What is the worth of human life? We may not want to put a price tag on it. But if we really were asked to, most of us would agree that the value of human life would be in the millions. Consistent with the foundations of our democracy, we would also agree that all humans are created equal, irrespective of differences of sex, ethnicity, nationality, and place of residence.
With the second COVID-19 wave lashing India with its brutal whip and billionaires writing checks to charities, it’s a good time to ask if the reason behind their philanthropy is ethics or capitalism and if it’s even ethical to ask them to donate their hard-earned money.
Azim Premji, a role model for Indian philanthropy, committed Rs. 1,125 crore towards tackling the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Mukesh Ambani donated Rs. 458 crore towards disaster relief philanthropy in 2020 to support the fight against COVID.
Billionaire industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla donated Rs. 276 crore towards the same cause, and Anil Agarwal, the Executive Chairman of Vedanta Resources Limited, donated Rs. 215 crore towards healthcare in the fight against COVID -19.
To add to the list, Microblogging giant Twitter donated USD 15 million to help address the COVID-19 crisis in India. Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai also announced Rs. 135 crore funding support for India’s current pandemic battle.
Philanthropy on this scale raises many questions: Why are these people doing so? Does it do them any good? Should we appreciate them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that a few extremely wealthy individuals do such charitable deeds? And how does it affect us?
The (Supposed) Golden Age Of Philanthropy
When wealthy people donate large sums of money for societal well-being, they are doing it either to ease their consciences or generate favorable publicity. In most cases, it’s the latter.
For example, according to David Kirkpatrick, a senior editor at Fortune magazine, Bill Gates’s tilt towards philanthropy was to ease the antitrust problems Microsoft had in the U.S. and the European Union and that Gates, either consciously or subconsciously, was trying to improve his own image and that of his company in the eyes of the public in an attempt to alleviate the antitrust issues.
Another example in the same line of thinking can be given of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who donated over $3 million in grants to aid the housing crisis in the Silicon Valley area to “support those working to help families in immediate crisis while supporting research into new ideas to find a long-term solution – a two-step strategy that will guide much of our policy and advocacy work moving forward” is decidedly not a charity organization.
The key purpose of this initiative is to control the company’s investments as the tech billionaire sees fit while benefiting from significant commercial, tax, and political benefits. However, all of this is not to say that Zuckerberg’s motives do not include even an ounce of his own generosity or some genuine desire for humanity’s wellbeing and equality.
It suggests that when it comes to giving, the ‘CEO approach’ is one of the best strategies to employ as there is no apparent incompatibility between being generous, retaining control over what is given, and the expectation of reaping benefits in return.
The CEO Approach
“CEO society”: a society where the values associated with corporate leadership are applied to all dimensions of human endeavor, a revised version of generosity in which control and self-interest are no longer incompatible.
To put it simply, it’s just like how Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, once said, if you were walking by a shallow pond and happen to see a small child who has fallen in and appears to be in danger of drowning.
Even though you did nothing to cause the child’s fall into the pond, almost everyone will agree that if we can save the child at minimal inconvenience or trouble to ourselves, we ought to do so.
The fact that while rescuing the child, we may, for example, ruin a new pair of shoes is not a good enough reason to let the child drown. Similarly, if for the cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a developing country that stands a good chance of saving the life of a child, we must do so.
In other words, philanthropy on a large scale serves as a means to legitimize capitalism, as well as to extend it further and deeper into all domains of social, cultural, and political activity.
CEOs’ increasing public engagement in philanthrocapitalism acts as a key component in their reputation management. It is part of the firm marketing itself, as the good deeds of its leaders come to signify the overall goodness of the corporation.
Ironically, philanthrocapitalism also allows the corporates the moral right, implicitly, to be socially irresponsible. The ruthless acts of the corporates with little to no consideration for the broader social effects of their activities are hidden viciously under the trumpeting of the CEOs’ personal generosity.
Hence, the more moral a CEO, the more immoral their company can, in theory, seek to be.
For example, the involvement of the clothing companies Gap and Nike in a child labor scandal after the broadcast of a BBC Panorama documentary in October 2000 is a case in point.
In the documentary, the factories in Cambodia making Gap and Nike clothing were operating with terrible working conditions for years, involving children as young as 12 working seven days a week, being forced to do overtime, and inflicted with physical and emotional abuse from management.
In the CEO society, self-interest rules supreme and ensures that any activities thought of as generous and socially responsible ultimately have a payoff in terms of self-interest. The ethics of genuine hospitality is not to be found here.
It is in accordance with this CEO logic that capitalism is morally justified by the actions of the very people who benefit from its application and have exploited society for personal gain.
Image credits: Google images
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