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The ethics behind rich people "philanthropy"

Andrew Carnegie gave away over $350 million in his lifetime. According to the Columbia University Libraries, he was the first extremely wealthy person to publicly state that “the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes.” He even wrote a manifesto, The Gospel of Wealth, that claimed all personal wealth beyond the necessities should be regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the community. He seemingly adhered to this ideal, helping build over 2,000 libraries and establishing various trusts.

But this is not an article intended to praise Andrew Carnegie. Libraries mean very little when the community has no time to visit them. According to pbs.org, while Carnegie resided in a mansion, his steel workers worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. They had no time to eat or rest. Their only holiday was the Fourth of July. Protective gear was scarce, horrific injuries were common, and 40 years was considered old age. For their grueling efforts, they skated just above the poverty line, averaging about 0.00025 percent of Carnegie’s yearly earnings.

Any efforts to fight back were squashed. At the Homestead Strike, for example, the Carnegie Steel Company clashed with union members, resulting in the death of 16 people. With the threat of violence hanging over their heads, workers were forced to toil in inhumane conditions. Under Carnegie, it was clear that profits, not people, were paramount.

So how do we reconcile Carnegie’s philanthropy and avarice? We attend a school that bears his name and is built on his fortune. Should we be grateful? Should we be uncomfortable? Should we be indifferent to something we have no control over? At what point do the positives of philanthropy outweigh the negatives of poor working conditions?

The answer is never. Philanthropy does not erase the abuse and exploitation of workers, and we cannot pretend it does.

First of all, philanthropy is not that impressive when you have a huge fortune. Large donations are incredibly helpful and meaningful to their recipients, but they have little to no effect on the donors. Billionaires have a truly ludicrous amount of money. They could give away millions of dollars and see no change in their lifestyle. They could give away $900 million and still live an incredibly pampered life. A struggling student who donates $20 to an online fundraiser is more generous than most philanthropists because the loss of that cash will actually affect their life. We shouldn’t malign philanthropy, of course, but neither should we worship billionaires for something that affected them no further than a slight cramp in their hand as they wrote a check on their private jet. The incredibly wealthy need to recognize their responsibility to society as Carnegie did, but they should not let that understanding end with philanthropic efforts.

Additionally, no matter how hard billionaires work, no matter how smart they are, there is no way their wealth is proportional to their effort. They aren’t working a billion times harder than a fast food worker, they just have power and ownership that a fast food worker doesn’t. We cannot praise them for giving away their hard earned money when, for the most part, it’s actually the money their employees earned for them. We also have to consider people who inherited their wealth, rich for no other reason than the circumstances of their birth.

Finally, we need to know if the means justify the ends. Imagine, for a moment, two scenarios. In the first, a boss treats his employees fairly. He gives them livable wages and plenty of holidays. The company thrives, but stays relatively small. The boss earns $300,000 in a year, and he donates four percent to charity. A local charity receives $12,000 and uses it to feed around five homeless people for a month.

In the second scenario, the boss works his employees to the bone. They struggle to feed their children. They work long shifts with no holidays, and too many sick days put them in danger of losing their job. The company grows bigger and bigger, bringing on more mistreated employees. The boss earns $300 million in a year, and he donates four percent to charity. A local charity receives $12 million and builds an entirely new homeless shelter.

Some might suggest that the second situation is more desirable. After all, a donation of $12 million can do so much more than a donation of $12,000. People should earn large amounts of money so they can give large amounts of money back to the community.

While this is a nice idea in theory, the reality is much murkier. How much wealth is enough? How wealthy do you have to be before you can start funneling it back into the community? How much can you spend on yourself along the way? How many workers can be written off as collateral damage?

The truth is, there is no stage in the process where morals are irrelevant. No amount of philanthropy can excuse the abuse and exploitation of workers. Any future benefits are nebulous. Any current suffering is real and visceral. A low-level employee is entitled to a healthy work environment, but the boss is not entitled to the publicity and fame that philanthropy brings.

This isn’t a problem left behind in the empty steel mills. Andrew Carnegie is not the only person who built a fortune on the back of mistreated workers. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man alive, has a fortune of around $150 billion. This number is so large it’s nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Meanwhile, his warehouse employees are punished for taking sick days and bathroom breaks.

In a world where such disparities exist, we have an obligation to consider our views of wealth. We need to think about duty and obligations. About what we are willing to forgive, and what we aren’t. About who we must hold accountable. And if we must leave behind the comforting pretext of philanthropy in order to confront the exploitation lurking beneath the surface, then so be it.