What Gives with Philanthropy? The pitfalls of the mega-wealthy’s donations as a path to equality, according to philosophers

When Jeff Bezos announced in early 2020 that he was pledging $10 billion of his own money to “fight climate change,” he might not have anticipated the uproar that ensued. Perhaps he wondered: why are people so upset that I am voluntarily giving away my money for the good of the planet?

Climate activists, for one, denounced the hypocrisy of the Bezos Earth Fund. How could the CEO of Amazon—the company responsible for 44 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2018 alone—simultaneously fund climate action? Others have further raised that the amount of roughly 7.5% of Bezos’ wealth is not nearly enough to fight climate change.

Whether it is an issue of the size of the amount relative to the vast remainder of Bezos’ wealth, or the sheer enormity of the amount needed to effectively address the climate crisis—from Bezos, or otherwise—critics of the Bezos Earth Fund have brought an important reality to the fore: philanthropic giving of the mega-wealthy, per se, will not solve the world’s most pressing issues—rising inequality, among them.

Many journalists have highlighted several reasons for this. Like some Bezos Earth Fund critics, Anand Giridharadas writes about how philanthropic giving is all hypocrisy—a charade for the mega-wealthy to evade taxes, in the American context, and wider accountability. Paul Vallely writes that philanthropy ultimately serves to benefit the mega-wealthy. And Theodore Schleifer, who writes on philanthropy, money and influence at Vox, has argued that our reliance on philanthropic giving in a time of crisis grants unprecedented power to the mega-wealthy. These are just some of the broad criticisms of philanthropy in the press.

Indeed, philanthropy might be a good way to achieve more equality of resources, but without sufficient checks and balances, it can lead to a dangerous inequality of power. When such an inequality gives the mega-wealthy a license to do as they wish, it can set up scathing barriers to individuals’ freedoms.

If you are wondering how this might be the case, or if you still find yourself skeptical of the journalists’ critiques, philosophy provides some valuable insights to this end. In this piece, I mainly turn to the philosophical work of Michael Walzer, who writes on the injustice of a good’s dominance, and Elizabeth Anderson, who argues for the true purpose of equality—the end of oppression—to anchor my claim. Ultimately, while philanthropies can be set up in a way that materially benefits the least advantaged, I demonstrate why societies must continue to be vigilant to them.

What is so wrong about the mega-wealthy voluntarily giving their money away?

The journalists above have shed light on the threat of unchecked power that comes with philanthropy, which arises when the public conflates donors’ capability to address a pressing problem with their purported goodwill.

Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice provides a framework that further crystallizes this problem of conflated meanings. He explains that goods (i.e. resources that people need and want, be it money, land, etc.) have intrinsic meanings. For example, one could say that money’s intrinsic meaning is to enable people to purchase what it is they want in the market from someone who freely wishes to sell it. Simultaneously, these same goods are assigned different meanings by different people. In this way, while goods have intrinsic meanings, they are also always socially construed.

For Walzer, the problem of dominance arises when goods are interpreted and used in ways that depart from their intrinsic meanings. Therefore, because political power falls outside the intrinsic meaning of money, when money is used to purchase votes and maintain political power—that is considered dominance.

Given this, philanthropy is another such example of how dominance occurs. When the mega-wealthy transfer economic resources to others in the form of philanthropic giving, these resources are assigned various meanings. Whether these givers intend for this or not, transferred resources are not merely perceived as the reduction of material inequality—but as a testament to generosity, a demonstration of power, or even a license to dictate the conditions of an intervention, to name a few. Thus, without the public’s vigilance towards these perversions of meanings, dominance poses a serious threat to democracy.

Surely, it is when the mega-wealthy actively take advantage of these socially constructed meanings, by converting economic capital into power, that dominance becomes a tangible threat to democratic equality. However, without any way to prevent this from happening in the first place, the mere potential for this conversion which dominance allows is enough to leave us worried.

