To what extent is charitable giving desirable?
The era of anthropogenic climate change is firmly upon us, and people are already suffering from heat waves and droughts. Making things worse, some cannot afford air-conditioning or bottled water because of the problem of poverty. Even in this sociopolitical context, some have argued that charitable giving is rarely desirable, as it only exacerbates the problems in front of us, with charities masking the critical nature of the global situation before us. While their arguments have some merit, there remains a need to firmly assert and experience our shared humanity in truly charitable giving that is rooted in the deepest forms of community care, rendering this type of generosity desirable to the extent that it could mitigate many of our global issues.
The most strident critics of charitable giving sometimes base their arguments on the analysis of what ails this world: capitalism and the bottomless desire for profit, things that need to be dismantled in the move towards building a more inclusive world. When we help a food insecure person through our charity we must also recognise the causes of that food insecurity on the smaller scale of that individual’s life and on the larger scale of economic analysis. It is one thing for a person to be food insecure because of a gambling addiction that results in an inability to afford food; it is another thing for a person to be food insecure because their wages are insufficient to cope with the bills they have to pay. Their wages may be insufficient because the capitalist system pushes businesses into maximising their profits, which necessitates depressing wages to their lowest possible levels, but a profitable business so frequently has owners who are rich enough to pay their workers more. Elon Musk and his social media stunt come to mind, when he claimed to be willing to donate US$6 billion to solve world hunger, only to have him donate that money to an anonymous recipient, something that may simply be a tax-saving ploy. More than Musk’s choices, capitalism’s need for infinite growth on a finite planet is clearly untenable because it plunders the earth even as it immiserates the masses. Our climate crisis, for example, may have been triggered somewhat unconsciously from the times of the industrial revolution when people were still uncertain about the effects of spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, it is by now common knowledge that big oil companies have been preventing action on the climate for decades in order to maximise their profits. It is easy to see why people see giving to charities as rarely desirable in this context: when there remains a dire need to prevent companies from further damaging our environment in their pursuit of profit, it seems counterproductive to have charities come in to solve the problems that private companies created in the first place, masking the true extent of those problems.
Despite the analysis above, it is still more reasonable to argue that charity is desirable to the extent that it comes from care for the individual and community at large—especially when it is directed towards helping both individuals and the communities they live with build a better world. The bare fact of being a human being in desperate need of help also means that a person in need will almost always do everything it takes to survive both biologically and socially. Most starving people would not hesitate to steal a loaf of bread if they could get away scot-free. How are they to help us solve our global problems, in that context? It would be an extraordinary person who could do so. The challenge for those who can afford to give is to help those in need while equipping them to contribute towards their communities in constructive ways. When a rich person donates to charity, and the recepients of that charity contribute to building a more just world, the rich person also benefits by the sheer fact that we all inhabit the same global system. The democratic socialist government of Singapore appears to operate in this way with its support for charities and its emphasis on education. Whether or not one views Singapore’s current government as truly socialist, its emphasis on education is a sound one because we all need to be able to see the causes of our global problems for what they are. A crucial cause of our global problems is arguably that exact inability to properly analyse our situation. Therefore, charitable giving is desirable to the extent that it helps individuals and communities in precisely this move towards equipping people to join the effort to right what is wrong in our world.
In this struggle against ignorance and greed, we must continue to see that charitable giving is desirable when it helps not just those who receive but also those who give, through the move towards justice. It is not a sin to be rich; it is a sin to be rich and irresponsible with wealth. Maybe, just maybe, truly democratic socialist forms of organisation could move us towards this vision.
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- Someone sent The GP Rebel’s essay to me (if you’re reading this, hello!) and the first sentence about a “communist utopia” really gave me the impetus to write my own essay: https://thegprebel.wordpress.com/2022/01/18/to-what-extent-is-charitable-giving-desirable/
- On oil companies preventing action on climate change:
- Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price. (The Guardian) – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/30/climate-crimes-oil-and-gas-environment
- Oil majors ‘not walking the talk’ on climate action, study confirms (Carbon Brief) – https://www.carbonbrief.org/oil-majors-not-walking-the-talk-on-climate-action-study-confirms/
- On Elon Musk:
- Elon Musk gave a mysterious $5.7 billion donation weeks after he dared the UN to show him its plan for solving world hunger (Fortune) – https://finance.yahoo.com/news/elon-musk-gave-mysterious-5-170612372.html
- There are a billion reasons Elon Musk is not going to end world hunger (The New Humanitarian) – https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2021/11/23/Why-Elon-Musk-is-not-going-to-end-world-hunger
- On Singapore’s government, its support for charities, and PAP and its “democratic socialist” ideals:
- Commentary: Cabinet reshuffle shows how leaders are assembling around Lawrence Wong for complex tasks ahead – https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/lawrence-wong-deputy-prime-minister-4g-cabinet-reshuffle-2734636
- democratic socialism (Cambridge Dictionary) – https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/democratic-socialism
- socialism (Cambridge Dictionary) – https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/socialism
- New Initiatives To Encourage Charitable Giving (MSF) – https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/New-Initiatives-to-Encourage-Charitable-Giving.aspx