Monday, 8 June 2009

"Giving something back . . . "

How many times have you heard someone who's achieved enormous success start to talk about "giving back to the community" or something similar?

Just at random in recent days we've had:
  • Farmers managing director Rod McDermott said the company wanted to give back to the communities in which it had operated for the past 100 years.
  • A "partnership with prisoners" that will deliver "a great opportunity for the men to give back to the community"
  • A former primary school principal "looking to find out how I could give back to the community"
Everyone from schools to pub charities to successful sports and business men and women talk about "giving something back," but isn't it true that the only people who need to "give it back" are the the thieves and burglars who've taken something first (like the politicians who talk and talk about their years of "public service" spent in the trough)?

Philosopher Stephen Hicks thinks so. Says Stephen:
Like many other people, I am troubled by this phrase when I hear it.
The usual scenario: A successful person makes a donation to a worthy cause but downplays any praise by saying “I’m only giving back.”
The usual gentle rejoinder is to point out that the phrase assumes that the giver has taken something from others in the first place — he’s borrowed or stolen something and in “giving back” is merely restoring it to its rightful owners. That zero-sum assumption is usually untrue: most donors have earned what they have. So the phrase “giving back” contains within it an injustice: a false accusation.
Yet there is more to it: the phrase also denies the benevolence of the giver. If you are only giving back what is rightfully someone else’s, then you do not deserve any special praise for your action. Your benevolence need not be acknowledged or honored.
So the phrase really is a double injustice: it implies that you do not deserve what you have and it denies you any credit you deserve for your benevolent act. (Or to put it abstractly: It is the imputation of an undeserved negative and the denial of a deserved positive.)
So far so bad.
But it gets worse.
How much worse? Read on.


  1. ".. but isn't it true that the only people who need to "give it back" are the the thieves and burglars .."

    'Need' to as opposed to 'want' to.

    I've disagreed with you before on this type of thing, PC. Whilst acknowledging that it is wrong, not to mention downright rude, to deny one's act of benevolence, etc, you ignore the varying personal reasons as to why somebody might wish to make such an act.

    Eg: Successful businessman A might see an act of benevolence as a kind gesture twd the people of the community who supported his business over many years. In short, it's his *choice* to feel that way about the matter, as opposed to it being some sort of 'duty' and, as such, I see nothing wrong with it.

    I have someone very close to me who is very successful professionally and, as a result of that, financially. That person receives much pleasure from spending a lot of money on Christmas presents for disadvantaged folk via trusted charities in that location.

    'Want' to versus 'need' to: big difference IMO. The problem is that the phrase has become something of a mantra with only one meaning.

  2. Clarification re last para above:

    "the phrase" being 'give something back' ..

  3. I was going to grumble, but Sus has already done it for me.

    Instead, I'll relate a side tale. Many people I know give to charity (myself included). Many don't. Guess the political leaning of the ones who do? I guess it's fairly consistent with expectations when I think about it, but it always surprises me that the ones who preach collectivism and helping your fellow man (usually over and above yourself) are the same ones who don't do that themselves. I guess they vote for a government to do it for them, but that choice affects ME, dammit!

  4. Agree with Sus.

    Our family was supported by the Salvation Army in years gone by - now we are one of their top personal benefactors in NZ.

    We are literally 'giving back'. They helped us without question, and without wanting anythin in return.

    And giving to charity is more often than not a rationally selfish act.

  5. "Need" to as opposed to "want" to is precisely the issue.

    It's the issue between duty and benevolence, if you like -- or to put it another way, the difference between duty and gratitude (as in Ruth's case).

    As Stephen says if you read on, "I am in favor of rationally benevolent giving" -- which is what Greg and Ruth and your successful businessman are all doing -- but against the duty ethic behind the idea that it's “giving back."

    I agree with him. Here, in part, is why.

    Here is the first part of the “giving back” claim made explicit: "the zero-sum assumption and the consequent implication that one is merely returning something one has borrowed or stolen."

    Here is the second (in the words of Immanuel Kant): "A man ought not to be flattered for his acts of charity lest his heart swell with generosity and desire to make benevolence the sole rule of his conduct."

    Which leads, as he says, to the claim that "charity is a matter of justice — compensatory justice, to be precise, and a denial that charity is properly a matter of benevolence. . ."

    The leading implication of such a claim is of course that "if charity is a matter of justice, then there are implications for the role of the state, given that the state is an arbiter and enforcer of justice. In other words, Kant’s twist on the ethics of charity has consequences for modern political philosophy and the welfare state."

    That's the point, huh?

    If giving is a duty, then the state must by rights enforce it, the "need" for a gift becomes a claim on the giver, and the gift itself becomes an "entitlement."

    Heard that word before?

    It's a product of this "duty" ethic.

