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A charity that would go of itself

December 7, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg (whom I’ve discussed before) has pledged to donate 99% of his wealth to “charity.” Or, as Jesse Eisinger puts it:

[Zuckerberg] did not set up a charitable foundation, which has nonprofit status. He created a limited liability company, one that has already reaped enormous benefits as public relations coup for himself. His PR return-on-investment dwarfs that of his Facebook stock. Zuckerberg was depicted in breathless, glowing terms for having, in essence, moved money from one pocket to the other.

It’s worth asking what preconditions must hold such that moving money from one pocket to another could look like a magnificent act. Indeed, what could make it look like an act at all? As Aristotle says,

wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.

Money is an instrument. Indeed, it is instrumental by definition. It would be coherent to mistake art for as end-in-itself; art has at least a provisional autonomy. But to mistake wealth for an end-in-itself would be insane; money is nothing in itself but a pure potentiality.

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I’m reminded here of what Aristotle says about the virtue of magnificence; essentially, it lies in knowing the fitting way to actualize the potentiality money offers:

The magnificent man is like an artist; for he can see what is fitting and spend large sums tastefully. […] For a possession and a work of art have not the same excellence. The most valuable possession is that which is worth most, e.g. gold, but the most valuable work of art is that which is great and beautiful (for the contemplation of such a work inspires admiration, and so does magnificence); and a work has an excellenceviz. magnificencewhich involves magnitude.

The question becomes: what makes it possible for moving money from one pocket to another to look like a work of art? What, if not a confusion of scales: the magnitude of wealth mistaken for the magnitude of art; the magnitude of potentiality for that of actuality?

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The linked article focuses on how Zuckerberg “donated” his wealth an LLC, rather than establishing a not-for-profit corporation. But I don’t know if this is quite right. Even a non-profit is fundamentally an instrument, not an artwork; it wields wealth, rather than displays magnificence.

Then again, though for Aristotle a work of art had no power except to inspire admiration, the same cannot be said today. In the modern world we desire for what we make to have a life of its own, to be ”a machine that would go of itself.”

And indeed, the rules governing a non-profit, like those governing any corporation, can themselves constitute, not just a work of art in an Aristotelian sense, but a person ( if a funny kind of person, and one whose motives we must distrust). If it’s a person, then the power of its wealth might indicate, not merely a failure on our part to fully actualize our potential, but the existence of an independent principle of action. The wealth it wields is no longer ours, but its.

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If this is right, then Eisinger’s complaint is essentially that Zuckerberg has poured his wealth into a golem, but has retained for himself the words of power. True enough. But two points must here be recognized. First, that the power those words offer is not absolute; golems have a habit of escaping their masters’ bonds. And second, that if the golem bound disturbs us, the golem unchained is no more reassuring. A thing that goes of itself goes, by definition, on a different path than we would choose for it.

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