Why do people give money to needy people or public causes? Why should people make charitable or philanthropic contributions? What is altruism and how can it best be implemented?

These are questions worth careful consideration.

Some of us grew up in churches that stressed tithing. I have been a tither my whole life and encouraged tithing when I was a pastor.

But I never told people that tithing was a means for receiving God’s blessings and to receive more from God than they ever gave to God and God’s work.

There are preachers, though, who have appealed to people’s “greed” to encourage them to tithe. “If you tithe, God will reward you by increasing your income” was the appalling “pitch” some preachers used, seeking to bolster the church’s financial income.

More generally, there are those who give because of the “greedy” desire for the good feelings they get from contributing to the emotional appeals by charitable organizations and/or needy people.

Perhaps greed is too strong a word to use here, but I simply mean the strong desire to get more of something, such as more blessings and (maybe) money or more feelings of self-satisfaction.

Historically, two of the most generous philanthropists in the U.S. were Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Carnegie (1835-1919) made his fortune in the steel industry, and the wealth of Rockefeller (1839-1937) came largely from profits he made from the Standard Oil Company, which he established in 1870.

The philanthropy of those two industrialists is clearly visible in the worldwide Carnegie libraries and the work of the Rockefeller Foundation. And without doubt, multitudes of people have been helped by the philanthropic gifts of those two men.

However, recently my wife June and I have watched The Men Who Built America, the six-hour miniseries docudrama originally broadcast on the History Channel in 2012. We have seen an apparently accurate portrayal of the ruthlessness of those two tycoons and the harm they did to so many.

Particularly horrifying were the catastrophic Johnstown Flood of 1889 and the Homestead Steel Mill Strike/Massacre of 1892. The docudrama clearly depicts Carnegie’s culpability in both of those tragedies.

That excellent miniseries, though, fails to note that those catastrophes occurred during the very time Walter Rauschenbusch was pastor in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City and beginning to emphasize what came to be known as the Social Gospel.

Carnegie built a few libraries before those events that significantly tarnished his good name. Yet, most of his philanthropic work was after them and they were, at least partly, rooted in his sense of guilt and his desire to restore his reputation.

In the New Testament, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Freely you have received; freely give” (10:8, NIV). Accordingly, it is obvious that the best reason for altruistic giving is not because of “greed” or guilt but because of gratitude.

A strong sense of gratitude goads us to give graciously to help others. But how is the best way to give? Simply acting upon our subjective feelings may not be best.

In recent years, an “effective altruism” movement has been popular in some circles. It recommends rationally considering ways to give that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people, rather than giving on the basis of emotional appeals and feel-good causes.

Interestingly, two major proponents of effective altruism are non-religious thinkers/writers: Peter Singer (b. 1946) and Steven Pinker (b. 1954). To learn more about them, see Singer’s 2013 TED talk and this 2021 interview with Pinker.

There is also an Effective Altruism for Christians website (see here), and I also encourage you to read an earlier column I wrote offering guidelines for charitable giving.

Yes, there is much to consider in determining what should be the basis for our charitable giving.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Seat’s blog, The View from this Seat. It is used with permission.

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