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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines 'philanthropy" as acts of goodwill or kindness made towards fellow human beings and for humanitarian causes to promote their welfare. It generally involves monetary support and contributions (Merriam-Webster, 2023). According to Paul Gomberg (2002), philanthropic proposals essentially closes the discourse on understanding the causes of poverty and remedy the problem. He further pointed out that philanthropy can cause a reliance on charity while failing to address systemic problems which in turn can cause perpetuation of inequalities and deflect the changes needed (Irfan, 2021). This is known as the fallacy of philanthropy (Gomberg, 2002).This indicates the potential nature of philanthropy to undermine its own purpose. This essay therefore tries to study the 'fallacy of philanthropy' and understand whether Paul Gomberg's assessment of the alleged fallacy is persuasive.

A significant amount of arguments exist in in academic literature that points out the issues and concerns related to the act of philanthropy and raises the question whether such an act can be all good. According to Mclean et al., (2021) philanthropy among the elites is often bound to the act of exercising power. Such an act therefore is not a benign act of good that is born from altruism, but instead can be heavily implicated. Philanthropy not only allows sustenance to the beneficiaries but also pays dividends to the donors as well. Moreover, such an act also helps to keep power concentrated in a few hands and maintain political, social and economic hegemony of the super rich (Mclean et al., 2021). This phenomenon can be explained using the concept of 'field of power' by Bourdieu (Harvey et al., 2020). This suggests how the elites often use philanthropic activities to maintain their influence through the field of power.

Philanthropy creates the norm of rescuing people instead of addressing the problem at the root cause. Gomberg (2002) pointed out that philanthropy is often done under a norm of rescue and promotes political quietism. Such acts draw away the focus from the social, economic and political issues that give rise to poverty, and instead 'short circuits' the discourse and actions to analyze the causes of the problem. Under such situations, the social interactions that create and perpetuate poverty are also taken for granted (Gomberg, 2002). By focusing on the individual acts of charity, a mindset develops that social problems can be solved through acts of voluntary and sporadic generosity. This can divert attention in the need for systemic and policy reformation and perpetuates the belief that the wealthy or elite has the 'responsibility' to rescue those they are in need or are less fortunate. This causes important aspects like working towards a long term solution and focussing on equity to address structural inequalities and promote social justice, to be ignored. Instead, it allows the fortunes of the wealthy to be converted to influence (Callahan, 2017).

From the perspective of virtue ethics, it is possible to scrutinize philanthropy to understand the motivations and moral character of the philanthropists.Virtue ethics is related to the development of virtuous traits that can guide their actions. Helping others who are less fortunate is considered as a virtuous quality that shows benevolence and charity. However,there exists objections to this stance which includes objections of application in real life and moral sufficiency of philanthropy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2022).

From the application of virtue ethics, the fallacy of philanthropy can be seen in the act of prioritizing the action of charity over the action of developing a virtuous and just society. This often acts as a self-serving act instead of an act of benevolence, which undermines the cause of alleviating poverty and suffering of the people and instead trying to attain a certain status within the society (Bai et al., 2020). Thus, the application of philanthropy can often be done to serve self needs of self esteem and social status (Nowakowska, 2022). This shows how philanthropy can be a self-serving act, instead of being an act of benevolence and can be underlined with self aspirations to address one's own needs, thus highlighting the fallacy of philanthropy.

According to Slote (2023), virtue is neither sufficient or necessary to determine if an action is right. In such a consideration, a philanthropic action might be considered virtuous but still might not be necessarily just or right. This shows the fallacy of relying solely on the act of philanthropy as the only act of moral goodness and not acting on the broader problems of the society. This mindset reflects an agent based virtue ethics.Such a mindset can obliterate the difference between doing the right thing, and doing the right thing for the right cause. Considering the importance of motives for evaluating actions, it is possible to differentiate a good deed from a good deed done for a right reason based on motive. Chen et al., (2021) pointed out that some of the prime motives for philanthropic activities can include political and social favors/support as well as take care of altruistic duties. Thus morality of the action should be based upon such motivations, and if the motivation is of altruism, such a philanthropic activity can be considered to be an act of good.

