Skip to content

Billionaires Need a Giving Philosophy

From world hunger to global warming and the arts, there are numerous causes that indi­vid­uals, foun­da­tions and NGOs choose to sup­port. And even in an economy that has been slow to recover, bil­lion­aires are con­tin­uing to pledge sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of their wealth to phil­an­thropy. But when con­sid­ering what phil­an­thropies to sup­port, a North­eastern pro­fessor says the wealthy need to address some moral and eth­ical ques­tions. In her new book, “Giving Well: The Ethics of Phil­an­thropy,” Patricia Illing­worth, asso­ciate pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, explores these issues as they relate to giving.

What considerations should individuals make when donating money?

In making deci­sions about giving, people ought to con­sider how great the need is and the like­li­hood that the money donated will actu­ally address that need. People should under­take a kind of moral due dili­gence in which they look at the charity to see how much of the money donated will actu­ally be spent on addressing the need, and how much on other kinds of costs. Some­times char­i­table money can actu­ally make things worse for ben­e­fi­cia­ries — for example, making them depen­dent on donor agen­cies.   Because of this, char­i­ties are inter­ested in sustainability.

People should also con­sider what kinds of “causes” deserve their sup­port. Should they give to the people most in need, such as the global poor? Or, should they give to envi­ron­mental orga­ni­za­tions, and the inter­ests of future gen­er­a­tions?

Some people believe that their oblig­a­tions to help are owed most strongly to those close by, such as family and com­mu­nity groups, while others believe that those with greatest need world­wide deserve their help. Ethics are often key in resolving many of these ques­tions. There are even orga­ni­za­tions that spe­cialize in eval­u­ating char­i­ties for donors.

What do you think are the most significant moral questions in the practice of philanthropy today?

Who should give? Should everyone give, or are only the rich under an oblig­a­tion to give? Poor people living in wealthy OECD (Organ­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-​​operation and Devel­op­ment) coun­tries are much better off than people living in very poor coun­tries. Do the poor in the United States have an oblig­a­tion to help the poor in Burundi.How much money should people give? Is it the same for all people or do bil­lion­aires have an oblig­a­tion to give a greater per­centage of their wealth than people with incomes in the middle range?Are there any moral pri­or­i­ties among char­i­ties? Is poverty, for example, morally more impor­tant than the arts? Is giving a purely pri­vate ques­tion to be left to the indi­vidual, or should ethics pro­vide guid­ance on pri­or­i­ties based on moral prin­ci­ples and the demands of global justice?

How do NGOs navigate the moral priorities that inform their decisions regarding their projects?

NGO’s use a variety of cri­teria for deter­mining what projects to sup­port. They have oblig­a­tions to both the donors who sup­port them, and to those they are orga­nized around serving. What­ever cri­teria NGOs use, they need to be trans­parent about them, and ensure that donors under­stand the terms of their gifts.  In a world in which there is so much need, it is impor­tant that char­i­table monies not be wasted, nor that they cause more harm than good. There­fore, NGOs need to use some kind of cost-​​benefit analysis in deter­mining what projects and people to support.

– by Greg St. Martin

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish