Separating Altruism From Philanthropy

There are few things I enjoy more than Parents’ Weekend at Boston College. My loving guardians ask if I know every single student that walks by us, whisper to each other as each prospective wife passes, and have some sort of magnetic attraction to the tasteless dining hall food I face every day, as opposed to, like, anything else (I’m not asking for the Capital Grille here, Dad, just T.G.I. Fridays or something). No, I kid. Parents’ Weekend is fun with those empty nesters—I mean, there are so many activities! BC football always plays some random team from the Midwest, and … and there’s another thing … oh, right, the Pops!

Before this year, I had yet to witness the magic of Keith Lockhart pantomiming his sweaty toosh to a lackadaisical crescendo, nor had I seen an aging artist try to compete with a tuba, but I had heard it was a magical evening. I was one of the highly unfortunate cases that only benefits from the festivities instead of experiencing it first-hand. Pops on the Heights is a fundraising event for student aid, and, boy, do they raise funds. Last year alone the event produced $14 million to go toward student scholarships that allow kids like me to study at an acclaimed institution and write mediocre articles about poorly informed opinions.

This year, however, I got to look on as my parents rioted to the soothing vocals of Lionel Richie belting “Dancing on the Ceiling” with some blaring trumpets to boot. I was lucky enough to receive complimentary tickets in exchange for offering my thanks to the donors to whom my aid is attributed and who I will keep anonymous (hint: their namesake is a multidirectional building where they serve chocolate at a bar). I am, obviously, very thankful for everything the donors give, but, as this time of year comes and I’m asked to profess my gratitude (which I have), I always wonder if it’s possible for benefactors not to benefit.

It’s no secret the rich use charitable causes for their own interests—here’s looking at you, Tommy—or to prop up their image under the veil of productive humanitarian work—sup, Brad—but that’s obviously not the case here. The exercise of donating to one’s alma mater is philanthropic on the most basic level—granted, with a hint of tax incentives. My issue is with the non-monetary rewards and the inherent self-interest within charitable endeavors, and the equating of philanthropy and altruism. You could claim it’s an academic exercise to look at the difference, but you’d be wrong, because I don’t possess the talent to etymologically deconstruct each word nor can I give subtle, well-researched anecdotes. What I can do is use my affinity for pop culture references to turn it into something trivial, which might be synonymous, I don’t know.

In Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David lambasts his pet-peeves or anything viewed as a cultural wrong, and it’s hilarious. So, when it came to hypocritical celebrities donating to causes, David couldn’t help himself. The premise of this particular episode (Season 6, Episode 2) is that Larry donates a wing in a hospital under his name, but his friend Ted Danson donates one anonymously and tells everyone about it. One appears to be self-absorbed, the other altruistic, but each serves to inflate his ego. What this does, apart from splitting your sides, is show that no matter how good the deed is, there is almost always an element of self-interest.

The practically definitive ranking of charity, and the lens to view those philanthropic decisions in Curb, is given to us by Maimonides, the famous 12th-century Jewish scholar, in his Eight Levels of Charity. I learned about this in my PULSE class—I’m not exactly a casual reader of medieval theology—and it’s the reason I’m even questioning the way my aid is generated. The second-holiest of the eight rungs in relation to a gift is an anonymous donation to an unknowing group. David’s contribution would fall in the middle: He was asked, and then he donated willingly. When Danson begins to disclose his anonymity, he drops down back to David’s level, but with the taint of dishonesty. The BC donors aren’t trying to immorally claim selflessness, as Danson is, but they’re not near the highest step.

Charity, to Maimonides, is basically giving to someone else without expecting anything else in return. It’s good to show thanks to another for aid, but this gratitude is a contingent reward for said donation, which wouldn’t be possible had it been concealed. We are, sadly, self-preservative, genetically reaching back to our Neanderthal nth great-grandparents. This quality carries into our cushy lives today as selfishness. But, unless you’re Ayn Rand, the ice queen of prioritizing self over others, I do think we’re capable of the highest form of donation—maybe even delving into pure altruism, which involves an element of actual sacrifice that a gift does not.

I understand if people want their name on a building to solidify it in the hearts and minds of future students, or if they meet the beneficiaries of their generous funds. As long as it’s recognized that there is self-interest inherent in that transaction, it’s fine. But if they strive to truly embody charity and Maimonides himself, they must take it a step further and do what Ted Danson couldn’t, as ridiculous as that sentence sounds.

Now, these are some fairly serious claims. If I’m accusing others of a lack of genuine giving, then surely I must begin to practice this philosophy and not reciprocate the thanks they’re anticipating. To this, I’d like to respond that I hope to, in my dealings with posterity. But as my friend Augustine said, not yet. I still had to watch the ex-Commodore tear up Conte all night long (all night).

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor