At this point I'll step back, lest we risk getting sucked into larger philosophical questions. The important point is that the ways in which we go about addressing particular problems (or not) have a lot to do with how we attribute responsibility for solving those problems.

How does this apply to effective giving?

When it comes to charitable giving, we may find that one key factor in determining the causes commonly thought of as appropriate to donate to is what we assume about the human agency involved – who we think of as responsible for addressing those causes. Giving money to a particular charity is in effect to say: 'I think I am in some way responsible for addressing this problem.'

Obviously the responsibility question is not the only factor involved. But it can shed light on certain patterns of donation which aren't necessarily inevitable. For example, it can suggest one reason why (in the UK at least) our charitable priorities revolve around medical research, children and animals, while we give quite a bit less, for example, to the homeless. The first three involve groups which are perceived to have little control over their circumstances, while the narrative around homelessness is less clear cut and often attributes some amount of blame to the individual concerned.

If this idea is correct, then it should inform how we go about influencing people to donate to one cause or another. The effective philanthropy community often argues in terms of how influential a given donation can be. That's a very powerful argument, but it assumes a willingness to give – the question it addresses is how to leverage that willingness.

What it tends not to address is how people's preferences for different charitable causes are affected by other factors – of which the attribution of responsibility is one. You're unlikely to be able to convince someone to contribute to addressing a particular problem unless you can persuade them that there's no-one else at whose feet we can lay the responsibility for solving it.

So, next time you're trying to persuade people of the value of a particular cause, it might be worth explaining why they should feel some responsibility for solving that problem in the first place.