I find it very bizarre that during a time of economic upheaval the Globe and Mail is running a series on “Giving.” Is Charity the answer to our economic woes? Some seem to suggest that it might be. For example, Ed Clark, CEO of TD bank (whose salary rose by 9% last year, while inflation is at 3% according to the consumer price index) said:
“We live in a market economy,” which means that paying executives less than the market rate will make it hard to attract the cream of the crop, he [Clark] said.
“Personally what I’ve always said is… what you do with your pay matters. You can solve this problem on how you behave personally in terms of charitable donations and things like that, and try to reconcile that dilemma.” (Source).
Clark believes the problem of CEO pay would be difficult to address directly (by lowering or limiting it), or we would not be able to attract “the cream.” So the solution is for CEOs to act charitably. Again, a similar refrain to the Globe section, I linked to above.
This suggestion seems problematic to me. There is a moral difference between equality achieved through rights (as a matter of what we are owed as persons) and equality achieved through charity (as a matter of the beneficence of others). Immanuel Kant discusses the danger that charity poses to the self-respect and dignity of the recipient in The Metaphysics of Morals. Although I have some quibbles with Kant’s discussion in these sections, I think it is right in the broad outlines.
Kant argues that certain forms of social inequalities might have effects on self-respect by putting some at greater risk of being humbled because of their social position.
When Kant discusses the ways that rich benefactors should behave toward the poor who receive their aid in The Doctrine of Virtue (Part II of The Metaphysics of Morals) he seems uncomfortable with the threat this situation poses to the dignity of the poor. He suggests that rich benefactors “should hardly even regard beneficence as a meritorious duty on his part” and that benefactors “must also avoid any appearance of intending to bind the other by it [the act of charity]” (Metaphysics of Morals 1996, 202; AK 6:453).
Kant argues that although we have an obligation to help the poor, “our favour humbles him making his welfare depend on our generosity” (Metaphysics of Morals 1996, 198; AK 6: 449). In these passages Kant directs his attention to the wealthy and suggests that they should take great care when giving to the poor so that the poor are not humbled by this charity.
I agree with Kant that charity is dangerous because it often requires the recipients to act as humble supplicants. I also find charity to be a problematic way of benefiting others because it allows the wealthy “benefactor” to decide on behalf of the poor which charitable actions are in their interests, rather than allowing the poor to decide for themselves what is in their own interests. Recent research into “defensive helping” demonstrates that this is indeed a dangerous situation, since privileged groups tend to “help” oppressed groups only in ways that perpetuate that very oppression (and in ways that are different than how they would help members of their own group).
My quibble with Kant is that once he recognizes the dangers of charity he pays insufficient attention to these dangers. For example, although he recognizes the injustice of wealth, and that charitable giving creates a morally hazardous situation, he does not require something other than charity to meet the needs of the poor. But receiving need not be humbling. Indeed, recent research shows that many Americans who receive government aid are not even aware that they are receiving this aid, and therefore are not humbled through this receipt of assistance nor do they feel beholden to those who assist them.
Rather than relying on individual charity, which is indeed humbling, we could instead arrange our societies so that we all contribute to each other’s welfare as the result of collective organization. This is not humbling.
 I want to leave aside the question of whether this argument about attracting “the cream” has merit, and focus on the charity aspects of the suggestion. I do not, however, believe that CEO salaries need to be as high as they are or rise as much as they do in order to continue to attract “the cream.” I work in the academy, we work really hard and long hours, and professors are often “the cream” of their fields. Yet our salaries (though quite generous) are considerably lower than those of CEOs, and last year our salaries rose at a rate below inflation.
 To his credit, Clark has also suggested that the wealthy should pay more in taxes, a suggestion that has landed him in trouble with our prime minister.