When billionaires are criticized for having an excess of unearned wealth, their defenders like to point out that many billionaires are philanthropists. Bill Gates is famous for his foundation, Jeff Bezos has given millions to his charities, and the Koch brothers have spent lavishly in such areas as higher education and medical research.
One stock counter to this stock defense is to point out that such philanthropy yields many advantages ranging from tax breaks to buying influence. To use an Aristotelian criticism, if the billionaires are engaging in philanthropy in order to advance their own interests rather than being generous for generosity’s sake, then they are not acting from virtue and should not be praised. To use a non-billionaire example, if I volunteer with an environmental group because I want to impress the liberals, then I am not being virtuous. If I volunteer because I want to do good, then I would be virtuous.
A utilitarian would be rather less concerned with the motives and character of the billionaires and more concerned with the consequences. So, if Bezos donates money from a desire to gain advantages for himself, that does not matter—what matters is the effect of the donation in terms of generating happiness and unhappiness. As such, even if a billionaire should not be praised for their motives or character, they should be lauded if their donation does more good than the alternatives. While the motives and character of billionaires and the utilitarian value of philanthropy can be debated at great length, it seems rather more important to get to the heart of the matter.
When people point out that the rich give more to charity than the non-rich, they are making what seems to be an obviously true claim. After all, the rich have more resources and hence can give more in total and as a percentage and make less of a sacrifice than those who are poorer. To use an analogy, suppose Sally Bigbucks and I are at lunch. Poor Pete asks us for some money to get food for his family. I have $20 in my pocket and Sally has $1,000. If lunch is $10, I could give 50% of what I have and still get my lunch. Sally could give 90% of what she has on hand and still have enough to buy herself 10 lunches.
Another point is that the rich only can be charitable because other people are in need. On the one hand, this can be dismissed as a “duh”: charity is only needed because there are people who need charity. On the other hand, this is an important point and the matters of why the rich are so rich and others are so poor that they need charity from the rich need to be given due consideration.
Greatly oversimplified, the right tends to claim that the rich earn their wealth and those who need charity are defective in some manner (or have been the victim of some disaster). As such, the rich are generously giving what they have justly earned to those who are not worthy or capable of earning it on their own. To use a Thanksgiving analogy, Grandma Sally has created a great feast that she graciously shares with her relatives, despite the fact they contributed little or nothing to the feast.
The left tends to claim that the rich get most of their wealth by using their advantages and exploiting others. On this view, there are so many poor people who need charity because the rich have funneled the wealth from them to themselves and concentrated it. As such, when the rich engage in charity they are giving back to the poor a little bit of what they took from them. To use a Thanksgiving analogy, Grandma Sally has a great feast in which everyone works hard to create the feast and Grandma decides who gets how much food and doles out a few bits of turkey to the folks at the little table.
While the left and right will endlessly debate this, it is evident that charity is needed because there are people who are poor or otherwise lacking and cannot meet their needs by their own efforts. This is the system that exists and it creates both those in need of charity and those who have so many resources that they can engage in philanthropy and still remain wealthy. As such, while philanthropy is certainly better than if the rich all elected to give nothing it is still the result of a bad system—one that is so imbalanced that some people require charity despite working hard.
Naturally one could advance the usually counter that those who get charity are somehow defective, such as lazy and unwilling to find good jobs. But this is counter to the actual facts: people need charity because we have created and tolerate a system that takes so much from so many that some must hope that those who hold the wealth will deign to share a little bit.