article: Charity, Philanthropy, Human Rights

Charity, Philanthropy, Human Rights
[ July 14, 2006 ]

        I was in my mid teens. During a discussion with friends, the subject drifted to poverty, and I said something to the effect that charitable giving was a moral obligation.

      “Giving to the needy is not a question of charity,” someone in the group objected. “People have a right to a decent standard of living.”

      I instantly grasped the point of the remark, which made me look at poverty in an unaccustomed light. Ironically, my interlocutor was a young man who intended to enter the seminary that fall. Though charity had been traditionally a distinctive concern of the Church, his views were, I thought, closer to the true spirit of Christianity in the best sense of the term.

      The above came to mind when I read on a number of websites commenting on the Gates-Buffett pledge that the notion of philanthropy is essentially demeaning and degrading. Some bloggers even went to the length of talking about Gates’s and Buffett’s “ill-gotten gains” and compared them to latter-day Robin Hoods.

           Indeed, a line of argument can be advanced maintaining that an equitable social order would not abide such disparities as exist between the ultra-rich and the rest of the population in this country, particularly as long as the latter include some who are deprived of basic necessities; a line of argument insisting on the need for social legislation—instead of charity or philanthropy—to extend health coverage, help the homeless, and improve the educational system. According to this logic, the fact that some of the wealth will trickle back is not an excuse and will not suffice to eliminate society’s ills in any case.

        At the memorable New York Public Library press conference, Gates, answering a question, said that it was his goal to provide the same educational opportunities to everyone as he and those on the dais with him had enjoyed. Sincere as his response may well have been, for some reason it reminded me of a story told by a Western journalist who visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s. He was traveling on an overcrowded train where the passengers were huddled in freight cars, while a luxury compartment with plush lounging chairs was reserved for a top Politbureau member. “Is this your  socialist justice?” the reporter wanted to know. “You don’t understand,” replied the official. “The goal of the Party is to raise everyone to my level.”

     The parallel with the Soviets is admittedly remote, and I do not wish to dispute that persons like Gates or Soros can do an appreciable amount of good that makes a real difference in the world because, first of all, they have laudable aims; they have an exceptional grasp of what is needed; and they can put their talent and extraordinary organizing skills in the service of their ideals. They will, to be sure, also grab the headlines owing to their celebrity status and the vast amounts they disburse. The recognition goes to the stars. Yet all the foundation money put together is just a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the sum of individual contributions made by ordinary Americans in much, much lower income brackets. And these latter—unglamorous—philanthropists, even when they have the best intentions, often lack both the knowledge of where their money will yield the greatest benefit and who can be trusted to dispense it honestly. They will be easily duped by charlatans; their sacrifices may be wasted or actually end up causing harm.

     Let us pause to reflect for a minute. Nearly all I have stated so far I have expressed in pecuniary terms. Unsurprisingly so, since in our society value and money tend to be treated as mutually convertible. Even volunteer work is assigned its dollar equivalent by organizations that track charity and philanthropy.

     Inevitably, in such a commercially oriented setting philanthropy becomes also business. Well-paid professionals manage fund drives. Any number of organizations give counsel on how to give. Ever since the 1930s, tax exemptions have exerted an influence on charitable giving. In a strange twist, nonprofits advertise themselves affirming that you can boost your income by donating to them. “Increase your income, receive a charitable contribution deduction, and avoid capital gains taxes,” they declare. Google lists a host of websites devoted to the subject of avoiding capital gains taxes by giving stock to foundations.

     There are over a million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Scores of them serve worthwhile causes. Albeit technically correct, “nonprofit” is a misleading designation though for corporations that have sales departments, charge exorbitant fees, and are intent on making money in every conceivable way to maintain the not infrequently extravagant lifestyles of their personnel, especially their leading executives. More important yet, many nonprofits turn out to be outright frauds. And the boards of directors, governors, etc. of the ostensibly most austere, altruistic, and idealistic-sounding nonprofits increasingly get staffed with members of the business community as commerce is gradually tightening its grip on every aspect of American life, including education, science, and scholarship.

