‘Our society would be worse off without philanthropy’
Values of our society
Who actually decides what charity is? Professor Giuseppe Ugazio discusses what the terms ‘good’ and ‘charitable’ mean. He tells us what philanthropy can achieve in this context, and reveals whether money or personal involvement is more important.
Professor Giuseppe Ugazio holds a doctorate in philosophy and in neuroeco-nomics. His research sees him use interdisciplinary methods to investigate social decision-making, especially in connection with moral values and honesty. He is the Edmond de Rothschild Assistant Professor in Behavioural Philanthropy and teaches at the University of Geneva’s Centre for Philanthropy.
Who decides what’s good? Is an organisation a charitable body because it’s tax-exempt?
Giuseppe Ugazio: Quite the opposite. Being tax-exempt isn’t the definition of a charity. It works, from a practical perspective, but it would be answering the question from the wrong perspective. Tax exemption is the consequence of being a charity.
So, how do we decide whether something is charitable or not?
At the societal level, the answer is ‘the majority’. In a democracy, the best system we’ve got, the majority needs to make the decision regarding of which moral values contribute most to shaping our society. That said, we shouldn’t ignore the moral values of the minority, either.
What does that mean for individuals?
Every single person is free to decide on the moral values they wish to hold privately, as long as they fit within generally accepted frame-works. Within these frameworks, you can choose what’s charitable, in your eyes.
So what’s the tax exemption for?
By making charities tax-exempt, the government offers an incentive for people to offer private support for particular issues, such as helping people in need or supporting the arts. On their own initiative, they can step in where the state is unable to provide any (or sufficient) funds. The tax exemption is how the state recognises this involvement: after all, people are helping to perform a task that would cost the state money if it were to do it itself.
Does the tax exemption compromise the notion of charity? Aren’t philanthropists at risk of only doing something because of the tax benefits, or at least being seen to do it for that reason?
There are two questions we need to address in this respect. Is people’s motivation compromised? If so, we should see that motivation to engage in philanthropy would be compromised once tax benefits are lifted. Aside from this philosophical question, there’s the practical question, too: does the tax exemption enable more money to go to where it’s needed, in a more efficient way?
Is undertaking charity work the same thing as doing good deeds, in a moral sense?
The two are intertwined. It’s impossible to do charity work and not believe it’s a good thing. If you’re engaged with charities, you want to promote a particular value. Philanthropists invest their own resources, getting involved because they believe a particular cause should be given support. It’s hard to imagine that a person could be involved in charity work without believing it’s morally good to do so.
That means there’s a difference between what someone personally thinks is good, and what people generally think is good?
It’s important to note that the person undertaking the action is doing something morally good, in their eyes. However, someone else could well see it differently – or it could even have a negative impact on others. For example, Western philanthropy involves money being sent to less developed societies, which can destroy local structures. However, just because an action has negative consequences does not mean that the intention behind it was morally bad.
‘This sector may well be a pillar of society, but we’re unable to recognise it.’
Does it matter if the resources used are ‘surplus’?
It’s certainly easier to use a resource for philanthropic purposes if you’ve got too much of it. But a person could also use this money for other, non philanthropic purposes.
But is it more morally valuable if a person donates something that they could make use of themselves?
I think it’s hard to defend the statement that it’s moral to invest surplus resources, and even more moral to donate things that a person could actually make use of themselves. When it comes to questions of morality, we think in categories: something is either moral, or it’s immoral. Both the types of charity work you mention fall on the moral side. The prerequisite for this is that a person needs to be following their vision, even if they’re giving away something that they have too much of.
You said that the majority decides what’s charitable. Do we need a formal process for this decision to be made, or does this happen outside of official decision-making bodies?
Society needs to reach a consensus. The state represents the foundations of this, funding things that we really can’t do without, such as education. The state makes laws to protect fundamental values, but civil society can determine additional values.
Can you give an example of this?
Society can lay down values that aren’t held by the majority, or that are highly specific. The work undertaken to protect glaciers is one example of this. These values do need to be compatible with society’s overarching values, but they don’t need to be state-sanctioned for them to be regarded as morally good.
Nevertheless, you need a certain consensus.
If something’s going to be written down in law, you need a formalised process. Other values develop within society, growing out of history and tradition. They can be social values, such as saying hello to people when we see them. Nobody is sent to prison for not doing so. It’s a social norm. We see things as ‘good’ because society agrees we should do them. Shaking hands is a learned gesture in our society – even if, at present, it’s a bit of a no-no. We don’t need a process to formalise these kinds of values.