Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Philanthropist

Supporting the unfortunate is among the greatest of virtues. We call him magnanimous who is of such great stature that he can give liberally from himself, and we call liberal who freely helps his fellow men. We call those free with kind words and encouragement benevolent, compassionate those freely sharing in the suffering of others. Of this approbation we heap upon the friends of mankind, no greater name is there than that of philanthropist. Few words carry such an aura of beneficence, of untarnished humanism and love for others. It is certainly not a word I ever had cause to consider finely nor one I ever expected to well up offense in my heart. Yet I found myself so aggravated by the arrogance of a Jeopardy contestant who had the temerity to have herself introduced on the game show as a philanthropist.

First, you cannot declare yourself a philanthropist. Like being called by a nickname, the process of being referred to as a philanthropist is a passive one. Declaring the motivation of your work and the fruits of your actions beneficent is like calling yourself a genius: a greater sign of pretense than devotion. This might seem illogical, for if one helps others and one loves others then one is a philanthropist, no? No. Let us consider an example. If you are a doctor, lawyer, or physicist, then you are objectively so, because those are occupations. If you chiefly practice medicine, then you are a doctor, to be sure. Yet love is not an occupation, but rather a state of character, only partially demonstrated in action. Now while we all have opinions of our characters, it is not generally considered proper to advertise them or to insist that others assume our self-knowledge is judged with even mind. to paraphrase Mencken, we must trust that a man who considers himself wise is truly wise only in the way we agree that his children are smart, his wife pretty, and his house impressive.

Of course the modern is reluctant to put others in charge of defining him. My art is art whether or not it is beautiful. I am free no matter my vices and smart no matter the gaps in my learning. And so on and on. It is no small irony that for all of our aggressive devotion to freedom, democracy, and egalitarianism, we refuse to suffer the free, unadulterated opinions of others to bestow honors. So we forbid such judgments and declare ourselves professional practitioners of virtue.

Second, the woman on Jeopardy! was not giving away her own money like Cimon of Athens [Latin], the Athenian general who for the good of the people set no guards on his gardens so the fruits could be enjoyed freely by the people, would give away the cloak from his back, and daily invited to dinner any he saw in the forum. Rather our philanthropist-contestant worked to give away someone else's money, an exchange of course arranged through a non-profit.

A "non-profit what?" I like to persist with my unfortunate interlocutors that insist on excising the word company from the appellation of their employer. Of course such cherubs don't work for businesses, companies, or–perish the thought!–corporations, off of which you can simply feel the filthy profits oozing. No, they are the friends of humanity, working for non-profits.

Yet all human activity is meant to have a result, and the result is the profit. Likewise most human activity has two results, one for the party to whom one renders a service or good and one for the person performing the service or offering the good. I teach, and the result is that my students learn (and have I mentioned that my house is impressive?) and that I have money. Now the wily non-profit giver of charity–charioteer?–will tell me I am no lover of man because I charge for my services, to which I will reply with approbation and affirmation. I will also contend that neither are they philanthropists. If I am not a philanthropist because I don't give my goods gratis, then they are not philanthropists because they don't give their goods at all, they give someone else's. Worse, in fact, they are paid for their services on top of the fact they merely give away the goods of others.

Now if your supposed philanthropist is very clever–so clever in fact that I've never actually heard any make this argument–they'll say that even so, they are virtuous because they don't charge their clients for their services, but are paid by employers who have large reserves of capital. To this statement I pose the following questions. Why is it charitable for, say, Bill Gates to make tens of billions of dollars selling Microsoft Office for $300 and then give away a great deal of his profit? Is that any more virtuous an act than if he sold MS Office for $49 and made it affordable to more people, leaving those people more money to spend, perhaps charitably? Why is acquiring and then disposing of excess, even charitably, better than only acquiring what you need in the first place and leaving others their resources?

Moreover, why is he who gains, keeps, and gives as much as he pleases on a large scale a philanthropist any more than he who gains, keeps, and gives on a small scale? What about he who foregoes wealth? Consider a doctor–and before socialized medicine this was common–who treats many patients for free. Is he less a philanthropist because he disposes of his excess time in service, rather than earning as much money as he can and then giving it away?

Third, is anyone involved in charitable work in any way to be called a philanthropist? Even if we acknowledge that whoever makes or dispenses the charitable giving is a philanthropist, how do we regard the people who help them? Is the secretary at the charitable business a philanthropist? The janitor?

Finally, there is the question of the good itself. I certainly don't approve of the many causes to which people earnestly donate, nor do I expect such donors to approve of my own modest giving.

By this essay I have not tried to discredit charitable giving or suggest that there is no such thing as a philanthropist. Instead, I hope to have shown that there are many ways of bringing about good and that it is often hard to elevate one beyond another. The world of charitable giving is, in my observation, more a showcase of right-thinking than a proof that charitable giving is the surest sign of virtue and the shortest path toward bring about the good. The philanthropist may as likely resemble Cimon as he may seem like a later Athenian, Timon, who after giving away all of his wealth in frivolous generosity, bitterly declares–in the words of Shakespeare–to his steward:
I never had honest man about me, I all I kept were Knaves, to serve in meat to Villains.
The fashionable philanthropist who gives only to the cause of the day and the philanthropist who gives less for concern for the poor than for praise both do good deeds, however, but do they do so from love? Are they philanthropists in the fullest sense possible? It would seem that a taxonomy of giving eludes us, as does a proper definition of the philanthropist. Prudence would seem to indicate only that one ought to acquire and dispose of all things in the right degree, at the right time, toward the right end, and from the right motive, and that we should dispense with the titles and grandstanding.

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