Many wealthy people give vast sums of money away to charity. From a moral point of view, are they doing something worthy? Should we applaud them and praise them for this?
There is no doubt that the large amounts given away by such people as Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet (who I've never heard of, but someone said he gives lots away) or historical figures such as Carnegie or Rockefeller, can go a long way towards relieving the suffferings of the poor, and providing them with opportunities in life. And these acts of charity get a lot of attention from the media. But we are here concerned with the moral aspect. How worthy are these acts of charity by these fabulously wealthy men?
I want to try a philosophy thought experiment. Before I do, maybe it should be said that, often, a wealthy person can trade off a charitable gift against a tax break, so his loss is not really as much as it seems. But to keep things simple in the thought experiment, let's allow the rich men to have their tax break and just look at it in simple terms?
A Thought Experiment
You have ten dollars. I have ten billion dollars. We each give $1 to charity. Our contributions are exactly the same amount. From a moral point of view, which is the most worthy?
Yours. You may need all your $10 dollars to feed your family, so $1 is a big sacrifice. I will not miss $1, I won't even notice it.
Again, you have ten dollars. I have ten billion dollars. You give $1, which is 10% of your total wealth. I give one billion dollars, which is 10% of my total wealth. So we have given the same proportion of our wealth away. I have given away ONE BILLION DOLLARS, a staggering amount of money! From a moral point of view, surely now, my contribution is more worthy than yours? Or at least, it's equally worthy, isn't it?
No. Because you have only $9 left to feed your family, but I have $9 billion. I think I'll probably manage OK on that.
Again, you have ten dollars. I have ten billion dollars. How can I make a contribution to charity that will, from a moral point of view, be the equal of yours?
Could it be that, in order to equal in worthiness your contribution of one dollar, I have to give $9,999,999,991?
Yes, because, in a charitable contribution, what really counts is not how much you give, but how much you have left. If I am left with only $9, I will feel the same pain and worry as you, so only then will I have made the same sacrifice as you.
So the acclaim that is given to rich men by the newspapers and the network news channels, when they give away minute portions of their fortunes, is totally misdirected. I'm not saying they should not give money away; I think it's good that they do. I'm not saying either that they should leave themselves with only nine dollars. What I'm saying is that it needs to be put into perspective. When they make these admittedly huge gifts, they should not praised and acclaimed as though they were especially virtuous and worthy men, as though the size of their giving made them automatically worthy of praise.