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?