In this way, Bezos’ transfer of economic resources does reduce wealth inequality: Bezos is now $10 billion less well-off, while climate actors and the generations who might benefit from their work are now $10 billion more well-off. For all we know, Bezos might actively be taking full advantage of this transfer, so that Amazon’s operations can proceed scot-free. What we can say for sure, however, is that through the dominance of both his wealth and the act of transferring it, Bezos is well-positioned to do so.

Furthermore, the first half of Robert Reich’s philosophical work, titled “Repugnant to the Whole Idea of Democracy? On the Role of Foundations in Democratic Societies,” illustrates how private foundations have the potential to undermine democracies by centering donors’ interests. He writes that due to the lack of accountability inherent in the structure of these foundations, it is very easy for plutocracy—the rule of the wealthy—to arise.

This is demonstrated in Louise Matsakis’ report, where she highlights that Bezos ultimately gets to decide which specific climate initiatives this amount will fund. This power might seem intuitive given that the fund is coming out of Bezos’ own pocket, but the implications of this ability when misused is alarming, especially with regard to a time-sensitive issue like the climate crisis. Should he choose to, Bezos could only contribute to those climate initiatives which benefit his company in some way, yet which do not effectively address the climate crisis.

Do we just have a problem with the mega-wealthy because we are jealous, or refuse to be pitied?

You might still find yourself skeptical of these critiques against philanthropy. You might think they are a symptom of our envy of the mega-wealthy’s fortunes. You might even think there is something inherently pitiful and offensive, about the mega-wealthy giving away their money to the poor.

Elizabeth Anderson’s “What Is the Point of Equality?” provides useful insights on these matters. She argues that the mitigation of envy through the distribution of resources is not the ultimate goal of equality. The mega-wealthy’s donations to the less advantaged in society should not be a way of preventing envious grumblingsat least, for its own sake.

Anderson further shows how this assumption of others’ envy towards the more fortunate is profoundly disrespectful. On pity, she writes that when the more fortunate conceive of themselves as superior in some way to the recipients of their giving, they cast blame on those recipients for being in the state that they are.

Thus, it is not for and through either of these emotions that philanthropy can be a path to democratic equality. Rather, Anderson argues, it is to end oppression that we must strive for equality. Harkening back to Walzer, one way oppression might arise is through the dominance of goods. And when the dominance of philanthropy persists, so will the oppression of those most susceptible to the mega-wealthy’s power.

For Anderson, equality is interpersonal. For people to stand in equal relations with one another, therefore, it is important that the conditions in society are such that this equality may hold. That is, no amount of giving should be able to absolve a giver of their responsibility towards others in society, mega-wealthy or not.

In so doing, the mega-wealthy must give not out of pity for those worse off than them, but out of the desire to secure these conditions of equality of relations. This is what Anderson calls democratic equality.

Should we do away with philanthropic giving entirely?

Philanthropic giving, per se, is not bad. The philosopher Peter Singer asserts that if it is within our power to do so, it is morally imperative for us to give in order to address unmet needs and to prevent something terrible from happening.

Furthermore, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “Philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power [which] explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.” What, then, must it mean for the mega-wealthy to strive towards social justice?

Charles Feeney is one philanthropist whom we might be more inclined to say has truly striven to decenter himself from his giving. Over his life, Feeney has given away $9 billion—almost all of his wealth—to causes such as health and education, making enormous positive impacts in research and development. He now lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his partner.

Perhaps it is Feeney’s effort to give away the utmost entirety of his wealth to causes he cares about that puts him in a better position than Bezos. Yet even for Feeney, whatever his innermost motivations might be for giving away the amount that he did—pity, prevention of envy, a genuine care and respect for others, or otherwise—it is important to be responsible for the potential negative impacts of his giving, and to take the necessary steps to address them.

The climate crisis presses us to consider the state of well-being not only of those who are present today, but also those who have yet to live. Alongside this crisis, the present pandemic and the philanthropic responses to it shed light on the utmost importance for societies to stay vigilant to charitable giving and its implications. This vigilance entails holding the holders of dominant wealth to account.

