On “giving back”

Like many other people, I am troubled by this phrase when I hear it.

The usual scenario: A successful person makes a donation to a worthy cause but downplays any praise by saying “I’m only giving back.”

The usual gentle rejoinder is to point out that the phrase assumes that the giver has taken something from others in the first place — he’s borrowed or stolen something and in “giving back” is merely restoring it to its rightful owners. That zero-sum assumption is usually untrue: most donors have earned what they have. So the phrase “giving back” contains within it an injustice: a false accusation.

Yet there is more to it: the phrase also denies the benevolence of the giver. If you are only giving back what is rightfully someone else’s, then you do not deserve any special praise for your action. Your benevolence need not be acknowledged or honored.

So the phrase really is a double injustice: it implies that you do not deserve what you have and it denies you any credit you deserve for your benevolent act. (Or to put it abstractly: It is the imputation of an undeserved negative and the denial of a deserved positive.)

So far so bad.

But it gets worse. Let me now pin the blame for this on He Who Is Almost Always At Fault When Something Fishy Is Going On Philosophically.

I turn to Immanuel Kant.


Looking through Kant’s Lectures on Ethics again, I came to one of the later sections entitled “Duties to Others.” (Let’s set aside for now the perplexing question of why, immediately following the end of exams and the beginning of summer vacation, I find myself reading Professor Kant’s 1775-1780 lectures on ethics.)

In this section Kant employs his standard distinction between inclinations and duties, arguing that actions done from inclination have no moral worth while actions done from duty do. So if we apply this to acts of charity, charity done out of benevolence has no moral significance for Kant, while charity done out of duty does.

But, Kant asks, on what is the duty to be charitable based? Why ought we be charitable, whether we want to or not?

Kant’s answer is that to give charity to the poor is to make good on past injustices. Here is the key quotation: in giving to a person in need of charity, the giver “makes restitution for an injustice of which he is quite unconscious; though unconscious of it only because he does not properly examine his position. Although we may be entirely within our rights, according to the laws of the land and the rules of our social structure, we may nevertheless be participating in general injustice, and in giving to an unfortunate man we do not give him a gratuity but only help to return to his that of which the general injustice of our system has deprived him. For if none of us drew to himself a greater share of the world’s wealth than his neighbor, there would be no rich or poor. Even charity therefore is an act of duty imposed upon us by the rights of others and the debt we owe to them” (p. 194).

Here we have the first part of the “giving back” claim made explicit: the zero-sum assumption and the consequent implication that one is merely returning something one has borrowed or stolen.

On the very next page, Kant makes explicit the second assumption of “giving back”: “A man ought not to be flattered for his acts of charity lest his heart swell with generosity and desire to make benevolence the sole rule of his conduct” (p. 195).

To my knowledge, Kant is the first to argue that charity is a matter of justice — compensatory justice, to be precise. He denies that charity is properly a matter of benevolence or of a duty to help the poor meet their needs, as previous thinkers had argued.

(And if charity is a matter of justice, then there are implications for the role of the state, given that the state is an arbiter and enforcer of justice. In other words, Kant’s twist on the ethics of charity has consequences for modern political philosophy and the welfare state.)

I am in favor of rationally benevolent giving but against “giving back.”

And an intellectual history question: Is Kant original in arguing charity to be a matter of justice?

7 thoughts on “On “giving back”

  • May 22, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    In my field (I am a business professor), I see this premise in operation constantly. The assumption is that one is not ethical unless one “gives back.” I tell my students never to be ashamed of acquiring wealth. Benevolence is a choice, often a rational one, but never an obligation.

    Stakeholder theory, popular in my field, holds that a business OWES its community. This whether anyone in the community has contributed to the business’s success or not. Thank you for pointing out the origins of this perversion of the concept of benevolence.

  • May 22, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Fascinating. I had no idea Kant could be considered a source of the “social justice” concept of the political left, which certainly does have a zero-sum flavor about it..

