Professor Giuseppe Ugazio | Foto: Jacques Erard

‘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.’

Photo: Jacques Erard

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.

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