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9th September 2023

We explore how and why philanthropy informs our judgements about other people’s moral worth.

Recently I listened to the first episode of an intriguing new BBC podcast called “Good Bad Billionaire”. The premise of the programme is that each episode takes an in-depth look at one of the world’s wealthiest people – how they made their money, how they use it, what controversies they have attracted etc – before offering an assessment of whether they are a “good” billionaire, a “bad” one, or just “morally neutral”. One of the criteria used in this assessment is philanthropy, which unfortunately didn’t help the focus of episode 1 (Jeff Bezos), as he scored a big fat zero on this count and was subsequently judged to be a bad billionaire (albeit with a few caveats).

(You can listen to the episode in question HERE).

This got me thinking about the relationship between philanthropy and being “a good person”. Does engaging in seemingly altruistic acts make you a good person? Or conversely, do you have to be a good person in the first place in order to act philanthropically? What role does philanthropy play in improving our own sense of moral self-worth, and what role does it play in shaping other’s views of us? How does wealth affect this relationship? And why might we find ourselves led to argue that someone is “philanthropic, but not a good person”?

These are, of course, not exactly new questions: moral philosophers, writers and artists have for centuries grappled with what it means to lead a “good life” or to be a “good person”. So hopefully we should be able to pilfer some useful insights and guidance from what they have said!

They are clearly not straightforward questions, either. As soon as we start to think about it for even a moment, it becomes apparent that we are going to find ourselves pretty thick in the philosophical weeds from the outset. What, for instance, do we actually mean by saying someone is a “good” person? Can we define this in any sort of objective sense, or is it always to some extent subjective (unless we appeal to some sort of higher authority)? Is goodness defined by character, or solely by actions? And if goodness is a matter of character, are our actions simply products of our upbringing and education, or do we have free will to act against our own character (i.e. be “good despite ourselves”)? What, too, is the relationship between moral worth and likeability?

In this article, I want to consider some of these questions in the context of philanthropy and see what it can tell us about the relationship between giving and being a good person.

Giving vs not giving

Let’s start with what is hopefully a fairly uncontroversial statement: that all other things being equal (or ceteris paribus as philosophers like to say when they are trying to make themselves sound clever), we tend to think that someone who gives to charity or otherwise acts philanthropically has higher moral worth or is more of a “good person” than someone who doesn’t. Now before anyone spits out their tea or starts penning an angry Reddit post, I am clearly not saying that charitable giving automatically makes you a good person – apart from anything else, that would entirely beg the question I am trying to explore in this article. All I am saying at this point is that in the very limited sense in which we have two versions of an individual who are identical in all aspects of thought, character and action – apart from that one has given to charity and the other hasn’t – it seems fairly reasonable to say that we are justified in claiming that the one who gave to charity is slightly more of a good person than the one who didn’t (even if only very marginally). Obviously this doesn’t get us that far in the real world, as we are never going to be making comparisons between otherwise entirely identical individuals, but it does (hopefully) give us a starting point in terms of agreeing that (in isolation, at least) philanthropic acts make a positive contribution to assessments of moral worth rather than a negative one.

I should note here that there are two potential philosophical flies in this ointment: firstly, I am aware that some people take a highly critical view of the role of philanthropy – especially elite philanthropy – within a democracy. These critics may argue that in some cases acting philanthropically actually results in more harm than doing nothing and should therefore be seen as morally negative. This is a valid line of argument, but to get into it in depth would take us off at too much of a tangent so I’m going to park it for now. If you do want to pick up this debate, see me afterwards and I’m sure we can find an appropriate time to argue about it over a suitable beverage.

The other important philosophical point to make here is that whether we think acting philanthropically should be taken as a positive marker of moral worth or not depends to some extent on whether we think philanthropy is a matter of choice or a matter of duty. Some have certainly argued the latter in a fairly strong form – the political philosopher Chiara Cordelli, for instance, argues that:

“Philanthropy should be understood foremost as a duty of reparative justice… Affluent donors should, as a matter of moral duty, exercise no personal discretion when deciding how to give and to whom. Indeed, they should regard their donations as a way of returning to others what is rightfully theirs.”

