Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ethics of billionaire philanthropy

Sidebar: My previous posts linking to Peter Singer's writings are here and here.

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Peter Singer on the ethics of billionaire philanthropy [he answers readers' questions here]:

Last June the investor Warren Buffett took a significant step toward reducing those deaths when he pledged $31 billion to the Gates Foundation, and another $6 billion to other charitable foundations. Buffett’s pledge, set alongside the nearly $30 billion given by Bill and Melinda Gates to their foundation, has made it clear that the first decade of the 21st century is a new “golden age of philanthropy.” On an inflation-adjusted basis, Buffett has pledged to give more than double the lifetime total given away by two of the philanthropic giants of the past, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, put together. Bill and Melinda Gates’s gifts are not far behind. [...]

Philanthropy on this scale raises many ethical questions: Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that such momentous decisions are made by a few extremely wealthy individuals? And how do our judgments about them reflect on our own way of living?

Let’s start with the question of motives. The rich must — or so some of us with less money like to assume — suffer sleepless nights because of their ruthlessness in squeezing out competitors, firing workers, shutting down plants or whatever else they have to do to acquire their wealth. When wealthy people give away money, we can always say that they are doing it to ease their consciences or generate favorable publicity. It has been suggested — by, for example, David Kirkpatrick, a senior editor at Fortune magazine — that Bill Gates’s turn to philanthropy was linked to the antitrust problems Microsoft had in the U.S. and the European Union. Was Gates, consciously or subconsciously, trying to improve his own image and that of his company?

This kind of sniping tells us more about the attackers than the attacked. Giving away large sums, rather than spending the money on corporate advertising or developing new products, is not a sensible strategy for increasing personal wealth. When we read that someone has given away a lot of their money, or time, to help others, it challenges us to think about our own behavior. Should we be following their example, in our own modest way? But if the rich just give their money away to improve their image, or to make up for past misdeeds — misdeeds quite unlike any we have committed, of course — then, conveniently, what they are doing has no relevance to what we ought to do.


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    At my own level, I try to give a little bit. I saw many of similar background who fared worse than me and I think that there is an element of luck involved and what little one gives may give somebody a break. By the way, during this seaon some banks tranfer money with less charges or no charges ( I was just told by Commonwealth Bank here that until 4th January, if we transfer the money ourselves using internet, there are no charges). Wishing you all happy holidays and a happy new year,
    Swarup and Jhansi