My dissertation applies evolutionary moral psychology to better explain human rights NGOs, by applying the signaling theory of altruism.
Why do human rights NGOs exist? What role do they serve? What is their purpose? The answer to these questions might seem obvious to most people. The simple answer would go something like this: NGOs exist because they have a vision of universal respect for human rights, but they do not believe the current status quo adequately meets this vision, so they organize their activities to effectively realize their vision.
While it may seem obvious that human rights NGOs pursue greater respect for human rights, that is not the full story. The main goal of international human rights NGOs is not to effectively realize their vision for humanity. Rather, I argue that they exist to provide a signaling service to their donors. People donate money to charity, not to maximize their donation’s impact on the world, but to signal that they are good people. Donors purchase a signaling service: they pay for the ability to show the world that they are prosocial, altruistic, compassionate, and politically liberal. When people donate money to international human rights NGOs, they do not seek a “return on donation” in terms of impact. Instead, they seek a return on donation in terms of prestige, status, and reputation within their community. NGOs pursue programs that will help their donors signal rather than those that would most effectively realize the principles of universal human rights.
By drawing on decades of research on evolutionary moral psychology, the evolution of altruism, and signaling theory, I generate many surprising, new hypotheses and provide previously missing explanations about human rights NGOs, their effectiveness, accountability, and the motivations of themselves and their donors. My theory offers a valuable contribution to the study of NGOs by (1) explaining puzzling features of NGOs, and (2) generating a paradigmatic shift in the study of NGOs, which will contribute new research programs, theories, and a much-needed connection to other fields, including psychology, biology, economics, sociology, philosophy, and public policy.