One reason I resist strict religious/secular binaries is because shared human behaviours often warrant closer scrutiny from humanists across the spectrum.
We see this often enough when secular tyrants are wearyingly held up as signs that we “need” religion to avoid brutal dictatorship. At one extreme, theists argue that such heinous leadership is a direct result of faithlessness, avoiding (or #NoTrueScotsman-ing) the tremendous number of tyrants from spiritual backgrounds, too. At the other extreme, atheists argue that these figures simply used the structures of religious belief (e.g. paternalistic godheads) to coax subservience from the masses—and in so doing, imply that doing away with faith (especially Abrahamic) will fix everything.
Fundamentally, a problem for humanists on both sides should be: how can we curtail a persistent human tendency towards groupthink and deference to authoritarian strongmen? But this is a chewy problem, and humans also tend towards wanting easy answers, so good luck finding a public forum patient enough for the nuance such a conversation would entail.
Today let’s look at a “smaller” problem: the management of “charity” within capitalism.
Last week The Guardian published “The Trouble with Philanthropic Billionaires”, in which the concept of “philanthrocapitalism” was treated as an extension of “CEO society” through the Chan-Zuckerberg example. As Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom argue,
The creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – decidedly not a charity organisation – means that Zuckerberg can control the company’s investments as he sees fit, while accruing significant commercial, tax and political benefits. All of this is not to say that Zuckerberg’s motives do not include some expression of his own generosity or some genuine desire for humanity’s wellbeing and equality.
What it does suggest, however, is that when it comes to giving, the CEO approach is one in which there is no apparent incompatibility between being generous, seeking to retain control over what is given, and the expectation of reaping benefits in return. This reformulation of generosity – in which it is no longer considered incompatible with control and self-interest – is a hallmark of the “CEO society”: a society where the values associated with corporate leadership are applied to all dimensions of human endeavour.
I do not contest the substance of the article, but I chafe at phrasing that suggests this is at all a new issue for human beings. Later the authors write that “[t]he recent development of philanthrocapitalism also marks the increasing encroachment of business into the provision of public goods and services.” But this false rhetoric of urgency—the “recent development” and “the increasing encroachment”—belies a much deeper, much older, and not-at-all-uniquely-secular problem.
Have you read What Would Jesus Do?
Did you know it was a book and not just four letters on evangelical bracelets?
In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? was first published in 1896. It grew out of a series of sermons Charles Sheldon delivered in his Congregationalist church in Kansas, and quickly became a sensation in the United States, selling some 30 million copies to date. I read it for a Master’s-level class in English literature, where we studied its rhetoric, target audience, and representations of Christianity. The work ostensibly motivates people to make worldly choices more in keeping with their spiritual beliefs, and it certainly advocates for a more compassionate Christianity. However, the target audience of the minister in the text has a significantly upper-middle-class bent: heads of newspapers, leaders of industry, politicians, people of ease and fortune.
This means that, say, when the head of a newspaper is deciding whether or not to cover a major boxing event (which the readership favours) or focus more on content espousing Christian values (even at risk to revenue), his decision is one that limits others’ choices in turn. Does this choice to use one’s money and influence to impose one group’s values on society at large differ so greatly from the “corporate self-interest” that Rhodes and Bloom suggest is a way for members of CEO society to “look good … while not in any way questioning their basic ethical or political stance”? If so, how?
I would even go so far as to note that modern capitalism, as it tends to be defined in relation to various industrial revolutions, is by no means the beginning of this social script about how masters of men should behave. That script goes right back to Bible (and further), where Christ, as depicted by the writers of the New Testament, often presents “masters” as having the right to determine social and even spiritual fortunes. It is the master in Matthew 20:1-16 who decides to give equal pay to people for work of different lengths, and the master who serves as a metric of loyalty to ascertain an employee’s deservedness for true riches after death (Luke 16:1-13). Likewise, it is the master’s right to determine when a “servant” (slave) should be permitted to eat, and what thanks they should expect for their hard day’s labours. For as Christ is given to say:
7 But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
8 And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
9 Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. [I think not — οὐ δοκῶ]
10 So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (Luke 17:7-10, KJV)
Now, as an atheist, I find such rhetoric repugnant–but as a humanist, I would be dishonest if I were to suggest that we have moved so far from this allocation of roles in a society framed around wealth. Also as a humanist, I find myself contemplating what underlying trait all these narratives, secular and Christian alike, ultimately serves.
Invariably, there will be persons in position of monetary power over others in society–and with that monetary power will come the ability to shape other human outcomes: either by providing people with the raw resources needed to determine the best course for themselves, or by imposing ethical frameworks that subordinates are required to uphold in order to sustain themselves and their familes. And yes, these may well be eternal elements of the human condition, but for this reason they are no less pressing matters for debate in our time as they were, say, two millennia ago.
We are already familiar with discussion of the widening rich-poor divide and its impact on human outcomes, so let’s simply add the following three queries to our reflection on humanist practice:
1) What should one human being owe another for monetary survival in our societies?
2) Do we have a collective duty to minimize one human being’s reliance on another for monetary wealth? (And if so, to what extremes? What compensatory power-plays might arise in other relational spheres if we do?)
3) If “yes” to Number 2, what can by done to this end by average, non-CEO human beings? How can we mitigate the tendency towards producing “masters of men” on whose conditional philanthropy the rest of our thriving has for so long relied?
I sure as heck hope no one expected answers at the end of 1300 words.
But I hope I’ve highlighted the calibre and importance of certain questions that await humanists across the spectrum, whenever we’re ready to confront the behavioural backdrop underlying both religious and secular schools of thought.