Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More on Philanthropy

In my last post, I mentioned that I am reading the Summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly entitled Philanthropy which is separated into 3 sections, The Ask, The Gift, The Get.  I just finished the first section, The Ask, and was surprised to find just as many essays about the problems, even the evil of philanthropy, as about the positives of the concept.  Surprised, not because I was unaware of those that do not favor philanthropy as a way of improving humanity's condition, but because the logic of some of those against its use was solid.  While certainly there are those who abhor what they consider the giving away of hard-earned material gains to those whose only claim is their need, simply because they are selfish, arrogant, leeches who have little concern for anything not related to the gratification of their own egos, they are also those who have a well thought out understanding that there is a diminishing rate of return for giving and receiving that does not include some sort of responsibility for both parties to strive to end the cycle of need.

In other words, it is better to teach a man to fish, than to merely provide him with fish to eat.

If you google the above quote, you will find its origin attributed to many different sources.  One of the sources I found was Moses Maimonides, a scholar of Jewish law and philosophy who lived in the 12th century.  Among his many accomplishments, Maimonides (full name Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon) wrote the Mishneh Torah, a text still studied today for its advanced understanding of Jewish laws and ethics.  Oddly, although I say oddly in the context of the current vitriolic relationship between Jews and Muslims, Maimonides was influenced in his writing by both Jewish and Muslim philosophers, and was well regarded in both the Jewish and Islamic worlds of his time. 

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides describes the ladder of charity in which he details eight degrees.
The first and highest degree is related to the fish quote above. In essence, the highest degree of charity is the act which places the receiver in a position where he can dispense with other people's aid.  It reminds me a bit of how parents should treat their children.  Provide them with the basics, shelter, food, morals, and confidence, then give them the opportunity to grow from this foundation, and to use their talents to become happy, healthy, productive adults.  A presence without hovering.
Comforts, but perhaps not luxuries.  Can anyone say roots and wings?

The second level of charity are acts in which the giver and receiver are unaware of each other.  In this scenario, the giver gives without the need for recognition; charity for its own sake.

One step lower he describes as an act where the giver knows to whom he gives, but the receiver does not know the origin of the charity.  The giver acknowledges the needs of others, but gives in a public setting so does not know specifically who is benefiting.

One step lower still is that in which the poor person knows the source of their succor, but the giver is unaware of how his donation is used.  Maimonides considers this form important in that the receivers can accept assistance without shame, a feeling that seems less prevalent in today's world.

One step below that is when the giver bestows the gift personally to the recipient.

Next lower is one who donates only when asked.  (This is important in that it sheds a new light on all the steps above, in that those who give at those levels do so without being asked.  They understand their role as humans; to help those with less).

Below that is one who gives less than is fitting, but is gracious in doing so.

Then finally, one who gives grudgingly, as if it pains him to help others.

Note again, the scrooges among us don't even make the list.  One might say that people who do not give at all are missing the main point of life, the actual meaning of life.  To help others.

So, how do we judge charity today?  Government assistance?  Non-profits?  Huge philanthropic organizations with their philanthropoids, people who act as gate keepers, monitoring the flow of money to those groups and individuals they deem deserving?  Our own giving?

The good news is that Americans are one of the most giving peoples on earth.  (A chart on the first few pages indicates that in 2013, 68% of Americans donated money, 44% donated time).  And, that chart aside, it may be said that we all donate via our tax money, as the United States, directly, and through organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, allocates billions of dollars to groups and nations in need.   

But the bad news is that much of our giving seems to land on the bottom of Maimonides' ladder.  We debate the amount of our assistance, domestic and foreign, frequently with malevolence, and often by describing those to whom we give in a not very flattering manner.  And when we do give anonymously, it is often through a religiously affiliated organization that uses heaven and hell as the reward or punishment for not giving.  Or when anonymous, there is still a splash on the internet about someone donating millions to charity X.  Even anonymous is not without acclaim.  (As a side note, if the IRS were to eliminate charitable donations as a tax incentive, how severely would donations tumble?  25%?  50%?  More?)

Still, by all means, be human.  Donate what resources or time you can.  And perhaps, every once in a while, don't take the deduction.  Who knows, perhaps there are eight degrees of heaven gauged according to our own level of charity.


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