The Conversation, January 2022
How should wealthy people respond to daunting problems like racism, economic inequality and climate change? Leading thinkers have long questioned whether philanthropy offers appropriate or meaningful solutions to vexing challenges. Eighteenth-century philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft called private giving “the most specious system of slavery.” Wollstonecraft saw charitable and philanthropic efforts as softening the effects of unjust laws and political institutions – rather than dismantling them. A century later, the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde argued that private giving “creates a multitude of sins.” Wilde thought that charity “degrades and demoralizes” while preventing the horrors of systemic injustice from being recognized by those who suffer from it.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. held that philanthropy is “commendable” but insufficient in the face of challenges like war, racism and poverty. “True compassion,” King wrote, is “to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”