Toward a philosophy of philanthropy

by George Weigel
The Philanthropy Roundtable
November 1, 2008

Frank Hanna—highly successful businessman, serious Catholic, winner of the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, stalwart Georgia Republican, husband, and father—is not your conventional radical. Yet Hanna has written a truly radical book, in both the popular and classical sense of the adjective. "Radical," after all, derives from the Latin word radix, meaning root, and What Your Money Means gets us to the root of the matter. It's a primer on the meaning of wealth, in which Hanna thinks aloud

with his readers about material possessions—and what it means to have a lot of them—with the aid of some neatly explained philosophical and moral principles. How to Use It Well is the provocation: a proposal for disposing of wealth that, if taken seriously and adopted widely, could change the face of American philanthropy, dramatically.

Hanna is nothing if not scrupulously self-reflective. Being a very wealthy man seems to have intensified in him a native predisposition to think hard—radically, if you will—

about What It All Means. Thus, at the outset of his book, he defines his position crisply while throwing down the gauntlet to his readers:

It's simply not right for those of us who have money to take it for granted. Each of us has to confront the reality of our money and seek to discern its meaning, not only in our own lives but in the overall scheme of things.

Just as Socrates insisted that "the unexamined life is not worth living," so I'm convinced that unexamined wealth is not worth having. Indeed, it's downright dangerous—to those of us who have it and to those we love ...

Either we discover its meaning and live in accordance with that meaning, or rid ourselves of it, because, like fire, it will harm us if we don't use it as it's meant to be used and handled as it needs to be handled.

Hanna's search for the meaning of money introduced him to a set of inner companions some might consider unusual for an entrepreneur, including, among others, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Ambrose, Maimonides, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The conclusions drawn from his wrestling with these thinkers reflect what philosophers call a "natural law" method of moral reasoning. While the "natural law" tradition is a tree with many branches, its roots are planted in a conviction that challenges today's post-modern culture of moral relativism: according to every form of natural law thinking, there are moral truths built into the world and into us, and we can know those truths by exercising the arts of reason. And when natural law thinkers say that there are moral truths built into the world, they mean built into everything: interpersonal relations and international relations; commerce and trade; sex and money. Everything in the human world is susceptible to moral analysis, and if you do the analysis right, the result is not opinion—the result is the truth of things. Period.

The central truth about wealth—and us—that Hanna takes from this natural law way of thinking was neatly captured by an MIT astrophysicist, Alan Guth: "It's said that there's no such thing as a free lunch. But the universe is the ultimate free lunch." Tacitus, the Roman historian who's one of Hanna's classical interlocutors, put it a bit more elegantly: "As heaven is for the gods, so the earth has been given to all mankind." That same conviction was put into sharper philosophical form by another of Hanna's conversation partners, the classic liberal, John Stuart Mill: "No man made the land. It is the original inheritance of the whole species. Its appropriation is wholly a question of general expediency." Modern Catholic social thought, in which Frank Hanna has clearly read with care, dubs this insight "the universal destination of material goods"—a phrase often used to try to justify one form of socialism or another. Hanna takes the discussion in a wholly different direction:

With regard to property, our situation is much like that of the managers of corporations. Shareholders place their assets in the hands of managers. They give those managers great latitude in deciding how to handle the assets. They pay those managers well for their services and for the expenses they incur in managing the assets.

Not for an instant, however, do the shareholders cease to own the assets, and good managers keep this fact foremost in their minds as they manage those assets. From beginning to end, the assets belong to the shareholders!

Similarly, with regard to the goods of the earth, you and I are only managers. Yes...we can keep for ourselves some of the income generated by our management of the goods of the earth, but not for an instant do we come to own the goods of the earth simply and for ourselves alone. No matter how much wealth may come to be ours, we never become more than stewards of those goods that have been placed, for the time being, in our hands to help bring about the universal destination of goods.

The "universal destination of goods" is not, therefore, a moral truth about wealth that implies a state-centered form of economic life. On the contrary: that the goods of the earth are intended for the use of all is a moral fact that ought to call into being entrepreneurship, wealth-creation, managerial skills, and philanthropy—in a word, the stewardship of wealth.

