Sic transit dignitas donatorum.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The title is my translation into Latin of the sentence: Thus passes the prestige of the givers. If you see signs of rust, feel welcome to correct me or offer a better translation.

Although I expected to see something like this sooner or later, based on the influence of the abject altruism of Immanuel Kant in our culture, I am still amazed at how quickly and thoroughly Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have been tarred and feathered in the aftermath of their drive to raise $600 billion for charity from the world's wealthiest, which they call the "Giving Pledge."

The first bile spilled, predictably, from Germany. But now, the American website Slate has published a three-pager loaded with insults for Gates and Buffett, along with a suggested remedy for their not emptying their pockets out fast or thoroughly enough for the satisfaction of one Ron Rosenbaum.

[T]o make the "Giving Pledge" more than a vague promise to do good, billionaires should be asked to put an audited 50 percent of their net worth on the table for charitable use now, when it can make a difference to people starving today, not later, after they've worked up a heart attack from their third wife on their fourth yacht. Look at how the Forbes list changes, how many billionaires lose their fortunes and drop off it from year to year. Gates and Buffett are right to use the Forbes list as a symbolic target, but let's get these big-talking "givers" to give now, when they've still got it.
This screed also approvingly (and with great gall) quotes Honoré de Balzac on wealth -- "Behind every great fortune there lies a great crime." (!) It ends with a "friendly" threat to vandalize the yachts of any who don't comply with his -- Rosenbaum's -- plans for their property. But I guess preemptively calling potential philanthropists hypocrites, equating achievement with crime, and making mealy-mouthed threats are all okay because Rosembaum "cares."

A commenter here yesterday raised an excellent point about those who permit others to bully them through a desire for approval:
Most people can remember some kid in high school who was visibly desperate to fit in with and be regarded as being part of the allegedly cool, trendy set - and the harder he tried the more pathetic he looked to everybody, most especially those whose approval he was trying to win over.
The moral currency of altruism is exactly nothing except such prestige. To the degree Gates and Buffett buy into it, they richly deserve such treatment. Otherwise, they should proudly stand up and say something to the effect of, "It's my own damned money, and I'll donate it or not as I please."

In the world, there are genuinely benevolent people, and there are doormats. The former will stand up for themselves in the face of those who would take advantage of them. The latter will announce their hunger for prestige and invite the filthy feet of Rosenbaum and his ilk, and they will happily run roughshod all over them.

-- CAV


Roger said...

And no one is preventing Mr. Rosenbaum from helping any starving person he chooses to help.

Gus Van Horn said...


kelleyn said...

This little dare game is truly nothing but a stick to beat people with.

My pipe dream is to see some prominent billionaire make a public statement against the list or, better yet, rescind his/her pledge. In high school, when I got sick of the bullies in the smoking area and walked away, I didn't end up in the life of loneliness and isolation that I expected. Some of the kids from there sought me out and asked if I was ever coming back--some just wanted me to give away more cigarettes, definitely, but at least as many genuinely missed me. Then before I knew what happened, I found a genuine place among the geeks who hung out in the library. If some target of the list would take a courageous stand and call Gates and Buffet on what they are doing, there would be come catcalling in the press and on comments forums but, more importantly, some of the negative power of that list would be diffused.

Snedcat said...

Ugh. First thought: Remember this the next time someone says Rand was exaggerating.

Second thought: Reminded me of a fellow I wrangled with once who started by saying that Rand thoroughly misrepresented altruism, then turned right around and preached exactly the sort of hardline altruism she decried--the individual has no right not to help those worse off than he regardless of the circumstances of anyone involved; the simple fact that you grow up in a community means that any advantages you have are due precisely to that fact and therefore the community owns both you and all your yes, you whiners, the draft and compulsory public service are perfectly moral and should be instituted for every member of society.

To the reply that one's obligations are limited precisely to the people who actually helped you (your parents, teachers, and anyone you trade with) and are discharged by fulfilling the obligations you undertake in turn, said creature sneered that no, you owe yourself and your things to all of your fellows by the simple fact that they have allowed you to live peacefully among them instead of expelling or killing you and stealing your property. (!!!) Saying that "the community" has no existence outside its actual members and therefore cannot be owed any obligations apart from those owed to each of its members cuts no ice with him either; the very fact that each member exists means quite simply that you owe him whatever he needs to survive because...well, because he's not you.

