Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Generosity, Vulnerability, and Immortality

Jonathan B. Imber

—Jonathan B. Imber

Steven Grosby has carefully argued for his idea about the significance of “disinterested interest” as one basis for understanding the motivation to be philanthropic. Motivation itself is one tough nut to crack, and it reminds me that the better part of all judgment that we have of others is by necessity—that is, through experience—rooted in our observations of their actions rather than the reasons they may give for them. Economic thinking, however much it is extended into other fields by the theory of rational choice, elides the difference between motivation and action, settling instead on judging results or outcomes as the principal measure of success. Such thinking has about it an air of triumphalism; after all, whatever counts as failure indicts motivation as a causal ingredient in a formula for action that would count generosity, for example, as “rational” only insofar as the provider does not give away so much that he or she becomes the one requiring provision.

Of course, to be generous is not a characteristic determined by any single aspect of identity, such as one’s social class. The possession of wealth is no guarantee of generosity, and poverty by no means precludes it. In the tradition of social exchange theory, the act of giving is predicated on mutual understandings of reciprocity. I give, and you acknowledge that I gave. These types of understandings go beyond the prerequisites of a market economy, where assumptions such as “I pay, you deliver” or “I prefer, you accommodate” work only insofar as reciprocity and reputation mutually reinforce one another. The act of charity is for most purposes not all that different, except that the motivation to give, as Grosby rightly recognizes, is more than natural, though it may be that too. To say that it is supernatural, that is, beyond the testing alone that observation of action may provide, is to say that we see a purpose to it that transcends acknowledgment from others as the required proof of its importance or significance.


Philanthropic Greatness

The problem with what I have outlined thus far is that the history of mainstream philanthropy has always been tied to the existence of great wealth, great persons, great institutions, and great notice to that wealth and to those persons and institutions. This is not all that shapes this history, but it is part of the canonical patterns of all kinds of progress that such notice is given and recorded for posterity. If you travel to Freeport, Maine, you will see that the building that used to be the public library there still bears the name of Andrew Carnegie even though the structure now houses a clothing store. Carnegie’s name is engraved in stone, and despite the commercial dissonance that mixing his name and the store’s name may cause, it was retained either as a reminder of his beneficence or, more likely, as a testament to a simple cost/benefit calculation that its removal would either look like a defacement or would not be worth the cost required. The name Carnegie, chiseled in stone, will endure no doubt much longer than a line of clothing. This might be considered as exemplifying the difference between the pursuit of long-term and short-term gains.

The long term is not the same as immortality, but inscriptions in granite, whether on a library or tombstone, are also more than displays of affluence. Why anyone is motivated to pay anything for the sake of honoring another person, beyond the good impression it may provide to others, is hardly a mystery. Our vanity depends on others. To be thanked and to expect to be thanked are primordial elements in what motivates us to act on our own or another’s behalf. In the recent book On Kindness, by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, this primordial assumption is updated by the observation that to be kind and generous is also an act of consummate risk-taking, opening the one who exhibits kindness to the vulnerability of rejection by others. The psychoanalytic lesson is molded with the historical judgment that our current era is less encouraging of kindness because a therapeutic or narcissistic age guards especially against allowing one to be vulnerable to others. Adam Smith viewed this from another perspective when he wrote, in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, “To oblige [someone] by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it” ([1759] 1982 II, ii. 1.3). Generosity and gratitude for it, if demanded or coerced, lose their meaning as virtues. Smith assumed nothing about vulnerability as a kind of cost attributed to a loss of self-esteem. Instead, in his time, unlike our own, shaming someone to be grateful was simply viewed as a morally inferior way of inducing the virtue of gratitude.

The choice to be generous and to be grateful for generosity, however such generosity is conceived, is not grounded in an appreciation of mortality (“you can’t take it with you”) but rather in a much more mundane appreciation of the possession of things themselves. The moral superiority of choice—not rational choice—depends on the value of things not only in sentimental terms but also in terms of their ascribed importance in the preservation of collective memory. Among the greatest philanthropists are often found the greatest “collectors” of art, books, and other possessions of economic value but not of economic value alone (such as gold and silver). To acquire certain things, to collect them together, often in one place, and to organize their presentation to others, are all actions that serve to create a collective memory. The inspiration to do this is what often gives greatness to wealth.

But this kind of greatness is only for the few, and even those few face difficulties in imagining how to shape that collective memory. Who defines for the wealthy the purposes to which wealth can and should be put? In addresses about the dangers of riches, such figures as John Henry Cardinal Newman and John Wesley argued that those with wealth had a responsibility to use it constructively. Newman was nevertheless suspicious of this purpose: “Even when his conduct is most disinterested and amiable, as in spending for the comfort of those who depend on him, still this indulgence of self, of pride and worldliness insinuates itself. Very unlikely therefore is it that he should be liberal towards God, for religious offerings are an expenditure without sensible return and that upon objects for which the very pursuit of wealth has indisposed his mind” (1898, 358). Both Newman and Wesley reproached those who acquired money for its own sake, with Wesley referring specifically to pleonexia, the condition of a desire to have more, in particular from others and at their expense. To covet, of course, is not the same as to collect, but whatever shape the amassing of things may take, the achievement invariably is at the expense of some other effort toward some other purpose.