On this view, wealthy people should give as a matter of duty in a way that meets the requirements of justice. Hence their philanthropy should not be seen as a virtue (since it is not virtuous to do something that duty demands of you). Historically speaking, however, this kind of view is fairly extreme, and it has been much more common to see charitable giving as primarily a matter of choice. Most people would probably agree that there are also duties associated with wealth as part of some sort of social contract, but taxation has usually been seen as the appropriate mechanism for discharging this duty. Any philanthropic giving done from the remaining available wealth once tax has been paid is then deemed to be supererogatory (i.e. above and beyond duty). (NB: for more on the relationship between philanthropy, taxation, choice and duty, check out this WPM article on whether in a ‘ideal’ world there would be no philanthropy, or this Philanthropisms podcast episode on the philosophy of philanthropy).

I’m going to assume for now a fairly middle-ground view that people do have duties as a result of accumulating wealth, and that in the main these are dealt with through taxation. I’m even willing to allow that there may be a portion of philanthropy (especially among the very wealthy) that should also be seen as a matter of duty because the demands of justice are not wholly met by taxation. What I stop short of is the idea that all philanthropy can be viewed in this way; so there is at least some portion of it that can be viewed as a choice and therefore may be said to contribute to our assessment of someone as a good person.

Right, hopefully you are still with me after that little dose of philosophising. Now, up to this point we have mostly been assuming a highly simplified view in which philanthropy is a homogenous mass in which all acts of giving are uniformly good, and no other external factors exist which might affect whether these acts are enough to make someone a good person. But of course neither of these is remotely true. So let’s get on with muddying the waters…


Why are you giving, what are you giving to, and how are you giving?

In the real world, if we want to assess the extent to which someone’s philanthropy contributes to them being a good person, we have to pay some heed to the actual nature of the philanthropy in question: i.e. why are they giving, what are they giving to and how are they giving?

The question of why someone is giving is perhaps the hardest to answer, since ascertaining anyone’s true motivations for doing anything is extremely difficult. We cannot look into another person’s heart in order to know with certainty what drives them, so we have to rely on the available evidence from what they say and do – but that is not necessarily a reliable guide (particularly as people are not in general that good at identifying their own motivations). However, that doesn’t tend to stop assertions about motivation playing a big part in how we judge people when it comes to philanthropically.

Often negative assessments of someone who is on the face of it acting philanthropically hinge on some version of “yes, but they aren’t doing it for the right reason”. Of course, this raises two immediate questions: firstly what do we think the “right” or appropriate motivation for philanthropy is? And secondly, does it actually matter why somebody is performing an act if that act is objectively good? As many scholars have noted, there is a wide variety of factors that influence our decision-making when it comes to giving: whether that is upbringing, religious belief, desire for a “warm glow”, ambition to elevate one’s social status, societal expectation or a host of other potential reasons. If we assume that very few acts of philanthropy qualify as “pure altruism”, and that in most cases there is probably a complex mixture of factors at play when it comes to explaining the act, then who gets to decide which of these motivations counts as “legitimate” or not? If I give £10 a month to a charity out of habit because that is what my parents always did, does that somehow make me more of a good person than someone who gives £1 million to a charity because they want to bolster their own self-image or because they like the thought of how other people will view them as a result? You might well think the answer is yes in that example, but I suspect that for any given case you would be hard pressed to get a roomful of people to agree, as the judgement is clearly so subjective.

The broader question here is should we consider motivation at all when judging the worth of an act of philanthropy, or should we simply judge the act on its own merits (i.e. in terms of the outcomes it delivers or the amount of social good it achieves?) The philanthropy scholar Dwight Burlinghame, for instance, argues in one of his articles that “philanthropy is not the same as altruism” and that we should get away from judging whether an act is philanthropic or not by the yardstick of how close we think the motivations behind it are to pure altruism. If that is the case, then maybe we need to start judging seemingly philanthropic acts solely in extension (i.e. defined by what we can perceive and measure about them objectively in the external world) rather than seeking a definition in intension (i.e. defined by what motivates or gives rise to them)?

