Nota bene: Guilt trips

Every so often, after eating too much pizza or chocolate cake, I’ll feel guilty and remorseful, and I’ll want to make up for it by eating something healthy. As if too much pizza plus a kale salad is less fattening than just too much pizza on its own. But, of course, that’s not how the world works, much as we’d sometimes like it to.

Something similar happens when people without a lot of money look at people with it. My beach read last week was Spanish Light, a financial-crisis novel by British trade unionist Stephen Grant. It’s a good book, well plotted and easy to read, even if the dialogue can be a bit clunky at times. (“That was Gonzalez. The office of the prime minister issued a press notice an hour ago saying the government had been threatened with legal action by a group calling itself Justice for Castile. They make clear that they will not be swayed by threats in their pursuit of restoring Spain’s economic stability.”)

The novel’s protagonist is Mathew*, a banker who becomes disillusioned by the financial crisis and who turns against not only the financial industry but even capitalism more broadly. After making millions shorting CDOs, Mathew effectively atones for his sins by spending his profits in the service of a good cause. The good, somehow, offsets the bad.

Which brings me to Eduardo Porter, writing about a new paper studying corporate charitable giving:

Exxon Mobil may stand accused of misleading investors and shareholders about what it knew about climate change, but the ExxonMobil Foundation’s multimillion-dollar contributions to end deaths from malaria and to train women in developing countries should, executives hope, balance the ethical ledger.

It’s the same pattern. You do something Bad (eat too much pizza, make a fortune shorting CDOs, help destroy the planet by burning millions of tons of carbon), and then, as a kind of karmic offset, you do something Good.

But it doesn’t work like that.

There are a fair few finance types who have deep problems with the global financial services industry, ranging from Chris Arnade to George Soros; they work in various different ways to try to make the world a better place. But they don’t do it as any kind of atonement; they don’t feel guilty or ashamed of how they made their money.

Similarly, it might well be true that there are hidden corporate ulterior motives to a lot of charitable donations. But the ostensible raison d’être for the ExxonMobil foundation is not to “balance the ethical ledger”. That would require an admission that the ethical ledger was tilted against them in the first place. And companies like ExxonMobil simply are not filled with people who think they’re working for an evil corporation. They think they’re working for a good corporation, which does good both in its main business and also in its charitable arm.

In other words, talk of ethical ledgers generally reduces people and corporations who cause harm in the world to bwa-ha-ha evildoing caricatures. At the very least, it assumes that these people are entirely aware of the harm that they’re causing. And maybe that is true in extreme examples like that of Alfred Nobel. Most people, however, including most rich people, consider themselves to be good, not bad, especially when they’re giving money to good causes. Charitable donations are almost never about atonement.

You will often see a person or corporation you disapprove of making a large charitable donation or otherwise doing something good. When that happens, you will be sorely tempted to attribute the action to some kind of guilt trip. Beware of doing that. Those people don’t see themselves the way that you see them. And their charitable motivations are, truth be told, not that different from your own.


*There’s a running joke in the book about the stupid names of the English upper classes, but no one remarks on the weird spelling of Mathew’s own name. Yes, names like Jocasta and Portia can be precious, but surely names like Mathew and Dian are just as bad.