Topic: Society

The Ethics of Generosity

This is an odd country, to be sure. Spend your millions on mansions, cars and a lavish life-style, and the public and media fawns all over you. Use your resources to help others, and you become the target of criticism.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post suggested that white American couples who opt for foreign adoptions are revealing their ingrained racism by not choosing to adopt one of the many parentless African American children in this country. Wealthy celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Madonna who have adopted African children can’t be accused of racism, so some critics are questioning their values for not adopting American children.

Even Oprah Winfrey, an epically generous philanthropist who has given tens of millions to charitable organizations and the victims of Hurricane Katrina, finds herself under fire for supposedly misdirecting her generosity. She recently launched the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, a $40 million project design to find and educate promising young women from impoverished families and groom them for leadership. But the Academy is in South Africa. “Why didn’t Oprah help poor children in the U.S.?” asked the Fox News Channel’s John Gibson. Others have declared that the Academy should accept more girls, or is too lavish in its accommodations.

The Ethics Scoreboard has two words for these gadflies and their ilk: Shut up.

True, finding fault with charity and generosity is easy, once you get the feel of it. How dare donors give millions to elite activities like ballet, opera and theater, when inner city schools are crumbling? How selfish of Michael J. Fox to use his celebrity to attract gifts for Parkinson’s Disease research—doesn’t he’s taking funds away from AIDS research? Why, the 40 million Oprah is spending on just 152 girls could build a hospital that could save the lives of thousandsÂ…or buy health care insurance for hundreds of American who can’t afford it!

No one who decides to help others should have to endure such sniping. Adopting a child to give it a loving home and a family is an unequivocally ethical act. A child is a child, regardless of skin color of nationality. Supporting the arts and culture is crucial to preserving our values; those who choose to aim their charity in that direction deserve only thanks. There is no hierarchy of disease and misery, no scourges more worthy of research than others. A gift to find a cure to any disease is an act of sublime generosity, choosing to relieve someone’s pain rather than add to one’s own pleasure. And spending 40 million dollars to build the human capital of Africa, a resource-rich continent crippled by decades of corruption and violence, is a gift to the world. But none of these choices of charity need to be defended, because charity and generosity are core ethical values. One cannot be unethically ethical.

Indeed, there is only one proper response to the wealthy, powerful and famous—and the average citizen—who voluntarily contributes money to a local cause, a social problem, a community need, a world-wide dilemma, or a single person or child in search of love and kindness. It isn’t “you should have given more and sooner,” and it isn’t “you should have given to something more important.” It is, simply, this:

“Good for you. You are an example for all of us.”

And then follow that example by giving generously to something you care about.

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