What is Philanthropy?

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Eleemosynary refers to the philanthropic impulse and it derives from the Latin word for alms. But what is the nature of philanthropy? The philanthropists you see in the paper are usually wealthy people whose very public activities in giving relatively small percentages of their earnings to charity constitute a form of image building and public relations and oftentimes the giving can actually be related to dispelling negative associations created by their business affairs. For instance recently the Coca Cola company sponsored a campaign calling attention to obesity. Of course Coke is one of the biggest offenders as a substance when it comes to weight gain. An article in The Wall Street Journal, "Charitable Gifts From Wealthy Koch Brothers Often Prompt Partisan Reactions" (WSJ, 8/3/14) shows how gifts to medical and cultural institutions can varnish an industrialist's reactionary image. El Chapo, known for the violence he used to dominate the Mexican drug trade, is beloved as a Robin Hood type character by many of the poor mountain people who now protect him. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett two of the wealthiest men in the world are notoriously philanthropic. In 201l, they created The Giving Pledge which encourages the richest people on the planet to give away most of their money. But when you have over 60 billion dollars and you pledge to give away 99% of it (which is what Buffet did), that still leaves you with over $600 million to live on--not exactly chump change. On the other side of the fence Franciscan monks, who probably start with very little, take a vow of poverty in which they give away everything. Larissa MacFarquhar deals with the subject of extreme altruism of this kind in recently published book Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help and there are some geneticists who believe such altruism is actually naturally selective. In an essay/review of David Sloan Wilson's Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others, "The Biology of Being Good to Others," (The New York Review of Books," 3/19/15) H. Allen Orr writes:

"This view was popularized in l976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. But the real breakthrough came in the l960's with W.D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection. Hamilton saw mathematically that a gene that encourages an organism to act altruistically can actually increase in numbers from one generation to the next by natural selection if those who benefit from the altruism tend to be relatives of the altruist. The reason is that, as kin, these beneficiaries of altruistic behavior often also carry the gene for altruism."

But there's a big difference between willingly choosing penury and remaining wealthy enough to take advantage of a foolhardy Supreme Court decision (Citizens United v. FEC) which allows the rich to control politics. Further most philanthropy is biased. You only give to what you're interested in. If you're tired of the abuses of vegetarians, you might want to "free the vegetables:" if you're an animal lover you'll give to "save the whales." But with the exception of the few who take a vow of poverty or attempt to reign in their own desires, some philanthropy can also turn out to have selfish motives.

"Francis of Assisi" by Cimabue

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}