Giving is Not a Duty

At this time of the year, many of us are giving presents out of benevolence, goodwill, appreciation, and love—I hope. Gifts are a means of showing that we value their recipients in some way, whether friends, loved ones, causes, or charities.

Giving gifts out of duty does not belong to a rational person’s relationship with others. Such giving is motivated by altruism: sacrificing ourselves for others, giving up higher values for lesser values or non-values. It is not in our self-interest to give to destructive organizations such as Greenpeace or the United Nations that undermine human survival and well-being, or to people who we do not care about. Such giving undermines our ability to live and flourish, and takes away from those whom we value to those who we do not. –Looking at it from the flip side: how would you like to receive gifts given out of duty? We should give gifts that are consistent with our values—only such gifts enhance our lives and those of their recipients. (Charitable giving is optional: choosing to give to a charity you deem worthy an amount that you can afford is consistent with your interests, but it is not a duty.)

What about giving by business? Calls for business to “give back” are made all the time in the media and elsewhere (you can read about this in an earlier post here) but tend to get louder at this time of the year, These calls are also motivated by altruism: business firms are asked to sacrifice some of their profits for various causes and people who presumably need those profits more than the firms’ shareholders do (you can read Brett Wilson’s guest column implicitly rejecting altruistic giving by business in the Financial Post here).

Companies should reject the demands to “give back” to society on moral grounds: they do not owe society, or causes, or people in need anything and have no duty to “give back,” as they did not receive anything in the first place. Quite the contrary, we owe our gratitude to business firms for doing what they do best: producing and trading. Thanks to business firms such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, we have new, innovative, cheaper products and services—not to speak of job opportunities—that have made our lives immensely better than those who lived, say, before the Industrial Revolution or even a generation ago. We should not ask business firms to “give back” altruistically but encourage them, simply by trading with them, to innovate, produce, and trade more, thus benefiting us all.

Should business firms give to charity at all? It depends. Like Brett Wilson, I argue (explicitly) that firms should not give anything on altruistic grounds. They can choose to give  (note: no “should” here) to charities that help their business, such as donating to the United Way to help build stronger local community—in which their employees and often customers live. Giving to charities and causes (that are not anti-business) can help build goodwill and employee and customer loyalty and even enhance a company’s reputation among investors and suppliers. This kind of win-win giving really is a form of trade and therefore in the interest of both parties. The bottom-line is: business should only give when it is in its self-interest. Giving is not a duty.

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