Billionaires, burned buildings and selfish generosity

Billionaires, burned buildings and selfish generosity

Last week, Notre Dame burned down, and a lot of people were sad. Some people were so sad (and so rich) that they decided to donate enormous sums of money toward the restoration of the cathedral, donations which have now surpassed a billion dollars. And now lots of the non-billionaire sad people are angry.

It’s not anger at the desire to rebuild Notre Dame. It’s not even – in this specific moment – that there are people out there who can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a restoration project on a whim (though that is ultimately where the outrage stems from). The anger comes from how painfully obvious it is that these same billionaires could donate enormous amounts of money to life-saving projects, but choose not to.

I thought immediately of the effective altruism movement. In ethicist Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, he makes the case for data-driven donations according to where the most good can be achieved. He breaks down what constitutes ‘good’ in this sense, and concludes that people living in the worst poverty globally – almost all of whom are in Sub-Saharan Africa – would benefit the most from aid. He dedicates a whole chapter to exploring whether art is ever more deserving of charitable donations than organisations that work to alleviate poverty (in his opinion, it is not). This is not because Singer does not value art but because he deems the health, wellbeing and survival of other living things to be of a higher priority than cultural landmarks or purely artistic endeavours. His arguments are persuasive. Had we managed to address poverty so effectively that no one was living in such dire circumstances anymore, then he would be all for supporting other projects (though I think we’d have to solve a lot of the world’s problems before Singer would agree that restoration was the best use of our money).

I don’t know where I stand on this, especially when confronted with the immediate example of a beautiful burned building. I was really sad watching the footage of the cathedral on fire, despite not being French, Catholic or particularly attached to historical architecture. But in this case, I think Singer’s arguments are important and make a valid point. On reflection, so much of the reason those photos and videos were sad was not just sadness for the building itself, but the moving mental image of all of Paris watching as a key part of their city and history was destroyed. Much of my sadness stemmed from empathy for other humans, rather than sadness for the building itself. This was a human tragedy as much as an architectural one. If no one had been sad, then this would be a different situation. If a building burns down and nobody cares, is it worth rebuilding?

All of the reasons that people were devastated come from the personal, cultural and religious significance that we, as humans, have ascribed to that building and its contents. I’ve already written about why I think it makes us so sad when part of the backdrop disappears. But if I was sitting in London feeling sad not for the building itself – which does not care if it burns down or not – but ultimately for the people of France, then surely that is an argument in favour of effective altruism. If people and their feelings and needs are truly what matter, then why should repairing the cultural sadness of globally wealthy French people come before addressing the pain and suffering of other humans living in desperate circumstances? If we could use that billion dollars to repair Notre Dame or save thousands of people from easily preventable diseases, should we have a moral obligation to do so and let this famous landmark languish in the meantime?

Of course, this is ultimately a moot point for me. I don’t have a few hundred million to casually add to the growing pot of restoration funds. This isn’t a group decision; it’s the personal decision of a few individuals of how they’d like to spend their disposable income, which is, at least practically, their right. Until we tax billionaires more (side note: tax billionaires more), it is not up to us and it remains their personal choice. This makes discussing how we make personal choices about philanthropy enormously relevant.

How you choose to donate your time and money is at the core of effective altruism. In fact, I found this point of view so convincing that I changed my monthly donations to different charities than the ones I’d originally chosen. Most of us choose to donate based on which causes we deem important to us, rather than which causes will impact the most people in the most significant way. It is often about satisfying our personal philanthropic desires rather than really helping people. I used to donate to an ocean conservation charity, because I love the ocean and wanted to contribute toward protecting it. But my surface level of research could not properly illuminate the efficacy of this conservation charity, meaning that there was a side of vanity to my choice. After reading The Most Good You Can Do and having my eyes opened to a list of charities that, after thorough and rigorous evaluation, have been shown to be the most effective for saving the lives of the world’s most marginalised people, it seemed a lot less gallant to donate to an ocean charity because I love the sea.

Funds, especially personal donations, are not unlimited. This billion dollars could save thousands – if not millions – of people or it could rebuild a building in one of the richest cities on Earth. It would probably have caused less outrage if the billionaires had also pledged an impressive sum to providing clean water, vaccines or improved healthcare initiatives to the world’s most vulnerable communities. These billionaires donated hundreds of millions because they love Notre Dame and it impacts them, emotionally or otherwise, that it is damaged. Somehow, a move so generous is also so selfish. If everyone only commits themselves to the causes that impact them personally, we will not make much progress in solving major world issues. The lives of wealthy Americans are fairly distinct from the lives of poor Ugandans. I suppose the point is to look beyond your own desires – I want to visit Notre Dame again, I want to be able to swim over beautiful coral reefs, I want to keep this money for myself – and give freely to the people who need it most even if you don’t really get anything from the arrangement. This goes doubly – triply, quadruply – for billionaires, who are some of the only people in the entire world who could donate similarly massive sums to both Notre Dame and to anti-poverty initiatives and never think about that money again.

I am glad that Notre Dame will be rebuilt. But I stand by the outrage felt that it’s only when prompted by a cause that matters to them personally that a group of unimaginably rich individuals have ponied up world-changing sums that would otherwise have languished in their bank accounts. I think we all need to think more honestly about how we help others and if that conversation gets through to even one of the world’s richest people, it would save lives as well as landmarks.

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