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The Ethics of Giving

January 23, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

By Phineas Upham

Philanthropy is well-ingrained in American culture. It’s been around since the beginning, when colonial settlers banded together and volunteered their time and effort in building a better society. It’s not a new concept, but the ethics of giving are only recently beginning to come to light.

Aristotle said that there is no selfless act, that even our most gracious act is intrinsically self serving. This statement is quite difficult to disprove. Even when we are at our most selfless, we still take some gratification when others acknowledge our work. But giving is not itself wholly self-serving, and it has led to some excellent advances in society.

Principles and Actions

Giving What We Can is an organization with some admirable aims. The members pledge to devote 10% of their lifelong income to charities that maximize efficiency of spending. This type of pledge is an excellent example of where principles differ from action.

Most people would consider this an admirable pledge to make, but would you make it? Regardless of your financial stature, it’s not an easy choice to part with money we’ve worked for. For those on the lower income bracket, it may be a matter of survival. Higher earners may see it as a matter of preserving one’s family.

We can easily and readily believe that giving is the right thing to do, but we will almost always hesitate to do it ourselves. When we do give to organizations, especially those that support third world entities, we are putting a value on some lives over others. After all, are people not starving at home?

Giving is not as cut and dry as handing someone money. The complex motivations behind giving often drive the charitable contribution.

Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Twitter page.

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