Should You Give All Your Money To Charity?

We all know giving money to charities and helping the poor is a good thing, but the question is to what degree. At one end, you have someone like Peter Singer, the Princeton University philosopher, who once equated our lack of charity to murder:

“By not giving more than we do, people in rich countries are allowing those in poor countries to suffer from absolute poverty, with consequent malnutrition, ill health and death… It applies to each of us [individually as well] to do something about the situation; …to give our time or money to voluntary organisations …If, then, allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers. “  

(1979, Melbourne, Peter Singer in the book “Practical Ethics”)

Eye Of A Needle

 Pretty harsh words, but the responsibility of the wealthy is echoed in the famous biblical passage too:

 “The young man said to him [Jesus], “All these things [the ten commandments] I have kept since I was young, what am I missing?”  Jesus replied “If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in Heaven”. But when the young man heard that, he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples “Verily I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of  a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God“ 

(30 CE, Gospel of Matthew)

Break the Cycle Of Poverty

The passage suggests accumulating wealth is a bad thing, so it was apt that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used another biblical story – the one about a Samaritan helping someone from an enemy tribe who had been  robbed – to make the counterpoint:

 “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well” 

(1980, Margaret Thatcher)

 Indeed, the theme of wealth creation being directly linked to charity was made by the towering medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides:

 “There are eight degrees of charity. The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists another by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in  a word, by putting him where he can manage without other people’s aid.” 

(1178 CE, Moses Maimonides)

False Promises

 But even if you decide to give, then there is the question of when to give. Someone like the billionaire Bill Gates is an advocate of the Giving Pledge:

“The idea is that when you take the Giving Pledge, you agree to give the majority of your wealth to charity during our lifetime or through your will” 

(June 16, 2010, Bill Gates)

Yet, when Bill Gates asked this of the hedge fund manager Robert Wilson, Wilson responded:

 “Your ‘Giving Pledge’ has a loophole that renders it practically worthless, namely permitting pledges to simply name charities in their wills. I have found that most billionaires hate giving large sums of money away while alive and instead set up family-controlled foundations to do it for them after death. And these foundations become, more often than not, bureaucracy-ridden sluggards. These rich are delighted to toss off a few million a year in order to remain socially acceptable. But that’s it. “ 

(2010, Robert W. Wilson, hedge fund manager who retired in 1986 and began giving away his fortune).

Riches Come and Go

 Underlying Wilson’s rebuttal is the idea of the rich being too attached to their money. One way to remove that attachment is to think about the circularity of wealth, that is, you can be rich one day, then poor the next. This idea has been known for several thousand years as shown by these Hindu and Egyptian texts:

 “Let the stronger man give to the man whose need is greater; let him gaze upon the lengthening path. For riches roll like the wheels of a chariot, turning from one to another” 

(1350 BC, Rigveda, one of the  Hindu canonical texts  –  and one of the earliest texts composed in any Indo-European languages)


 “As to him who was rich last year,

He is a vagabond this year,

Don’t be greedy to fill your belly,

You don’t know your end at all,

Should you come to be in want,

Another may do good to you.

 …Man does not have a single way

The lord of life confounds him” 

(1400BC, Egypt, The Instruction of Any. Any was a scribe in Queen Nefertari’s court, and this was his text for his son).

Cleanse Your Wealth

A good practice then is to chip away at our attachment to wealth. Awareness of its ephemerality is one way, while regularly giving to charity is another. One of the most influential Muslim theologians, Al-Ghazali, wrote in the eleventh century:

“The bad trait of stinginess is removed by the practice of giving money away, since the love of a thing is overcome by compelling oneself to stay away from it until abstention becomes habitual. According to this meaning, regular charity is a purification because it purifies the person who fulfills it from the destructive impurities of stinginess. The extent to which the person is purified from the bad trait  is proportional to the amount of his giving…” 

(1097 CE, Al-Ghazali in his book “Revival of the Religious Sciences”)

Modest and Kind

Finally, we have to remember that charity can come in many forms. In a sobering account, concentration camp survivor,  Primo Levi wrote of this experience:

“An Italian civilian worker Lorenzo, brought me a piece of his bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to Italy and brought me the reply. For all this he nether asked nor accepted any reward…

However little sense there may be in trying to specify why I, rather than thousands of others, managed to survive the test [of the concentration camps], I believe it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving”

 (1944, Primo Levi, “Survivale in Auschwitz”)

So what’s stopping you from being generous to the needy?


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4 thoughts on “Should You Give All Your Money To Charity?”

  1. Truly excellent piece. I might have added a bit more or do a next piece on effective forms of giving….glad to try to collaborate…best Philippe

  2. Sobering reminder. Beautifully penned, as usual. Thank you for the “giving” involved in writing this blog and this particular in particular. As you rightly say, it is crucial to remember that charity comes in many forms.

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