Moral obligation to give: Are there other motives?

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Is morality the strongest motivator to give? What makes you give?

THIS WEEK, we’re thinking about the values that motivate our giving. It’s a subject millions of Americans are hearing about in their faith communities—and secular settings as well. The 3 million Muslims concluding the Hajj are performing a festive ritual that involves giving: in their case, distributing meat to the needy that is part of a centuries-old tradition.

Bill and Melinda Gates plan to give away 90% of their wealth to improve education in the U.S. and health around the world. Now, the wealthy couple wants their billionaire buddies to give away at least 50% of their wealth, too. Together, with zillionaire Warren Buffet, they convened secret dinners with some of the nation’s richest people and asked them to pledge half of their wealth to charity. (Read Buffett’s “Philanthropic Pledge” here.) 

I appreciate Buffett’s honesty about his vast fortune. As he says in his pledge, “My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions.”

What motivates Warren Buffett to give so much to charity?

He’s pledged all of Berkshire Hathaway’s stock to the Gates Foundation. Why? His answer is gratitude. My own research on generosity shows that, indeed, gratitude is a motivator to help others unselfishly.

What might motivate the other billionaires to give away 50% of their wealth? I’ve never asked them, so I don’t know. But others have speculated that it’s peer pressure—if you don’t give when others are giving, your reputation suffers. To me, this sounds like the 21st century version of the Native American potlatch—a ceremony where prestige is gained by giving away valuables (or even destroying them).

What motivates you to give?

Please, “Comment” below.

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