This problem with this is that it might well work if we were only talking about judging the philanthropic acts themselves, but the question we are concerned with here is whether those philanthropic acts play a part in determining the moral worth of the person performing them. I guess that if you were a die-hard consequentialist (as Effective Altruists are often characterised, although I know many of them take issue with this portrayal); you might well argue that why someone is giving is irrelevant to the assessment of their philanthropy – all that matters is whether it results in a maximisation of good in the world (or happiness or wellbeing, or some such measure). However, I take it as read that most people are not consequentialist to this kind of degree, so when it comes to assessing whether someone’s philanthropy makes them more of a good person or not, it seems natural to ask at least some questions about why they are giving.

Let’s move now from the “why” to the “what”: does it make a difference to our assessment of whether someone’s philanthropy makes them a good person which particular causes they are giving to? Intuitively I would say that it does. Take the example of two wealthy donors, one of whom gives £1m to a charity dealing with child poverty and the other who gives £1m to their local opera house (and I’m sorry to any arts philanthropists or fundraisers out there who take issue with this hoary old trope, but it works for my purposes here!) Unless you take a pretty hard line on the issue of donor choice, you will probably agree that both are perfectly legitimate. However, I’m also willing to bet that if they had to rank each of these donors in terms of how much their philanthropy makes them a “good person”, most people would choose the person giving to the child poverty organisation. Indeed, in many recent critical analyses of the apparent decline in participation in giving in the US and the resultant over-reliance on elite philanthropy, one of the accusations levelled against big money giving is that a lot of it doesn’t even go towards what most people would understand as “proper charitable causes”, but instead goes disproportionately to causes that reflect the interests of the elite (such as universities and arts institutions).

As with the motivations for giving, it seems as though the causes that donations are directed towards are likely to be a factor in our assessment of how much philanthropy contributes to someone’s moral worth. However, even if we acknowledge that this is the reality, it is far from clear that we could ever systematise it in any way, since this would involve finding some sort of widely agreed ranking of which charitable causes are “better” or “more worthy” than others. And if the highly pluralistic nature of civil society – which reflects the myriad choices people make to support organisations of all kinds – tells us one thing, it is that people really do not agree on which causes are the most valuable or important!

The other thing we need to take into account, apart from the “why” and the “what” of philanthropy, is the “how”. How is somebody doing their giving, and does this have a bearing on whether we think it contributes towards them being a good person or not? I would argue that this is perhaps a bit easier than the other two questions we have considered so far (even if there are still no entirely clear-cut answers!) There might not be any one “right” way of doing philanthropy, but there are plenty of ways of doing it that are clearly wrong (at least to my mind). This is more of an issue for those giving larger amounts (as we shall see a bit further on), since concerns about power imbalances and paternalism tend to be more acute when the gap between donor and recipient is wider. However, at whatever level we are giving the way in which we do it is an important factor in determining the extent to which this giving is seen to contribute to our moral standing. If we give without kindness or empathy, for instance; or expect an unwarranted level of control over the lives of recipients as a result of our gifts; or if we demand an unreasonable level of gratitude or subservience; then others may quite rightly question whether our putatively philanthropic acts are actually a marker of moral worth or instead problematic tools of dominance or even oppression.

What else are you doing (and what are you like)?

We have considered so far some of the ways in which the nature of a person’s philanthropy might have a bearing on our judgment about whether it makes them a “good” person. However philanthropy obviously doesn’t exist in isolation, so when we are making judgments in the real world about someone’s moral worth, we are always taking into account other factors. If you give lots of money to cat charities, for instance, but spend you spare time kicking dogs, you are probably not a good person. Or (to take a less facetious) example, even if your philanthropy is exemplary, if it is known that other facets of your life are more problematic (perhaps because you treat employees badly, or you have a history of abusive relationships, or you have objectionable political views), then observers will probably feel that the positive contribution of your philanthropy to your mora worth is undermined, or even outweighed, by these other considerations.

