The philosophy of philanthropy

Why should we give?

Though philanthropy’s precise form has varied historically, questioning the virtue of its motivations has remained a constant concern for both observers and practitioners. Even as far back as the Hellenistic period, it was an issue over which philosophers such as the Epicureans and the Stoics were divided. Most philanthropic motivations can perhaps be understood from two general orientations: other- and self-directed. The former attitude is often celebrated as indicative of a ‘pure’ form of altruism, the only sort truly worthy of praise, whilst the second category nurses the familiar accusation that philanthropy feeds the pride and vanity of the philanthropist.

Stoic ethics can perhaps provide a firm example of first perspective. Stoic philosophy valued ‘Nature’ above all else, holdingstrongly to the belief that one’s existence was only truly fruitful if lived in accordance with its supreme directives. The world around them provided a surfeit of examples in this regard: living things acted primarily according to an impulse for self-preservation and its attendant requirements of food, shelter, communion, and so forth. For humanity the Stoics added to this list the characteristic of Reason, something they thought particular to the species. Seneca, the Roman writer and orator, tutor to Nero and firm advocate of Stoicism, wrote of how tenets of Nature may guide our philanthropic efforts, or what was then called the bestowing of ‘benefits’:

‘How many are there who are unworthy of the light of day? And nevertheless the sun rises. How many complain because they have been born? Yet nature is ever renewing our race, and even suffers men to live who wish that they have never lived. It is the property of a great and good mind to covet, not the fruit of good deeds, but good deeds themselves, and to seek for a good man even after having met with bad men… As it is, virtue consists in bestowing benefits for which we are not certain of meeting with any return, but whose fruit is at once enjoyed by noble minds.’

Seneca, On Benefits

The Stoics strove to emulate Nature’s blindness to merit, its practice of providing equally for the deserving and the underserving. Stoicism, therefore, emphasised the virtue implicit in the act of giving itself, refusing consideration of any tangible or intangible results that may be accrued the giver. Indeed, to its proponents it is perhaps only this unconditional love for fellow humanity that is deserving of the title philanthropy, the word being derived from the Greek philosanthropos, or the love, caring for or nourishing of what is human.

Yet for those members of present-day society to which these ideals appear too lofty, Epicureanism may perhaps provide a more relatable perspective. According to the Epicureans, the feeling of pleasure accessible from one’s sense experiences and feelings is the ultimate Good, one ‘to which all other Goods ought to be referred’. If something is desirable it is because it brings pleasure, a position contrary to Stoic virtue, where for something to be pleasurable it must first be desirable according to reason. Therefore, in speaking of philanthropy, or Beneficence, as he called it, Epicurus was never ashamed of the pleasurable feelings it produced, feelings that arose when one assumed the position of benefactor. Chiefly among these feelings one could find ‘respect, good-will and a dearness or tender estimation’ from the recipients of one’s generosity, all of which conferred superiority. He portrays in no uncertain terms the joy that this superiority is imbued with:

‘…a Beneficent person is like a Fountain; to which if you but grant a Reasonable Soul, or Mind, what joy will it not be possessed of, when it shall see how many spacious Cornfields and Pastures do flourish and even smile again with plenty and verdure, and all by the Diffusion of its streams upon them?’

Epicurus, Morals

Ought we to dismiss this as merely a naive take on the ethics of giving, or is there something valuable, perhaps even noble in Epicurus’ frank recognition and elevation of those instincts so often dismissed as base and dishonourable? For if one is truly concerned about the effect of philanthropy, shouldn’t the focus be on the benefits derived, or the equality of their distribution, rather than second-guessing the motivations with which they are bestowed? Even if one cannot be dissuaded from deconstructing these motives, is it necessarily a contemptible thing to derive pleasure from assisting others? Or to associate joy with one’s ability to assist? A distinction must certainly be made between knowing oneself superior in a material sense, which is a necessary precondition of philanthropic giving, and expressing this superiority in a self-righteous, domineering fashion, which is perhaps a much more disagreeable trait.

Society today has been labelled as a globalised one, or put differently, one characterised by a substantial interconnectedness, where individuals are more than ever before reliant on the produce, the labour, the effort, indeed the very lives of other individuals populating the world. The goods we consume are manufactured and assembled in a variety of locations across the globe, the people we interact with and rely on daily are often expressive of a similar diversity, and the productive flow of money and capital depends on people and organisations that span geographic boundaries. In such conditions, do these historical motivations for philanthropy still retain their relevance?

If one is aware that it is human interconnectedness that enables the flourishing exchange of goods, people, and monetary systems, it should also change the way we perceive the generation of wealth and of poverty. One ought to recognise that material gain for some often means deprivation for others, for there unquestionably exists some measure of association, a certain web of complicity that binds the two extremes of prosperity and penury. If one concedes that these two states co-exist, philanthropy should abandon its foundation amongst the stale ruins of selfinterest or of altruism, and express instead a sober responsibility that stems from complicity in the plight of others.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t be wealthy or that wealth is simply the root cause of poverty, but that one cannot exist without the other, and it is this responsibility through complicity that drives giving. It is towards philanthropy in this new form that we should be oriented, for expressing such convictions will undoubtedly endow it with an empathy, durability and generousness beyond measure.