Billionaire Robert F. Smith will pay the student debts of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported. Smith announced this plan on the same day he received an honorary doctorate from the school, to which he had also already pledged a gift of $1.5 million. Is charity always so altruistic?
During his commencement speech to the graduating class of Morehouse College, Smith told the Atlanta students he believed they would pay their fortunes forward and contribute to a better America. According to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, his gift to the 400 students could be worth as much as $40 million. Though this act is unquestionably charitable, not as much can be said for every other altruistic action. Sometimes we act in disguised self-interest or with other ulterior motives.
The Most Selfless Altruism
When is charity the most selfless? “When most of us think of altruism, the first thought that comes to mind is what we call ‘warm glow altruism’ where what you get in exchange for your gift is just a warm glow,” said Professor Timothy Taylor, Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. “If you donate money to the Red Cross to help tsunami victims in Japan or earthquake victims in Haiti, it’s pretty close to pure altruism. You’re not building your immediate community; you’re not giving to anyone you know—you’re just giving.”
Another nearly selfless kind of giving is through random act of kindness, which Robert F. Smith alluded to in his commencement speech at Morehouse recently. When committing a random act of kindness, we hope that even if it’s never repaid to us, the person to whom we give charity will pay that goodwill forward to another person, and that person will do the same. “In some sense you’re hoping to have an amplified effect of your good action and make the world a better place,” Professor Taylor said. “This is maybe not pure altruism, because you’re hoping for something other than a warm glow, but it’s darn close to it.”
Less Pure Acts of Giving
Sometimes when we give a gift, our motives are less honorable. Maybe we give a gift hoping to receive one in return. Commonly, this may happen when establishing a pattern of holiday or birthday gift-giving with acquaintances. We may consider how much we’ve spent on someone and hope to see a similar amount in return—and become disappointed when it falls short. Professor Taylor pointed to another example in which a bride and groom will calculate how much they spend hosting individual wedding guests and assume that they’re owed at least as much value in gifts.
Another ugly form of altruism is the kind of giving that is done with the unspoken expectation of a reward in the form of prestige or social status. “When you set up a personal foundation with your family name on it to give away money, there’s some social standing involved,” Professor Taylor said. “When you give money to a university or hospital to have your name on a room or on a building, there’s an element of social standing.” Furthermore, Professor Taylor said, if a charity has a large annual fundraiser, you may donate a large sum in exchange for some preferential treatment like VIP privileges at a party. The current college admission scandal is an example of people giving charitably to universities and expecting their children to gain admission in return.
Several other factors affect our spirits of giving as well. When we file charitable donations on our annual taxes, we engage in a legal act of self-interest in our altruism. Regardless of how selflessly we gave, we’re notifying the government that we’d like the tax break that comes along with it. Other times we feel social pressure to donate, whether our friend who’s walking with us has just put a dollar in the cup and looked at us expectantly or we’re listening to a door-to-door fundraiser describe the plight of another. Social pressure also extends to our personal politics toward the poor and needy and what assistance we believe they receive from taxpayer-funded government outreach.
Whatever our reasons, altruism is a regular part of social interaction. “The flow of gifts and charitable contributions of time and money are one of the ways in which social ties are expressed,” Professor Taylor said. “Sure, altruism and gift-giving are, to some extent, self-interested, but they are also recognition that we aren’t isolated individuals preoccupied with nothing but our own self-interest. Instead, we’re recognizing our roots and our roles in all of our broader communities.”
Robert F. Smith’s kindness to Morehouse College’s graduating class will, indeed, remain with them the rest of their lives.
Professor Timothy Taylor contributed to this article. Professor Taylor is Managing Editor of the prominent Journal of Economic Perspectives, published by the American Economic Association. He earned his Master’s degree in Economics from Stanford University. Professor Taylor has won student-voted teaching awards for his Introductory Economics classes at Stanford University.