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“Giving What We Can” Calls for Sacrificing What We Have

An American who considers all the places he might have been born will conclude (if he values his life and happiness) that he was lucky to have been born in America, the Land of Opportunity, the Land of Liberty. Those born anywhere in the industrialized (or even semi-industrialized) world will conclude they were lucky to be born where they were, relative to the impoverished and oppressed regions of the earth.

But is it unfair that you were born in America or in another industrial nation? The answer, according to the charity Giving What We Can (recently discussed by NPR) is yes. The charity argues:

[W]e really are part of a very small and wealthy elite—vastly more wealthy than the poorest half of the world’s population, who all live on less than $4 per day.

Did we earn this position? No. Of those born in the United States, almost all will be in the world’s richest 20%, and control more than 80% of the world’s income. This is in large part because they were lucky to be born in the right place. Money is thus distributed both unequally and unfairly around the world. We tend not to notice the unfairness, but for those born into countries where hard work gives only a tiny fraction of our rewards, this injustice is painfully apparent.

The claim here is that because we were born into a wealthy nation, the fact that we have wealth is unfair. The obvious moral conclusion following from that claim is that those with more wealth have a moral duty to (as Obama has put it) “spread the wealth around.” The charity states that, to serve the poor, “we must be prepared to make some real sacrifice.”

The charity calls on people to give a minimum of 10 percent of their wealth to the “developing world,” but that, implies the charity, is the level for the morally weak. The ideal is for you to “work out the smallest amount of money that you can realistically live on, and to give away everything above that level.”

Although the charity claims that giving as much as you “realistically” can will give you a “warm glow,” in fact the altruistic morality at the heart of the charity is a demand for perpetual guilt and self-sacrifice. The charity’s handy calculator reveals that if, as a single person, you earn $50,000 per year, you make “43 times that of the typical person.” So, by the charity’s own stated standards, until you give away 97.7 percent of your income, you are committing the injustice of inequality by having more wealth than others.

A key fallacy committed by Giving What We Can is to strip justice out of the context that gives rise to the concept. (Ayn Rand called this the “stolen concept fallacy.”) Justice means giving to others their due; it pertains to such things as recognizing the virtues of our friends and associates, paying our trading partners the agreed price, and punishing criminals for wrongdoing. If one individual—or most individuals in a given nation—produce enormous wealth, they do not thereby commit an injustice; rather, they commit an act of virtue: Wealth is a requirement of human life. The idea their virtuous production implies a duty to share their wealth with those who have not produced it is an unfounded, senseless assertion.

A given individual may have good reasons for contributing money to a charity, not as a matter of self-sacrifice but as a matter of self-interest. If a person self-interestedly wants to give to charity and can afford to do so, then giving it does not constitute a personal sacrifice. In such a case, the charity supports his values; thus, the charitable contribution is morally appropriate.

Regarding the most impoverished regions of the earth, the fundamental problem there is not a lack of wealth redistribution. Invariably the main problem is the lack of any kind of stable, rights-respecting government. Although handouts may help some of the world’s poor in the short run, what the oppressed poor really need is the creation of governments that respect their rights, which would foster economic development and attract foreign investment by profit-seeking businesses. Self-sacrificially redistributing wealth might give committed altruists a perverse “warm glow,” but it is immoral, and it does nothing to improve the long-term prospects of the poor.

It is true that those born in America are the cultural and economic heirs of philosophers, statesmen, and industrialists such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and J. D. Rockefeller—whose ideas and innovations led to the creation of enormous wealth across America. We should neither feel guilty about that nor apologize for our wealth. We should instead encourage people of other nations to establish rights-respecting governments, which will in turn give rise to economic prosperity.

Fundamentally, the world’s poor need to throw off the morality of altruism—the morality of self-sacrifice and unearned guilt—and embrace the morality of rational self-interest—the morality of self-esteem and the proud pursuit of one’s values. And if people in wealthy, industrialized countries wish to help the poor do that, the best thing we can do is understand this truth ourselves and advocate it.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons


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