A specific case of this broader phenomenon, which we see quite often, is when concerns about how a wealthy person has accumulated their money, or about their ongoing business practices, are contrasted with their reputation as a philanthropist. Andrew Carnegie, for instance, is for many the paradigm example of a wealthy person who chose to do good in the world by giving his money away, but critics would point to the extremely problematic way in which he dealt with industrial relations – including using paid strike breakers during the Homestead strikes of 1892, when 300 agents from the Pinkerton Detective Agency engaged in an armed conflict with striking workers that resulted in the deaths of at least ten people. Similarly modern critics might acknowledge that Bill Gates has done a lot of good in the world through his philanthropy, but would argue that this has to be set against the damage he has done through monopolistic business practices, including the landmark antitrust case in 2001 in which the US government accused Microsoft of illegally maintaining a monopoly position in the personal computer market (a case in which Microsoft was initially found guilty, before eventually reaching a settlement after the Court of Appeal partially overturned that original verdict).

Given the nature of capitalism and competition, it is almost impossible for one person to accumulate significant amount of wealth without someone else losing out – and the more money a person has, the more likely it is that we will be able to find something about their wealth creation to take issue with, so perhaps wealthier people are at something of a disadvantage when it comes to assessing whether their philanthropy makes them a good person?

Let’s come back to this question specifically in the next section, and for now consider briefly two other pertinent questions about the wider context of an individual’s life. The first is: if someone is engaging in problematic behaviour in other aspects of their life, is this merely an independent consideration that needs to set against their philanthropy, or is it possible that in some cases their philanthropy may be playing a role in exacerbating this problematic behaviour? There is a phenomenon in social psychology known as “moral licensing” (or “self-licensing”), which is when people allow themselves to indulge in bad habits or behaviour because they have increased confidence in their own self-image as a result of previous morally positive actions. An example often given is when people feel justified in eating unhealthy snacks after engaging in exercise. If philanthropic giving is a morally positive action (as I have argued it generally is), or even if we just perceive it as such, then is there a risk that philanthropy may lead us to act worse in other areas of our lives than we otherwise would, as we have more prior confidence in our self-image as “good people”? The philosopher Patricia Illingworth argues in her book Giving Now: Accelerating Human Rights for All that this might be the case for some donors, which adds an intriguing extra dimension to the question of how we might assess someone’s moral worth in light of their philanthropy. (And you can hear me discuss this with Patricia in this episode of the Philanthropisms podcast).

The other question that interests me about the wider context of someone’s life in relation to their philanthropy, is what about the situation where someone has done nothing particularly wrong but just isn’t very “likeable” or “nice”? Does this have a bearing on our assessment of whether they are a good person? My gut feeling is that it often does, but it probably shouldn’t, since we should be careful to distinguish between being likeable or friendly and being good. I have certainly met plenty of loveable rogues over the years that I liked very much but wouldn’t necessarily categorise as wholly “good” people. Conversely, I have met plenty of philanthropists and campaigners whose actions make them entirely laudable, but whom I have really struggled to warm to as people for one reason or another.

In most cases where we are making judgments about someone’s philanthropy and their moral worth, we are probably not even talking about forming a personal opinion based on meeting them, but rather about making a judgment from afar. This is particularly true for big money donors: most of us are never going to get to meet Bill Gates, Mackenzie Scott or Mark Zuckerberg, so any assessment of what they are like on an individual level as people is going to be entirely based on second-hand information and speculation that might be wildly inaccurate. And again, does this even matter? Is the fact that Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are all known to be slightly abnormal in their one-to-one dealings with other people in one way or another relevant to the question of whether they are “good”, or should we be confining ourselves to other criteria that we can assess more objectively?

