Is Philanthropy Driven by the Human Desire to Cheat Death?

George Bernard Shaw quipped that a rich man ‘does not really care whether his money does good or not, provided he finds his conscience eased and his social status improved by giving it away’. Was he right?

In Socialism for Millionaires (1896), the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw quipped that a rich man ‘does not really care whether his money does good or not, provided he finds his conscience eased and his social status improved by giving it away’. Was he right to be so cynical?


The reality today is that private wealth finances only a tiny fraction of social needs. According to Arton Capital and Wealth-X’s philanthropy report (2015), ultra-high net-worth individuals in the United States (those who have $30 million and above in net assets) gave $49.2 billion to charities in 2015 – or 19 per cent of all individual philanthropic donations in the US. But if we bring in data from the Urban Institute, which puts the total revenue for US charities at $1.73 trillion in 2015, the super-rich contribute less than 3 per cent of the total.

At least we can console ourselves that non-profits will probably trundle on without donations from the very wealthy. But can the wealthy ‘survive’ without giving? What needs are fulfilled by philanthropy? Do we give to make the world a better place, to give back to the community? Or is charity motivated by reasons that are far less noble – peer pressure, social status, a version of conspicuous consumption? 

Studies show that, in general, people who feel good, do good – and likewise, people who do good, feel better. The rich are no exception. Giving to charity activates parts of the brain related to reward and pleasure. Yes, the rich do have some distinctive reasons for giving to charity, such as the desire not to ‘morally corrupt’ their heirs. But like others, they also give to strengthen their identity – and probably, to relieve their guilt. As Shaw said, with typical epigrammatic acuity: ‘One buys moral credit by signing a cheque, which is easier than turning a prayer wheel.’

The first person to attribute the act of charity to improving one’s public image was the 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith, who claimed that people make moral and ethical decisions based on how an impartial observer would judge them. This idea harks back to a dialogue about justice in Plato’s Republic, in which Glaucon tells Socrates that people behave ethically only when they think others are watching. 

Fast-forward to 2009, when Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University in North Carolina, co-conducted a study evaluating the motive of outward appearances in giving to charity. The research found that appearances are so important that they even trump financial incentives. In the experiment, participants were divided into two groups, where each group was asked to type a combination of letters on a keyboard. They were told that if they typed the combination correctly, some money would be donated in their name to the Red Cross, although never more than a few dollars.

In the ‘private’ group, members were exposed only to their own ‘giving’ scores, whereas in the ‘public’ group, each member was asked to publicly announce his or her donation to the others. In the end, members of the public group got the letter combination right twice as often as members of the private group. At a later stage of the experiment, researchers decided to test whether people would forgo a financial reward to look altruistic in the eyes of others. In the public group, adding a personal financial incentive had only a small effect on its success rate, whereas it increased the private group’s success rate by 35 per cent.

There’s no doubt that outward appearances help to explain the rise of modern philanthropy. In the early 20th-century US, giving was a way of gaining status for those who had recently acquired a fortune. ‘New’ and ‘old’ money competed for large-scale public projects, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the New York City Opera. One can find the names of individual donors splashed across the programmes of philharmonic orchestras, in university brochures and on hospital walls. If donors were not concerned with their personal brand, these displays would be meaningless. In several documented cases at US universities, only around 1 per cent of donors requested to remain anonymous – a statistic often cited by those who argue that cachet and publicity are the main reasons that the rich give to such institutions. And when donations are publicly listed by category, most people donate equal to or slightly above the minimum amount required to secure their spot.

Some researchers explain donors’ behaviour with an economic rationale: donors reap benefits from their contributions. When a person donates to a university, perhaps they expect their child to study there. When they donate to a hospital, they’re thinking about the day they need its services. However, in 1990 the economist James Andreoni at the University of California, San Diego showed that this model, like that of pure altruism, doesn’t capture all the reasons why people give. Perhaps donors enjoy a ‘warm glow’ from giving, he suggested. Art benefactors, for example, want to perceive themselves as art lovers, as much as they want to contribute to art.

Sometimes people donate when they’d rather not – simply because it’s hard to refuse. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted an experiment in which they asked for donations door-to-door. Some of the houses got a flyer that announced an arrival time for collections, and the others got flyers without a fixed time. In the end, the sum collected from those notified was 17 per cent lower than from the others. The experiment was repeated, except this time the advance-notice flyer was accompanied by an optional ‘do not disturb’ tick box. The money raised from the group who ticked the box was 35 per cent less than that raised from the group who received no notice.

True, the majority of donations made by the very wealthy are not handed to anonymous fundraisers who knock on doors. Rather, many are made to colleagues and friends who are hard to refuse, especially when they ask for donations to the charities that they champion.

Let’s remember, too, that the problems philanthropists want to solve are frequently the result of government decisions, resource allocation and the status of human and property rights. If philanthropists were to commit to deeper and more meaningful action – if they joined governments or other institutions – they could affect public welfare in a more enduring way. Instead philanthropists are often slow to get involved in public policy, and prefer to make donations that counteract the government’s shortcomings. This reveals where their priorities really lie.

It’s probably impossible to find one explanation for all these patterns. They operate in an intricate web of motives and interests, both altruistic and egoistic. The extent of egoistic motives varies across donors (due to individual diversity), but is linked to donation amount (size matters). Paul Schervish, a professor of sociology at Boston College, claims that an amalgamation of circumstances and on-the-go decisions compel the rich to give, rather than a defined set of psychological reasons. He came up with the term ‘moral biography’ to describe an individual’s personal capacity and moral compass.

Perhaps the most original answer to the question of ‘why they give’ was offered by the psychologist Ernest Becker. In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Denial of Death (1973), Becker explains that humans use culture to fight against our awareness of our own mortality. We try to give our life a meaning that will outlast us after death. That, or else we distract ourselves from the existential ‘terror’ by engaging in mind-numbing entertainments – which today might include reality television or social media.

Religious faith is one way we typically tackle the threat of mortality, but it’s certainly not the only thing in humanity’s toolbox. Hoarding (including money and assets), artistic creativity and even establishing a big family are all things that we hope will outlast us. So whether we leave a plaque with our name on a building, or tell ourselves that we promoted social change and helped the disadvantaged, are we all just trying to fulfil the human quest for meaning, a quest that might be nothing more than the defiance of death?

Jacob Burak

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.