Guest columnist Jon Huer: When giving is only false charity

Jon Huer

Jon Huer

By JON HUER

Published: 02-26-2024 6:16 PM

During the holidays, we hear much about giving. A strange thing about giving: We commoners simply “give,” but if a rich man does, it’s called “philanthropy,” literally “love of humanity.” It sounds noble and mysterious, but what really is philanthropy?

In corporate America, philanthropy applies to the act of giving money to a charity of choice by the rich. They have money to give and, in the act of giving, generally choose the time, place, purpose and manner of their giving.

The money they give contradicts the very term it uses, love of humanity. Philanthropy, as used by official America, however, is a great image-making instrument, bordering on propaganda, for the super rich. Many rich people use this giving-back-to-society occasion as a form of public attention, private good deeds, and spiritual atonement (not to mention the tax write-off). The public also enjoys this “feel good” moment as a sign that all is well in American moral play. After all, philanthropy shows that the rich have heart.

One curious fact about philanthropy is that the term seems to apply only to giving by rich people. If you emptied your piggy bank to give it all to charity, it’s not going to be called philanthropy and you are not going to be called a philanthropist. One has to be rich to be a philanthropist doing his philanthropy.

This fact brings out a truth about philanthropy of the rich: that the rich philanthropists always keep more than they give because they have to stay rich after their giving act. In a typical year, for example, Bill Gates keeps about five times more than what he gives, and he is still called a philanthropist and the little he gives is called philanthropy.

The other day, as I was parking my car at Walgreens, a man approached me asking if I could spare a dollar. Of course I could, so I gave him four quarters. Did I “give” the man anything? Yes, I did, but only in a technical sense, but not in any humanly meaningful sense of “giving.”

Why? Because being a dollar less in my pocket was totally meaningless to me, just like leaving the parking lot when I had no more use of the space, only to witness another driver timely occupying my vacant spot. Did I “give” the driver anything that was mine, whose giving act meant something to me? If the giving act didn’t mean anything to me, how could I say that I “gave” anything as an act of love?

Giving to others, to be properly called by that name, must consist of giving something, not giving nothing. Giving up something that is dear to you — but you give because it is the right thing to do — is what giving is all about. If you give $1 million to a charity but keep $5 million, why, you did not give anything.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Holyoke man finds bear paw in his yard
Petition to block auto dealership on King Street falters in Northampton
First look at how little Amherst’s police alternative being used called troubling
Developer lands $400K loan for affordable housing project in Easthampton mill district
Developer pitches new commercial building on Route 9 in Hadley
Boyfriend accused in slaying of Hampden sheriff’s assistant, former legislator’s top aide

What you “gave” was nothing. “Something” has to mean something for you to give up; “Nothing” means nothing to you, as if you didn’t give up anything.

To properly distinguish between real giving and false giving, we must think more about what money means to rich people. Bill Gates makes $1,000 every 4.5 seconds, which means, while he sits on the toilet for his morning constitutional, he makes as much as an average American makes in a year! Is this money something real to Bill Gates? Since he didn’t do anything to keep the money coming in, it means nothing to him when some of it goes out. Some African and Asian countries still use human feces for fertilizer. If your excremental waste is part of the fertilizer, can you say you “gave” your poop to charity?

In all giving acts that are enacted out of love for humanity, the intended meaning is all that matters, whether it is for a penny or $1 million. As in Jesus’ story of a poor widow giving her last penny, human charity has to do with intentions, not results, regardless of the results.

Here is a huge moral question on giving: If we are going to praise someone for giving, should we not criticize those who don’t give? Henry David Thoreau once said that if you have something to give, you already have too much. Indeed, what logic would justify anyone keeping something more than what he needs or more than what anybody else has? Or glorifying “giving” something that your own labor did not produce and therefore was not really yours to give?

Is feeding a hungry person your leftovers the same as sharing some of your own food that you need yourself?

On the other hand, the very logic of capitalism (taking all we can) and the very philosophy of philanthropy (giving to humanity) are two completely contradictory precepts that cannot possibly be the guiding principles of the same society. How can we teach our children to go and get as much as they can and, at the same time, glorify giving as a socially honorable act of charity to be praised and honored, like giving ourselves the disease and cure at the same time?

Obviously, with capitalism and philanthropy as two pillars of morality, we live in a society of contradiction (if you don’t realize it) and hypocrisy (if you do).

Instead of glorifying the false love from the rich, we should collect the same money through higher taxes levied on them. At least the rich wouldn’t have to lie about their false charity.

Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and retired professor, lives in Greenfield.