A Response to the Skepticism of Philanthropy
During the class discussion on Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” as well as the subsequent response/counter-response of Carlyle and Mill, concerns were raised (and echoed) regarding philanthropy in general. I figured this post could be devoted to an investigation of Browning’s philanthropic efforts, and philanthropy in general, in the hopes of perhaps establishing an ethical framework to work from based on some of the concerns raised in class discussion.
Much of the skepticism surrounding philanthropy sounded similar to ideas raised by psychological egoism, so that’s probably the best place to spend our time. Psychological egoism is the belief that all human action, whether we’re aware of it or not, is motivated by our own self interest. In the philanthropic/charitable sense, this is the school of thought which claims that those who take part in philanthropy, such as Elizabeth Browning, are only doing it to earn a sense of self-satisfaction (or, say, a tax receipt and something good for a resume).
The distinction that we need to make is quite simple: acts of self-interest are not necessarily selfish. Selfish actions ignore the interests of other people in circumstances where their interests ought not be ignored (a point where Carlyle pointedly fails, for example). In contrast, acts of self-interest—even if we hold psychological egoism to be true in any capacity—are centered on the self, but not at the expense of others. In this sense, these so-called acts of self-interest are nothing to be skeptical of. This is because the content of an action is more important than the potential desire (conscious or unconscious) of any resulting self-satisfaction. Taking Elizabeth Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” as an example, the content of this poem, of her philanthropy, is the abolition of slavery, whereas the desire is, at worst, the (seemingly pervasive) cynical view of being able to pat herself on the back for doing a good thing.
This is a curious perspective, is it not? The denigration of a good thing. Does the good thing somehow cease to exist? Does it stop being good thing if at the end we derive some sense of personal satisfaction from it? The most damning view of philanthropy according to psychological egoism appears to be the belief that somebody like Browning and her contemporaries in the Victorian era, or anybody else in any other era, can do something philanthropic all for the ultimate goal of feeling unjustifiably warm and fuzzy inside, as if to suggest that any feeling of self-satisfaction is somehow enough to tarnish the ambitions or goals of the preceding act of philanthropy altogether.
That is absurd. As outlined, it fails to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest. The corollary effects of potential profits Browning gained from gift book sales, or a personal sense of achievement she may have felt, cannot be said to be the motivating factor of her philanthropy; they are not enough to counteract the actual concerted effort made towards the relief of human suffering. Even if we can prove that her motivation was one of profit or reputation, one should (hopefully) still be able to say that, in the end, the effects made towards relieving slavery are worth their weight regardless.
For anybody reading, not only the philanthropists, prospective or otherwise: If you feel as though you could be doing more (as perhaps we all should), then endeavour to do so, but do not allow the skeptics to make you feel bad about feeling good.
For anybody reading, not only the skeptics: Do not use psychological egoism as a reason to wash your hands of attempting to do well for others given the opportunity; do not misconstrue a feeling of satisfaction as the guiding light behind philanthropic or altruistic behaviour. At the same time, do not eliminate your skepticism wholesale. Psychological egoism being bullshit does not mean that philanthropy cannot be exploited in various other ways.
Also, do not become like Thomas Carlyle.