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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?
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.