It is certainly true that the idea of a philanthropist who cares about humanity as a whole but displays little warmth or empathy in their dealings with actual humans is well-established. In Victorian times for instance, the philanthropic “do-gooder” was a well-known trope, with satirists often poking fun at the notion of earnest yet pompous moral absolutists who tried to impose upon others their ideas about social reform and improvement. W.S Gilbert memorably captured this in his song “A Disagreeable Man”, in which the protagonist proclaims:

“If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:

I’m a genuine philanthropist – all other kinds are sham.

Each little fault of temper and each little social defect

In my erring fellow creatures, I endeavour to correct.

To all their little weaknesses I open people’s eyes

And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;

I love my fellow  creatures – I do all the good I can –

Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!

And I can’t think why!”

In the 20th century, with the rise in rationalistic, “scientific” philanthropy and the proliferation of mega-foundations, there was also a suspicion that a generalised concern for humanity as a whole was not always indicative of any degree of individual empathy or concern, and that in some cases philanthropists were far more comfortable dealing with people in the abstract than with actual individual people. The philosopher Robert Nozick, for instance, noted wryly in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia that:

“Sometimes one encounters individuals for whom the universal eradication of something has very great value while its eradication in some particular cases has almost no value at all; individuals who care about people in the abstract while, apparently, not having such care about any particular people.”

Is it harder for wealthy people to be good?

In what I have said so far, philanthropy has been interpreted pretty liberally to mean “voluntary action for the public good using private means” (which is about as close to an agreed definition as you are likely to find, although plenty will still disagree with it…) I have certainly steered away from any assumption that philanthropy is only about rich people (even if, in reality, this is an assumption that often gets made). In this final section, however, I want to focus in specifically on the philanthropy of the wealthy, because although many of the questions and concerns that we have already considered apply to them in the same way that they apply to anyone else, there are also particular considerations that apply only when we are trying to assess the moral worth of the very rich.

The most fundamental of these is simply “is it possible to be good if you are rich?” This might seem like an unfair question, but the idea that wealth carries with it a moral taint that you need to work hard to overcome has a long history. Let’s not forget that in the Bible, Jesus famously advised his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And in the medieval period, when poverty was still viewed as an inescapable reflection of God’s design, the poor, although to be pitied, were also to be envied to some extent as they were seen as more morally pure and therefore closer to God. This was in fact a major driver of charity for a long time, as giving alms during your lifetime was seen as an important way of reducing the moral burden of your wealth. (And if you weren’t confident that you had done enough by the time you neared your deathbed, you could even purchase an indulgence to ensure that your sins were cleared before you had to face St Peter at the Pearly Gates – which was a lucrative moneyspinner for the mediaeval Catholic church, but also one of the main things that enraged Martin Luther and other reformers and led to the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism).

The Christian church eventually (sort of) got over its disdain for wealth, and certainly for many Protestant groups making money came to be seen not just as OK but as something that was to be actively encouraged. And many other religions never had any such hang-ups in the first place; as long as it was accumulated according to the relevant rules and guidance, wealth was more often than not seen as something that could be a powerful reflection of the glory of a deity and their teachings. But in secular thinking the idea that wealth is morally problematic has certainly persisted, so why is this and how does it affect thinking about philanthropy?

To try to understand this better, let’s break it down into three separate issues: the fact that someone has wealth at all, the fact that they have over a certain level of wealth, and the question of where their wealth has come from. To argue that someone having wealth at all is morally problematic is to take a pretty hardline view of things that goes beyond even the medieval conception outlined above, and I take it that most people don’t hold this kind of view. You might, I suppose, believe that the only acceptable goal for society should be an entirely equal communist utopia in which there is no personal property and therefore no wealth of any kind, and if so that’s fair enough but you also have to accept that it is a minority view (I’m also not entirely sure why you are reading articles on a website about philanthropy, unless it is for the express purpose of getting angry, but that’s by the by…)

Most people who express concerns about wealth are probably OK with the idea that wealth exists and that some people will have more of it than others, but feel uncomfortable with the sheer scale of wealth that some individuals in the world have and what this tells us about levels of inequality in our society. This kind of view is, I think, much more widespread (and indeed, is pretty close to how I feel myself about these issues). It’s certainly hard to read statistics about how the richest 1% of people in the world own half of all the wealth, and not think that something has gone wrong with capitalism and with the way we have chosen to structure our society, which is presumably why a growing body of support has coalesced behind slogans like “every billionaire is a policy failure” and calls for the introduction of wealth taxes.

