Altruism vs. Philanthropy

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Within a recent discussion of the superior ability of capitalism to improve the general welfare, John Stossel describes an amusing encounter:

Today, [Bill] Gates spends his time giving money away. He's unusually conscientious about it. He experiments, funding what works and dropping what doesn't. His charity work saves lives. Good for him. But Gates was also unusually skilled at bringing people better software. Had he continued doing that at Microsoft, I bet the company would have been even more productive. And Gates would have done more for the world.

I tried that thought experiment on [Ted] Turner, who, in turn, unclipped his microphone and walked off the set. [bold added]
Stossel clearly hit a nerve, but I don't see benevolence as a primary explanation for Turner's reaction. At best, I can see self-doubt: Perhaps Turner finds his charity work more fulfilling than other activities, but since he rejects egoism, he can't see this as a valid reason to have moved into the area. Too bad for him.

Stossel's piece is informatve, but while it is true that the rising tide of capitalism lifts all boats, this is not why we should fight for it, as Ayn Rand once argued:
The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve "the common good." It is true that capitalism does--if that catch-phrase has any meaning--but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man's rational nature, that it protects man's survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.
It is interesting to see that Turner's anti-egoistic drive to "guilt" other wealthy people into parting with vast sums is making him less effective at his professed goal -- and perhaps even unable to derive any selfish enjoyment from his own charitable work.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

What part of altruism does Bill Gates not understand? If he thinks it’s a synonym for philanthropy he is in for a surprise.

Even more interesting than Stossel’s encounter with Turner is Stossel’s reaction to it. In the long run people like Turner and Gates don’t matter – at least as far as the culture is concerned, they just go with the flow.

‘If Bono gets it, Turner should, too.’

Unfortunately, Bono doesn’t get it and Stossel doesn’t either. Why is it so difficult for them to understand that helping people is not what altruism is about? The point is not who Turner gave his money to, but the fact that he gave it away in the first place; the more of it which is wasted, the more altruistic his action is.

People like Stossel however, do matter. They influence our culture immensely. I’m betting he’s read Ayn Rand but like most people he probably remembers her one-liners, a few scenes and forgets the rest. A block exists in his mind as it does in most people, right smack dab between politics and ethics. For whatever reason, altruism has a hold on people; they can’t make the leap to rational selfishness. What is it about altruism which make it seem so moral, to so many?

Because, if we can’t figure out a way to break this link, we’re sunk.

Gus Van Horn said...

"The point is not who Turner gave his money to, but the fact that he gave it away in the first place; the more of it which is wasted, the more altruistic his action is."

I think I see what you're saying, but would like to clarify a bit: It's his money and he can do what he wishes with it. What matters is why he gave it away. Had he some genuine, selfish concern for his recipients (even if merely goodwill), I'd see no problem with his giving the money away -- so long as this was not at the expense of something more important to him. (Most people would see no big difference between actual philanthropy and altruistic waste.)

But I agree with you overall: Many people don't see altruism for what it is, including many who have some appreciation for Ayn Rand.

Steve D said...

Good point and it leads to an interesting question. How do you tell if an action by someone other than yourself is a sacrifice? Many of these billionaires have so much money that it may be difficult for them to actually make a sacrifice, at least a monetary one. I’m sure a billion dollars for Ted Turner is like a few thousand for normal people. It makes very little difference. In fact, he will probably receive so much approbation from that act; one could almost say it was a selfish move.
Remember the biblical story where Jesus said the poor man who gave everything he had made a greater gift than the rich man who gave away a small percentage but much more than the poor man in real terms? This is a real life example.
Turner said Buffet was a cheapskate for giving much less than a billion. I think Turner’s purpose was to guilt other billionaires into making an actual sacrifice and maybe also guilt less wealthy people into making sacrifices. In other words he was trying to advance altruism while not necessarily practicing it himself at least not consistently. Another option is that he was trying to relieve his guilt for not being altruistic by getting close to being altruistic.
Or maybe Turner just needs to give away ten billion, or a hundred billion or everything he has to assuage his feelings of guilt?
Or he could change his world view.

Gus Van Horn said...


Were he reading this, you would have just made him close his browser window and storm away -- but not to follow either course of action!