     A particularly conspicuous and blatant penetration of the mercenary attitude relates to the sphere of religion. There is a type of devotional approach that focuses well-nigh exclusively on fund raising. The typical televangelist I see is a vociferous, crude, and garish person utterly devoid of spirituality as I conceive of that concept. In my eyes a precious part of the religious impulse is associated with meditation, a sense of peace and harmony, the ability to rise above the contingent, the ephemeral and accidental flux of humdrum everyday existence. Frankly, the very essence of television, which hinges on the fleeting image, and especially its Hollywood brand, which compulsively demands action and suspense, is opposed to the religious sentiment in any event. But the bottom line of many programs that are blasphemously referred to as “inspirational” is invariably the greenback. While televangelists never tire of repeating the word “Christian,” they forget that the person from whom the name of the religion they claim to represent derives is credited with the phrase, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

     If we accept that all human beings are equal and entitled to certain conditions, as it indeed is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, charity and philanthropy may be regarded as among the possible tools for remedying social injustice. The question then arises, what is the optimum method for the equitable and wise allocation of resources? One obvious answer to this has been: an open, democratic, and clean government. But the last couple of decades have put severe strains on the classic welfare state whose most successful models used to be exemplified by the Scandinavian countries. Socialist parties around the world have revised their programs and policies to make concessions to the market economy and private initiative. Two critical areas that seem to overburden even liberal democratic states that are relatively free from corruption are the aging population and the health system.

     In the United States, there has been a tradition of generous private giving. This has sometimes been viewed as originating in Puritanism, although—consistent with the belief in predestination—the protestant faith tends to regard economic success as a sign of divine approval, and consequently poverty as the lack of it. Perhaps it is more accurate to associate the tradition with the spirit of freedom and less reliance on the state than was customary in Europe characterizing the early settlers. Since religious donations constitute nearly half the amount contributed by the independent sector, the high church affiliation and attendance figures—as well as the lack of state funding and the existence of small congregations that depend on their members for their subsistence—in this country, at least as compared to Europe, also have to do with the prevalence of private charity. The professional, business-style approach to soliciting donations helps the accrual of private charitable spending as well.

     Theoretically, the principle of “from everyone according to his ability to everyone according to his need” is unassailable, but competition being deeply ingrained in human nature the profit motive may be a necessary engine of development and thereby the key, at least in the short to medium term, to the economic well-being of all. Self-styled socialist systems that wind up as dictatorships rife with state corruption represent a well-known blind alley. The danger of bias and dependence in allotting resources cuts both ways, for on the one hand delicate checks and balances are required to ensure equity in a centrally administered situation, while on the other hand private funding—of, for example, education and medical research—can result in partiality and loss of integrity. The last word has not been said on the subject.

    It was in order to avoid the negative aspects of charity and philanthropy and to emphasize that all of us are entitled to certain conditions and benefits that the theory of human rights gained increasing prominence over time. The “rights” approach is however not without its possible pitfalls either. Numerous contemporary philosophers take a skeptical view of rights if they are regarded as conferred on humans by absolute authority or given a priori and as inalienably possessed. But such an interpretation is not essential, and generally the term “human rights” is a valid and useful one.

Both the terms “charity” and “philanthropy” have frequently been employed to refer to attitudes and practices that are indeed degrading and demeaning to humans. Charity as almsgiving to the poor tends to be humiliating and condescending and negates the premise of equality. Even philanthropy proffered to increase the well-being of humankind can be merely palliative in outcome and hypocritical in intention, hiding the need for fundamental reform. Yet they have etymologies and current usages denoting simply benevolence, good will, love of humankind. It is noteworthy that in the Vulgate caritas was often used where the Greek had agape, spiritual (not sexual), selfless love. And good will is the precondition of moral action.

L. S.

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