Not everyone will agree with this of course: there will always be those who argue that no constraints should be placed on individual freedom to create wealth, even if that comes at the cost of massive inequality. However, I don’t think it is going too far out on a limb to suggest that there is at this point at least some mainstream consensus around the idea that wealth in itself is OK, but that its distribution has become problematically unequal. What, then, does this mean in terms of how we asses wealthy people’s philanthropy and their moral worth?

It might mean, for one thing, that we differentiate between different levels of wealth. Is billionaire wealth, for instance, qualitatively different to millionaire wealth, in that it implies a level of inequality that we are not willing to tolerate? Or do we draw the “acceptable level of wealth” line somewhere else?

Another question we need to consider is: given that inequality is clearly structural in nature we clearly can’t hold any individual wealthy person to blame for it – but what can we reasonably expect them to do in response and how does this relate to our assessment of their moral worth? It seems intuitively as though a rich person who refuses to accept there is any issue with inequality, lives an opulent lifestyle and makes no effort to give anything back in philanthropy for instance, would be judged more harshly than a similarly wealthy person who expresses concern about inequality, lives their life more modestly and demonstrates a sense of responsibility towards society through acts of philanthropy. (Although this may not always be the case in reality, as sometimes the very act of trying to do something results in you becoming a target for criticism – perversely even more so than those who choose to do nothing!)

Figures like Mackenzie Scott and Leah Hunt Hendrix, for instance (who I wrote about in a recent article), seem like paradigm examples of people who are undeniably very wealthy but are also willing to acknowledge the concerns this raises and are trying to address them through their philanthropy (and in other ways). Is this enough to allow that we can judge them as “good” people? For some hardline critics I suspect not, as they will always feel that such people are inescapably part of the problem merely by virtue of their wealth. It is hard to know what to do with this, however, (particularly as someone interested in philanthropy reform), since it seems to imply that there is nothing which could be done to alter the judgment that rich people are just “bad”. And the worry about this might be that it will lead even those wealthy people who are minded to embrace radical reform to think “why bother – I might as well just crack open a bottle of Moët and buy a yacht if people are going to castigate me either way.”

Concerns about wealth, of course, are not always abstract structural concerns about the ways in which people have benefitted from unjust capitalism systems. In some cases, they are more about the specific ways in which a particular person or their forebears has accumulated wealth, and the ethical issues this might raise. This takes us into the territory of “tainted money” and its relationship with philanthropy, which I have written and talked about fairly extensively elsewhere (e.g. in this short guide or this podcast episode), so I won’t rehearse all of those arguments here. Suffice it to say that I think we need to take concerns about tainted wealth seriously and they definitely give grounds for viewing the moral worth of some donors much more negatively, but I also don’t think that this is at all straightforward, and that there are large expanses of grey area we need to take into account.

Where does that leave us?

Perhaps even more so than usual for one of these articles, I’m not sure we have really reached any definitive conclusions. But then, since we have essentially been considering “what makes someone a good person”, and at least two thousand years of philosophy and religion have failed to provide a definitive answer to this question, I’m hopeful that you will be willing to cut me some slack on this occasion.

What should be clear, though, is that the relationship between philanthropy and individual moral worth is complicated. And it is also important, since we make judgements all the time about people and whether they are “good people” or not in the context of philanthropy, just as we do in many other aspects of our lives, and this informs our actions (even if we don’t necessarily want to think it does). Perhaps being more self-aware about how and why we make such judgments can help us to take a more considered view of philanthropy and philanthropists, and the role they play in our society?

Here’s hoping, anyway.

Learn from our past to better understand our future.

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