Beginning from that basic understanding of the way things are, What Your Money Means then draws a distinction between what Hanna calls "the fundamentals" and what he terms "non-essential wealth." The "fundamentals" include "all the things money can buy to ensure that persons develop as they ought and become as productive as they can be as individuals and citizens." The "fundamentals" will, obviously, differ from case to case, and in every instance, it's a judgment of prudence when enough is enough. Hanna is not interested in constructing an algebra here; he is interested in constructing a moral calculus, so that we can determine with integrity what is, for each of us, "non-essential wealth"—and then proceed to give that surplus away. All of it. 

And here we come to the radical proposal in What Your Money Means, in the more conventional sense of radicalism. Hanna makes a serious argument for a philanthropy that is not self-perpetuating, but rather deliberately self-exhausting.

"Non-essential wealth," he argues, is both a danger and an opportunity. It can corrupt those we love by denying them the opportunity to grow into economically responsible actors. It can stifle initiative. It can build barriers to humility and gratefulness. It can create a warped sense of personal identity constructed around vanity possessions, just as it can lead to irrational guilt. On the other hand, "non-essential wealth" gives us the opportunity to do a lot of good, and to enhance our own prospects of living a good life in the process. How to Use It Well thus becomes more than a clever, self-help subtitle in Hanna's book. Using our "non-essential wealth" well is the measure of whether we've understood the truth about what money means.

Again, Hanna pulls no punches in defining the principle here: "The universal destination of goods means that once you and I have provided for our fundamentals and the fundamentals of those who depend on us, then—if others clearly and urgently need our non-essential wealth for their own necessities—our non-essential wealth in effect ceases to be ours to use for ourselves; we must use it to serve the common good." The trick, of course, is doing this intelligently, so that our philanthropy serves genuinely good ends. Here, Hanna offers some useful advice on thoughtful charitable giving. The originality of his proposal, however, lies not in his "ten rules of thumb for donors," but in his argument that we should, in effect, give it all away: now, and not at some point in the future determined by our heirs or by the charitable foundations we create. Again, Hanna comes straight to the point: "We should undertake a lifetime distribution program that will enable us to give away most (if not all) of our non-essential wealth by the time we die."

One can imagine some interesting conversations in the Hanna household as Frank Hanna's daughter comes into adulthood. But that's the Hanna family's business. What's everyone's business—or at least everyone in the nonprofit sector, including donors, grantmakers, and public charities—is the dramatic change in the structure and functioning of American philanthropy implied by Frank Hanna's proposal.

Critics of the philanthropic sector have argued for years that donor intent is regularly violated by boards of directors and foundation executives who believe they possess a social wisdom superior to that of the original donor, and who in fact conduct grantmaking that would likely stand the original donor's hair on end. To remedy this situation, various schemes have been proposed, running the gamut from increased governmental regulation to self-imposed sunset provisions (of the sort adopted, for example, by the now-departed Olin Foundation and the now-spending-down Earhart Foundation).

Hanna's cut at all this is different—radically different. For his argument is not, ultimately, an argument from potential bad effects in the future, but an argument for moral responsibility now: it's the wealthy person's responsibility now to distribute "non-essential wealth" in order to satisfy the demands of the principle of the universal destination of goods. And in Frank Hanna's considered view, that's a responsibility that can't be generationally outsourced.

That this claim—we have a responsibility to spend our surplus wealth now—will provoke a very large debate should go without saying; that it's a useful debate, and perhaps even a long overdue debate, ought to be said. It's impossible to do justice here to the fact that Frank Hanna makes a real argument on behalf of his radical proposal; take my word for it, though, he does. Yet throughout the book, he makes his case in ways that virtually everyone can understand—and illustrates his points with well-chosen cartoons that remind us that the examined life need not be a humorless one.

What Your Money Means (And How to Use It Well) is that rarity—a book that could change the state of an entire question. And, just perhaps, an entire sector of our public life. It's very much worth engaging—and debating.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Full disclosure: the Center's Program to Defend America's Freedom has received financial support from Frank Hanna.

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Article source: Philanthropy Roundtable.