(philosophy) Is it nobler to give than to create?

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Here's an interesting perspective from philosopher David Kelley. (from February, 1998)

from Essay

Is it nobler to give than to create?

by David Kelley

Why is Ted Turner apologizing for wealth?

When he pledged last fall to donate $1 billion to United Nations programs, he called on other wealthy people to follow his lead. "I'm putting every rich person in the world on notice that they're gonna be hearing from me about giving more money away." He has chided Bill Gates and Warren Buffett publicly for not giving enough.

For Turner, this is not merely a pet hobby. Like many successful entrepreneurs before him, Turner claims the moral high ground in his call for philanthropy. "The highest thing you can do is to help others," he told John Stossel, in an interview for a forthcoming ABC News Special.

A century ago, Andrew Carnegie voiced the same idea. "How is the struggle for dollars," he asked, "to be lifted from the sordid atmosphere surrounding business and made a noble career?... The only noble use of surplus wealth is this: that it be regarded as a sacred trust, to be administered by its possessor for the highest good of the people." Carnegie gave away the equivalent, in today's dollars, of $5 bil (some 70% of his net worth) as did John D. Rockefeller.

In effect, successful producers have bought the idea that the manner in which they acquired their wealth is amoral, if not immoral, and have looked to philanthropy as a way of doing penance. Why?

Is it the injunction we all heard as children: 'tis nobler to give than to receive? But those are not the relevant alternatives. Carnegie and Rockefeller, like Turner, Gates, Buffett and their peers today, did not take their wealth from some pre-existing pot, leaving less for others in a zero-sum game. They created wealth, and the best of them created wealth on a scale far beyond anything they kept as a personal return.

Between the 1860s and the 1890s, for example, Rockefeller's genius for production drove the price of kerosene from $1 per gallon to 10 cents, and the real wages of his workers doubled. He made it possible, for the first time in history, for most working and middle class people to have light in the evenings for reading.

Capitalists today are no less creative. When Turner started the Cable News Network in 1980, most "experts" in the business considered it hare-brained to challenge the three broadcast networks, and to do it with an untried technology to which most people still had no access. By the time it was acquired by Time Warner in 1996, for more than $6 billion, CNN was a financial success. And along the way Turner changed the shape of news.

As Time Magazine noted in making him its 1991 Man of the Year, after CNN's stunning coverage of the Gulf War: "The very definition of news was rewrittenfrom something that has happened to something that is happening at the very moment you are hearing of it. A war involving the fiercest air bombardment in history unfolded in real timebefore the cameras.... These shots heard, and seen, around the world appeared under the aegis of the first global TV news company, Cable News Network."

From steel girders, to electricity, to automobiles, to personal computers and cable television, the business visionaries who pioneered these products have created jobs, increased the safety and comfort of everyday life, raised standards of living by many multiples, saved lives, and created vast wealth. The profits they won were earned  by the value they created, by the risks they took, by the vision, courage, and commitment they possessed. Yet theirs have been profits without honor.

There is nothing wrong with philanthropy, and much that is right. It has built libraries and hospitals, relieved poverty, nurtured the arts, financed the growth of knowledge. But we don't need philanthropy to sanctify the production  or the producerswho make it possible.

"Men have been taught," Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead, her novel celebrating creators, "that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created."

There is something terribly wrong with our standards of moral honor when even business creators, those who know better than anyone else what it takes to create wealth, are willing to demean themselves by suggesting that their money needs laundering.

If Ted Turner wants to give his money away, that's fine. It's his money. If he wants to raise money for the causes he believes in, that's fine, too. But giving away his money is easy compared with the heroic effort it took to make it. And nothing his philanthropy will accomplish will compare with the value he has created as a media entrepreneur.

Perhaps it is nobler to give than to receive. But in my book it's nobler still to create.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 08, 2000


Personally, Eve, I wish Donald would put just a BIT more money [or effort] into his cable movie station by getting the sound on some of the commercials to agree with the pictures shown. Then again, we'd miss a few laughs if he did.

I agree with the author on this one. Why should someone apologize for success? There seem to be a lot of people, however, who think that making money is evil. There's a philosophy going around that poor folks are being given bad breaks. They got "suckered" into spending beyond their means, investing in the stock market, etc.. Where's the personal responsibility in that?

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), July 08, 2000.

An idea I haven't thought out but here it is:

Perhaps it is their emptiness which drives Mr. Turner and other philanthropists. Emptiness? To create CNN, Standard Oil...and yet feel empty inside?

I don't pretend to know their true motivations. Nor have I created one damn thing in this life - except aggravation for others. Yet I sense a longing to make ammends for achieving wealth at great physical, emotional and spiritual cost to others. Driving employees to work hours which cause family disruption, divorces. Heaping pressures on them, watching health deteriorate. Destroying relationships. Anyone live with a "type A" personality? Know one? It is a train wreck waiting to happen.

Perhaps conscience plays a role in the drive to undertake the philanthropic acts mentioned above. Food for thought.

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), July 08, 2000.


I think the question is less why Donald is doing it than it is why he's chiding others for NOT doing it to HIS satisfaction. Bill Gates, for instance, gives a LOT of money away. If he doesn't give it where Donald wants it, I think that's Donald's problem...not Bill's.

Then again, if he felt rotten and found a way to feel better, I guess his evangelism is the same as that of others [names of which I won't mention.]

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), July 08, 2000.

I agree with you on the issue of evangelism, Anita. It is BS to tell others they must do XXXX.

The message of so many of these objectivist essays is just so unbalanced, IMO. At best the authors give lip-service to compassion and other motivations of the heart. This makes little sense to one who uses logic as but a part of his overall package of assessing the things of this world.

I attempted to shed some light as to a possible underlying cause for those wildly successful business people who feel the need to give away large portions of the wealth they created for themselves. I'd like to hear thoughts on this speculation of mine.

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), July 08, 2000.

maybe,they read the warning,s from book of james--''beware of the DECIETFULNESS OF RICHES''beware of the COMFORT-ZONE! beware also-of->televangelist,s-who teach 'let,s make a deal!! GODS blessing,s can,t be BOUGHT!-they,re revieved by->FAITH! I THINK IT,S ALL ABOUT-MOTIVE!!

-- al-d. (dogs@zianet.com), July 08, 2000.

>> ...the business visionaries who pioneered these products...<<

There is a grain of truth in this. There is also a measure of misrepresentation. The largest part of business success is rarely the creation of new ideas or products. Very often it is the creation of some marginal efficiency in manufacture or distribution.

In many celebrated cases of business success (Rockefeller and Gates come to mind) the margin of efficiency they created was founded on their ability to control markets for the efficient accumulation of capital. This accumulated capital was in part used to limit or crush competition.

Neither Rockefeller nor Gates were especially instrumental at making better products or better processes. They hire others to do that. They concentrated on manuevers, deal-making, threats and buy-outs.

Thomas Edison was a creative, inventive genius, but the great work of building up General Electric was due to his business acumen, not his inventive genius. In fact, when Edison invented the first commercially viable electric light bulb, the idea of electric light had been published for a decade and a dozen other inventors were already attempting to make it work. He got there first.

I would say that it was only late in life, when he invented the phonograph, that Edison really proved he could make a brave leap to a thought never thought of before. The phonograph was sheer genius. He drew a plan, handed it to his lab, and it worked on the first prototype. Writing a tiny BASIC interpreter, as Gates and Allen did, just doesn't compare a whit.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), July 08, 2000.

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