From the work of Reich, in the book, 'Just Giving', it can be seen how philanthropy done at a large scale can perpetuate inequalities instead of addressing the underlying causes of the problems (Reich, 2020; McLean et al., 2021). Reich argued that large scale philanthropic actions allows the rich to gain and retain a significant level of influence and control over public resources and policies. This can undermine the process of democracy. The study also emphasizes that even though philanthropy can give short term benefits, the act itself might lack the adequacy to address the underlying factors, systemic problems and the social inequalities (Reich, 2020). This view can be seen to align with the philosophy of virtue ethics. As discussed by Carden (2005) in a study on the works of Dewey and McIntyre, the need for systemic change and the need to establish a just society cannot be replaced by sporadic acts of kindness and benevolence. This shows how philanthropy, even though it can have short term benefits, can also perpetuate inequality and promote hegemony. This can undermine the cause of acting in the best interest of the benefactor (Girihardas, 2019). Thus philanthropy can perpetuate inequality, concentrate power and influence, divert attention from systemic problems, which supports the claim made by Gomberg.

While the critical insights about philanthropy show important concerns and pitfalls, it is also important to consider counter arguments to understand the debate better the persuasiveness of Gomberg's argument of philanthropy. During situations of crisis, philanthropic support can provide critical relief. Such support is often highly targeted and rapid, which can often save lives or reduce suffering. This can often be seen in the case of natural disasters or emergencies where philanthropic organizations quickly mobilize necessary resources to give aid to the afflicted people (Datzell, 2013). Similarly, Zou et al., (2023) highlighted how philanthropy played an important role in crisis management during the Covid-19 pandemic. This shows that during emergency situations like disaster and crisis, philanthropy can be a source of relief and support.

Dodgson et al., (2020) argued that philanthropy can be an important source of innovation. Philanthropic support can stimulate the process and confidence to explore change and novelty. In the book 'Giving 2.0', Arriaga-Andreessen (2011) pointed out that philanthropy fosters experimentation and thereby innovation. While Dodgson et al., (2020) pointed out that philanthropy pushes the boundaries of knowledge by enabling taking risks in unknown territories which in turn helps to find novel solutions to current issues. Giridhardas (2019) used the example of philanthropic support to research and development that can lead to a spur of technological innovations which in turn can be a useful source for their own unconventional or ambitious projects. However, in such a case, the outcome of promoting innovation also seems to support a self service goal, as proposed by Bai et al., (2020). However it is still important to consider that philanthropic organizations like the Bill Gates Foundation have made significant investment in research on global health. This has led to groundbreaking understanding on clinical procedures like surgery and on how to prevent and treat diseases (Koch et al., 2019).

Sauls et al., (2023) cited the example of Ford Foundation to argue how philanthropic organization can take part in systemic change, and thus refuting the notion that philanthropy cannot bring systemic changes. Sauls discusses how Ford Foundation gives a strong focus on grassroots. Their activities support networks of community centers that work towards advocacy and awareness generation. They aim to support grassroots struggles which they believe can be the way to alleviate the livelihoods of people and provide a long term solution to poverty (Sauls et al., 2023). However, supporting grassroots can create challenges for philanthropic organizations, which includes territorial challenges, risks of political controversies. The territorial challenge can be in the form of selecting the right location/community and the political controversies can be related to activities of the grassroots organization/movement (Somerville & Setterberg, 2008). Thus it is possible for philanthropy to bring about systemic changes, but there can be challenges that can be faced as consequences.

Although the counter arguments above give strong justifications for philanthropy, they were unable to negate the main concerns about philanthropy like power hegemony, political quietness, perpetuation of inequality, establishing norm of rescue and the use of self-serving motives. It shows that philanthropy, although often done with noble intentions and can have an immediate benefit on people, in the long term, can create further problems. Thus, Gomberg's argument of the fallacy of philanthropy seems to be persuasive as it is supported by strong evidence and theoretical framework.


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