  6. Quite right Peter.

    I suspect the examples in your post, like McDermott, are probably just blowing smoke. I doubt if the 'giving back' thing is the result of some deeply held altruistic belief - more likely to be the PR man at work.

  7. Greig, I've found your example to be the case with my own experience, too, in measuring both time *and* money donated to charity work.

    Those with weekday time on their hands but little spare cash, eg beneficiaries, seldom volunteer an hour or two for, say, Meals on Wheels, etc. Too bloody busy doing nothing ...

    PC, I can't disagree with that comment -- I couldn't, holding a libertarian perspective. ;)

    But I remember disagreeing with you & other Objectivists regarding the large amount donated to charity by the Morgans upon the sale of TradeMe.

    You were correct in stating that had they put that cash into, eg, new business(es), more people may well have benefited had community betterment (for want of a better term in a hurry) been their aim. Fair call.

    But my position was, and still is, that the *personal degree of satisfaction* gained by the Morgans as a result of their actions MUST be the crucial factor. And they presumably felt more inclined toward supporting charities which, ironically, is in line with Objectivist ideals of pursuing personal happiness, is it not? ;)

    That's the point I was trying (?) to make. Maybe not so well ...

  8. " .. felt more inclined toward supporting charities which, ironically, is in line with Objectivist ideals of pursuing personal happiness, is it not?"

    Put more concisely by Ruth:

    ".. giving to charity is more often than not a rationally selfish act."

  9. Before you read on, I have to warn you that in my comment, Marcus-the-ex-lefty might be showing through. My apologies...

    I absolutely love it when rich buggers give their money away. When it's benevolence on the scale that Bill Gates' appears to be, then I love it all the more - I even give that a Tiger Woods fist pump.

    I believe there's an inherent moral urging to help the truly less fortunate. Please note that I say 'help', not 'support'. Obviously I believe that the duty should only ever be a self-imposed, self-enforced one, but it's there none-the-less and it manifests itself in a myriad of ways.

    Just as obviously, "giving it back" is a completely meaningless catch phrase that is only being bandied about because people irrationally feel the need to justify their generosity. Why even attempt to so? It's pointless, and as Hicks notes, is somewhat demeaning to the benefactor. If I make a large donation to a charity, that's my fucken business - the wheres, whys and whos are nobody's concern but mine.

    For what it's worth, I don't see the sense in applying moral philosophies to, nor measuring the 'worth' of, things like generosity or charity. It's too individual a concept to apply a blanket philosophy to, and for the same reason, can't be viewed as right/wrong. A Christian would applaud my benevolence, Nietzsche would call me a weakling encouraging weaklings, Plato would say it's a indication that my soul is in balanced harmony. Who cares either way? It's mine, and I'll do what I want with it. It's one of the few damn things I'm truly free to do these days.

  10. There is a distinction here between the phrase "giving back" as a platitude and giving back something in repayment of a prior act. Ruth gives an example where her family was helped by a charity, and being able to help the charity in return is indeed "giving back". Many businesspeople may consider that their communities have been loyal customers to them over the years, and may wish to donate to community causes in return. The key is to not misinterpret the words. Giving back is fine (as many of us do to our parents), but the phrase is often misused and therefore becomes hollow and trite.

    Marcus, you've probably noticed by now that people who support personal freedom and oppose being robbed by the government to give to the poor aren't the greedy evil devils that the lefties make us out to be. It's just another one of the lies that they come up with to distract people frm noticing their pockets being picked.

  11. "That zero-sum assumption is usually untrue: most donors have earned what they have."

    This is an assumption. The amount of cross subsidisation, the corruption of a free market, and disproportionate socioeconomic influence when negotiating the exchange of property will all make the issue of what is earnt and what is obtained through coercion a very difficult discussion.

    "A man ought not to be flattered for his acts of charity lest his heart swell with generosity and desire to make benevolence the sole rule of his conduct."

    I think Kant, at least for the purpose of this discussion, was assuming the opposite.

    "makes restitution for an injustice of which he is quite unconscious; though unconscious of it only because he does not properly examine his position."

    So although an act of charity may not be a rational decision in this case, niether is it an act of pure altruism, it's an act based on the acceptance of a social concience

    Although I would guess that an objectivist would object to a social concience being the basis for such an act, the real point behind what Kant was saying is that altruism shouldn't provide the motivation for an act of charity, but rather duty to the fair distribution of wealth, something objectivists tend to agree with, in a broad sense. The different outcomes of these two discussions are mainly the result of a differing assumption.

  12. Kant's point of view is that if you have any interest in the action at all, it is outside the realm of morality.

    He was the most extreme of duty-based or deontological morality: you do things out of a "categorical imperative," not because you have any teleological (read goal-based) end in mind.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.