    I know nothing of Kant’s ethical writings, so this should be considered just dinner-table conversation:

    What about “giving back” not to individual people, but to long-lasting institutions one has benefited from? For example, suppose as a young person I benefit from my local public library, which was itself founded and regularly enhanced by charitable donations over may decades by people long since dead. In using the library I benefit from their charity, and so later in life I may feel obliged to “give back” by making contributions to the library myself, so that my successors will be able to benefit as I did.

    Would you not consider that to be “giving back” in any formal sense (although that might be a natural way to describe it), calling it rather “rationally benevolent giving”?

    He that delights to plant and set / Makes after-ages in his debt.

  • May 24, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Amazing. Sounds like it came straight out of the Democratic party platform. Even in Kant’s time though, it should have been obvious that wealth is created, and it does not occur naturally, merely sitting there waiting to be divided among people.

  • May 27, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks, Terry, and I agree entirely that stakeholder theory as an ethics theory is fundamentally flawed, based as it is on an entitlement obligation between businesses and those it relates to. It can be legitimate to speak of “stakeholders” in a strictly limited context and as long as one is crystal clear upfront that they are individuals who enter into mutually voluntary and beneficial relationships with businesses.

    I also like RJO’s pointing out of cases where you want to give back to those who have given to you before. I think of a student who received a scholarship to a college, then because successful and now wants to repay the college for what it did for him. That’s a legitimate use of “giving back,” though for both parties it’s a benevolent gift rather than a dutiful obligation or entitlement.

    And I want to say “Good find, Bob,” for the link to the Manning essay. I read it quickly and thought it had four sections:

    1. An older conception of Christian justice, which seems to be very general and equivalent to being a good person.

    2. Augustine is presented as defining this more precisely: justice is giving what is due, and God is due everything; and since God says to give love and charity to your neighbor, it follows that charity is an aspect of justice.

    3. Aquinas diverges from the above by teasing out distinctions between justice, liberality, and charity along Aristotelian lines.

    4. The 20th-century Catholic tradition seems, as presented in that essay, to have two theses: one is to transform justice into “social justice,” which has charity at its core, thus by verbal legerdemain equating justice and charity; the other is a claim that much giving to the poor is a matter of justice, but that giving is to be sharply distinguished from charitable giving.

    The post-Kantian “social justice” claim is likely closest to Kant’s claim. The earlier Christian claims strike me as making much more generalized connections between justice and charity, in contrast to Kant’s very precise connection.

  • May 31, 2009 at 4:17 pm


    The genesis of the notion of ” giving back to the community” was in the black community; it was form a of moral black mail. As black men and women escaped from the underclass values and ethos of the hood. Those who hadn’t made their way out to achieve success, who were still on the same street corners, mouthing the same victim rhetoric, were faced with a dilemma: if some made it out, why couldn;t they. This was an unacceptable affront to their self-esteem. The solution: claim that those who had made it out, did so only because of the help and assistance of thos who stayed. This strategy had the double effect of inducing gulit in those who had escaped on their own efforts, while placinig the balm on the wounded self-esteem of those who had remained, while fueling their righteous indignation. Since then, it has taken on an altruistic life of its own. Such is the power of a simple concept that goes unchallenged.

    Carl Harvey

  • June 8, 2009 at 4:51 am

    “Giving it back” is a completely meaningless catch phrase that is only being bandied about because people irrationally feel the need to justify their generosity. Why even attempt to so? It’s pointless, and as you note, is somewhat demeaning to the benefactor. If I make a large donation to a charity, that’s my business – the wheres, whys and whos are nobody’s concern but mine.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t see the sense in applying moral philosophies to, nor measuring the ‘worth’ of, things like generosity or charity. It’s too individual a concept to apply a blanket philosophy to, and for the same reason, can’t be viewed as right/wrong. A Christian would applaud my benevolence, Nietzsche would call me a weakling encouraging weaklings. Who cares either way? It’s mine, and I’ll do what I want with it. It’s one of the few damn things I’m truly free to do these days.

    Plato also drew a link between Justice and Charity in his theory of the soul, claiming that the proper balance of Reason, Emotion and Appetite would result in Justice, manifesting itself in acts of charity and kindness.

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