William Rathbone: 19th-century effective altruist?

by Aaron Gertler2 min read30th Jul 20192 comments


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I found this post to be a useful reminder that certain good ideas are less unique to our era than we might slip into believing.

(For an ancient Chinese version, see [maybe] the Mohists; for a fictional 19th-century version, see [maybe] Middlemarch.)

William Rathbone (1819-1902), writing in 1867 about philanthropy:

It is true that there is among the rich much desultory and indolent goodwill towards the poor… which, if properly stimulated by a sense of positive and imperative obligation, and guided to a safe and effectual mode of action, might be made instrumental of much good at present left undone. It is true that a new hospital finds plenty of rich men willing to give money for its establishment and support; that any striking case of distress, calculated to touch the sympathies of the public, which may be recorded in the newspapers, generally attracts a superabundance of charitable donations… Probably, in by far the greater number of instances, the feeling that prompts them is one of genuine compassion. But it would be wrong to ascribe much merit to such emotional liberality; to look upon it as proof that the rich are properly sensible of their duties and responsibilities. The desultory nature of so much of our charity; the stimulus it requires from fancy-balls and bazaars; the greater facility with which a new institution obtains subscriptions for want of which an old one, equally meritorious, languishes; the amount of time and energy which the managers of a charity are so often forced to consume in drumming together the funds required for its support — time and energy which should be devoted to the mere task of efficient management — all these are significant evidence that the manifestations of generosity of which we hear so much proceed not from a strong and clear sense of duty, but from a vague sentiment of compassion; that people give less in obedience to principle than under, a sudden impulse of feeling, less to fulfill an obligation than to relieve themselves of an uneasy though vague sensation of compunction. Few among the rich realize that charity is not a virtue of supererogation, but a divine charge upon their wealth, which they have no right to neglect. They give to this or that family whose story interests them, to this or that institution for the relief of some form of‘ distress which peculiarly touches their sympathies, with no idea that the matter is not one in which they have a right to indulge their caprice; that all the misery within their sphere is an evil with which it is their duty to grapple, to which they are bound to apply the remedial energies and resources at their command, not as suits their taste or fancy, but as may be most efficacious in the relief of suffering… In short, charity is with them a matter of sentiment, not of principle…
…Do the rich give as large a proportion of their incomes, even, as these poorer contributors? They should do much more, for they can afford much more. £50 represents a much larger deduction from the real comforts and enjoyments procurable with an in come of £500, than does £500 taken from an income of £5000. As expenditure increases it is less on necessaries and more on luxuries; even its power of giving proportionate enjoyment to the possessor diminishes. The man who increases his expenditure from £1000 to £2000 may perhaps — though it is doubtful — get a thousand pounds worth of increased enjoyment from the addition. But if so, he certainly does not get an equal increase when he goes on from £2000 to £3000 or from £3000 to £4000. The larger the expenditure, the less the proportion of pleasure derived to money laid out. And therefore, both because the deduction involves a less sacrifice, and because it is just and reasonable to hold that money should be so spent as to produce a reasonable return of enjoyment to some one, it may fairly be urged that the larger the income, the larger should be the proportion spent in charity… Unhappily it is the fact that men of large means generally —for there are exceptions — spend a smaller percentage of those means in charity than do men of limited incomes…

Rhodri Davies (around 22m) adds that Rathbone also grappled with the question of “earning to give” vs. “direct work”, saying:

Margaret Simey’s book… says that Rathbone was torn between… whether he should go into the ministry and help the poor directly or whether he should go into business, and eventually [she writes] “viewing the issue in the light of common sense, [Rathbone] decided that for him, an effective life of public service would depend on his possession of the influence and respect secured by success in business. Accordingly, he set himself doggedly to the task of building up the family fortunes, which had suffered from the devotion of his father and grandfather to public work.” So he took his own self interest out of it — because he probably would have preferred to work directly with the poor — but he thought that actually what [he] should do is go off and maximize the amount of money he could make and [maximize] his political influence and connections, and then use [those things] to do the maximum amount of good.
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