Traditions of Purpose

Government acquires wealth at the expense of others in the form of all manner of taxation, which is given up voluntarily as the law representing the people’s will requires. That wealth is redistributed in all manner of ways, including the great forging of collective memory, for example, in the form of public monuments. However they have come about, these are monuments to what Americans at least historically aspired to view as greatness in the spirit of service to the nation. Philanthropy has long complemented such memorializing by helping to build institutions that revere and promote national purposes, education being the most conspicuous among those purposes. These kinds of purposes answer the question raised above about who defines for the wealthy the purposes to which wealth can and should be put. Such purpose has already been established in traditions that antedate the role that government has come to play in the last several centuries. What is at stake is how vast, private wealth can emulate the state not only in its welfare functions but also in its commemorative ones. That is, the forging of collective memory has never been exclusively a public function (i.e., the responsibility of government), but there is a Kulturkampf in place that makes all philanthropic action problematic in terms of the definition of that memory. The struggle itself has understandably been most intense within our educational institutions because they have most immediate access to impressing future generations.

Philanthropic activity typically takes place at levels of local, rather than national notice. The thousands of names associated with rooms and buildings in our colleges and universities, for example, are literally unknown to both faculty and students, even at the time the gifts are made. Within a few years, the names associated with these acts of giving are familiar to everyone, even though no one knows in any personal sense to whom the names refer. Here is one paradox of collective memory: the Lincoln Memorial melds person and history together in a collective act of national purpose. Beneath that level of purpose, the actions of particular persons melt away and disappear, leaving their acts of generosity fully embedded in the traditions of purpose already described. So it is with most acts of generosity. The gratitude is for an opportunity assured for others rather than exclusively a debt incurred to be paid by others. Giving back to one’s school after graduation is best understood as a traditional act of generosity. The “larger donors,” as they have come to be called, may imagine that the appreciation for their acts of generosity is in some manner more special than the lists of donor names by graduating class that appear in every alumnae magazine across the country. Joseph Epstein suggests that these feelings of self-importance are just that, and that they arise in our narcissistic age as a consequence of the loss of religious meaning in the lives of so many, especially among the wealthy. Like the admonitions of Newman and Wesley, Epstein’s humor at these wealthy donors’ expense is proof enough that the required puffing up to get the big givers to give is the therapeutic complement to what Smith decried as the morally inferior expectation that one might be shamed into being grateful.

Moses Maimonides, the twelfth-century philosopher-physician devised a ladder of charitable giving (Tzedakah) that was intended to provide moral judgment about different ways in which such generosity could be understood. The least morally approved act of giving is one done reluctantly or unwillingly. The most morally commendable act is one in which the donor forms some type of partnership with a person in need, enabling them to become self-supporting. The next most commendable act is when neither donor nor recipient is known to the other. And the next least commendable act is charity given willingly but less than one should. Maimonides elaborated eight levels of such charitable generosity.

The significance of this sort of moral calculus is to make clear the distinction between motive and action. Giving is good; not giving enough is not good enough. Anonymous giving is next to the highest form of giving, but there is one step higher where the donor is known to the recipient and helps in such a way as to enable the recipient to become self-sufficient. Maimonides assumed a world in which individual actors were moral agents unto themselves, with no such thing as welfare states and their bureaucratic agents of generosity. He assumed a world entirely constituted by localities of action. That world has certainly not disappeared, but the kind of wealth that is currently extant regularly creates a fusion between personality and purpose that literally thousands of others live off of day to day. The same is true for institutions and their purposes. The rise of explanatory models that herald ideas such as rational choice is consistent with the bureaucratization of both public and private wealth.

I have for many years played a game with students and friends about what one might do if by chance he or she won a hundred million dollars in a state lottery, as happens not frequently but often enough to be the subject of both academic study and occasional national attention. Imagine, I propose, buying a ticket for one dollar and discovering that it contains a sequence of numbers that can be exchanged for one hundred million dollars after taxes. What would you do the next day? Would you drop out of school or quit your job? Would you buy whatever you think you have always wanted? Would you take care of friends and family? How would you decide what to do? Do you think your relationships with others would be more vulnerable to change? Why would they change? And so on. I would ask them to entertain not the impossible but certainly the improbable, and thereby consider the blessings of circumstances that do not change dramatically in any particular direction, worse or better. No one, it seems, today can tell others what to do with their time and money, but without an anchoring in the traditional notion that all acts of true generosity are blessings conferred upon the giver as much as the receiver and are derived from a belief in an immortality that is precisely not our own, why we give will appear to matter more than it should and less than it does.



Epstein, Joseph.  2006.  “The Many Faces of Celebrity Philanthropy.”  In Character, Summer.

Grosby, Steven.  2009.  “Philanthropy and Human Action.”  Conversations on Philanthropy VI: 1-14. ©2009 DonorsTrust.

Newman, John Henry.  1898.  “The Danger of Riches.”  Miscellanies.  Edinburgh: John Grant, pp. 346-59.

Phillips, Adam and Barbara Taylor.  2009.  On Kindness.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Smith, Adam.  [1759] 1982.  The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.  Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Wesley, John.  1781. “The Danger of Riches”  (Sermon 87).  In The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 3 (Sermons III, 71-114). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press

———.  1790.  “The Danger of Increasing Riches”  (Sermon 131).  In The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 4 (Sermons IV, 115-151.)  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press

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