To the reply that that is precisely the concept of altruism espoused by Auguste Comte and attacked by Rand citing his name as destroying the individual as such and all benevolence, he responded on the one hand that she misrepresented Comte, the noblest ethical thinker in human history, and on the other that the beliefs she attacked as immoral are the pinnacle of true morality and are incompatible with any society allowing any inequality of wealth or self-serving action, including the freedom to praise immorality or disagree with the collective, for how can a government allow wht it knows to be immoral? So yeah, they don't give a damn about freedom of speech or conscience either; the individual as such is a threat to the collective and must by chained and muzzled.

So yes, the consistent altruists do mean to establish a system of complete tyranny founded on the total destruction of the individual as such, and again, don't think Rand was exaggerating in saying so. And the next time a liberal (or conservative, for they're at root no better) sneers about "dog eat dog" or "man is wolf to man," remember that those actually sum up the brute features of the logical culmination of their altruist ideals, and a pox on them. Let's just say the exchange was bracing.

Gus Van Horn said...


Oh, nice. There's even a LIST at the link you supply of "skinflint billionaires".

You are exactly right: It would be enormously helpful for one of these people to refuse to pledge, and that person would probably find himself on the receiving end of a lot of unexpected gratitude.


"Remember this the next time someone says Rand was exaggerating."

You ain't whistlin' Dixie. If there's anything useful in Rosenbaum's and Krämer's blatherings, it's that they provide further examples-in-proof of what Rand said.


Steve D said...

“In the world, there are genuinely benevolent people, and there are doormats.”

Its one thing to suggest that perhaps they should simply declare they are not giving any of their money away. Altruism kills even benevolent giving. Imagine that someone like Bill Gates genuinely wanted to give some of his money to charity out of benevolence. How hard would it be for him now to maintain that motivation in the present cultural climate? In addition to this, from now no matter what he says or does, it will appear to people that his motivation is altruism and not benevolence.

Gus Van Horn said...

Oh, I'd love it if a genuine philanthropist stood up to this for exactly that reason.

Just because someone wants to help other people does not mean he's an altruist.

madmax said...

So yes, the consistent altruists do mean to establish a system of complete tyranny founded on the total destruction of the individual as such...

This, I think, carries with it some possible epistemological insights into today's collectivists, especially leftists. I have often wondered if altruism serves as a default epistemology for a person as he ages assuming he grows up in an altruistic society, which is just about everyone in the West.

I'm thinking here of teenagers that get bombarded with altruism in grade and high school then naturally develop into Leftists (or conservatives although I think the conservative development is more complicated). Altruism is the standard for everything for these people. Its as if they don't try to understand how things fit in with reality, but only how things fit in with their altruist premises. I think this is why Leftists are so damn consistent.

Last speculation. I also wonder if altruism has been getting more virulent as time passes (20th and now 21st centuries). It seems that as the 20th century wore on, egoism, which was at one time implicitly accepted, came to be explicitly denounced. Possible turning points being the 50s (compare WWII with every war fought since then) and the 90s (doesn't it seem that the Left has become more deranged in the last 15 years?). To confuse the issue, this has occurred as religion has lost its power so conservatives of course will blame secularism. But I wonder if it isn't Post-Kantian skepticism filtering its way through every area of the culture. I hope a book is written at some point that deals with this.

Gus Van Horn said...

Altruism is the default ethics of someone growing up in the West, but it cannot serve as an epistemology, although it sounds like you're speaking of a profound degree of the other-directedness that even comes to characterize the approach many people take to ideas. That, however, is properly called subjectivism, which formally is the position that consciousness has primacy over existence, and, in some varieties, the consensus of "society" actually shapes reality. (Most people would not admit thinking this if you asked them point blank, but they behave this way in practice, as you notice.

This epistemology basically does set people up to become altruists and to accept collectivism, both in terms of leading to them and in terms of causing minds to be susceptible to accepting them as parts of the social consensus.

Jim May said...

Oh, nice. There's even a LIST at the link you supply of "skinflint billionaires".

Someone fedex these people copies of "Atlas", stat. Preferably with a copy of the Der Spiegel article enclosed as a bookmark.

Gus Van Horn said...

At least then the list would be put to good use!