It is a tall order to ask anyone to be accountable. The types of legislation and institutional arrangements which will properly keep philanthropy in check might vary in different contexts. As I see it, this awareness of the need for vigilance about the givers of the world is a good place to begin.

This is not a call to meet every gift with cynicism. Rather, it is one that asks each of us to question the meanings assigned to things that are given.

For philanthropists, I ask: what is it that you think you’re giving?

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Professor Field for her instructive guidance on the philosophical underpinnings and scope of this piece, and for being an educator who has allowed my classmates and I to better understand what equality means, for us. To the many friends who have engaged with me on this topic over recent years, especially those who have directly helped me with this piece—thank you. 

References and Hyperlinks

Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (2): 287–337. https://doi.org/10.1086/233897.

Edgar, Damien. 2020. “Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire Who Gave It All Away.” BBC News, September 27, 2020, sec. Northern Ireland. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-54300268.

Graves, Lucia. 2018. “Anand Giridharadas on Elite Do-Gooding: ‘Many of My Friends Are Drunk on Dangerous BS.’” The Guardian, December 18, 2018, sec. US news. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/18/anand-giridharadas-author-aspen-wealthy-elite.

Kuper, Simon. 2019. “Now’s the Time to Spread the Wealth, Says Thomas Piketty.” September 26, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/0b362d6a-df2a-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc.

Matsakis, Louise. 2020. “Jeff Bezos Can Control Earth’s Future With His $10 Billion Pledge.” Wired, February 20, 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/jeff-bezos-control-planet-future-10-billion-fund/.

Meyer, Robinson. 2020. “$10 Billion? In This Climate??” The Atlantic, February 18, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/02/jeff-bezos-will-struggle-spend-10-billion-climate-change/606733/.

Reich, Rob. 2016. “Repugnant to the Whole Idea of Democracy? On the Role of Foundations in Democratic Societies.” PS: Political Science & Politics 49 (03): 466–72. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096516000718.

Saifer, Adam. n.d. “COVID-19 Has Exposed the Limits of Philanthropy.” The Conversation. Accessed November 11, 2020. http://theconversation.com/covid-19-has-exposed-the-limits-of-philanthropy-144035.

Schleifer, Theodore. 2020a. “Jeff Bezos Just Made One of the Largest Charitable Gifts Ever.” Vox, February 17, 2020. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/2/17/21141229/jeff-bezos-climate-change-ten-billion.

———. 2020b. “These Are the Trade-Offs We Make When We Depend on Billionaires to Save Us.” Vox, April 7, 2020. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/7/21203179/coronavirus-billionaires-philanthropy-bill-gates-larry-ellison-mark-zuckerberg-jack-dorsey.

———. 2020c. “These Are the Trade-Offs We Make When We Depend on Billionaires to Save Us.” Vox, April 7, 2020. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/7/21203179/coronavirus-billionaires-philanthropy-bill-gates-larry-ellison-mark-zuckerberg-jack-dorsey.

“Sorry Bezos, a $10 Billion Donation Won’t Undo Amazon’s Climate Impact | Green America.” 2020. Green America. February 18, 2020. https://www.greenamerica.org/blog/sorry-bezos-10-billion-donation-wont-undo-amazons-climate-impact.

Vallely, Paul. 2020. “How Philanthropy Benefits the Super-Rich.” The Guardian, September 8, 2020, sec. Society. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/sep/08/how-philanthropy-benefits-the-super-rich.

Walzer, Michael. 2010. Spheres Of Justice: A Defense Of Pluralism And Equality. New York.

Wood, Charlie. 2020. “Climate Activists Accuse Jeff Bezos of Hypocrisy over His $10 Billion Environment Pledge Because Amazon Works with Oil and Gas Firms.” Business Insider, February 19, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/greenpeace-amazon-activists-accuse-jeff-bezos-hypocrisy-climate-pledge-2020-2.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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