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Is Charity Truly How Hobbes Described it?

April 17, 2011
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Ryo Ishikawa after a win.

A week ago, the 2011 Masters golf tournament came to an end with a victory by Charl Schwartzel. However, earlier in the week, before the major began on Thursday, there were a few stories that were closely followed by the media. One was Tiger Woods’ return to Augusta after his game had been steadily improving over the last few tournaments. Another was Phil Mickelson’s pursuit of a fourth green jacket, even though he had won the Shell Houston Open the week before (a feat that has never been accomplished). And the more heart-warming story of the week was that Ryo Ishikawa, a 19 year-old professional golfer from Japan, had promised to donate his 2011 winnings to help the disaster recovery in his native country after its devastating earth quake on March 11.

Ishikawa claimed that Japan wanted him to play not only the Masters, but also finish his regular schedule on the PGA Tour. Many sports journalists and PGA beat writers admired Yo, Ishikawa’s nickname, for not only the selfless gesture, but also for his maturity and how he has handled the situation. With much of his family still living in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit, he has played quite well on the Tour since then. However, I began to wonder, was the gesture really selfless? After all, he could always have taken a year off from the tour and gone back to Japan to help with the relief efforts. The entire situation reminded me of Hobbes’ view on charity, and his view on human nature, versus that of Rebecca Solnit.

In a lecture back in February, while we were discussing Hobbes, Professor Lavaque-Manty gave us an example of how Hobbes viewed charity. In an excerpt from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, he mentions that Hobbes gave an old beggar a decent amount of money because it pained him not to do so. In brief, he gave the man money to help himself feel better. Hobbes’ thought that at least a little piece of every charitable act we do is selfish is consistent with his state of nature.

According to Rebecca Solnit in “The Uses of Disaster” uses people’s reactions to various natural disasters to argue against Hobbes’ view on humans. Her theory more agrees with Locke that people are good and that people help one another in the state of nature. I have typically agreed with this view. But recently, I have had to question if people actually perform charitable acts for themselves or are the acts out of selfishness.

For example, when people tell you about an positive experience that they had while volunteering, the most common thing that people say is, “It makes you feel so good about yourself”. Some might add that helping others makes you feel good about yourself, but ultimately it always comes back to them. I believe that the Ishikawa gesture was very nice, it was something that he did not have to do, and people would not have cared. He could have even just donated his winnings from the Masters and people would have been just as pleased. But, to a degree, his donation to the relief effort is his way of justifying him playing the rest of the Tour season, as are most acts of charity.

6 Comments
  1. rianhandler permalink
    April 17, 2011 8:13 PM

    This is an interesting situation. Although I usually also lean towards Locke/Solnit’s view on the state of nature, I think you make a good argument for Hobbes’ point of view. Many people would argue that of course doing an act of charity makes you feel good–but to what extent is it all about you? Personally, I think that Ryo Ishikawa finishing the PGA tour is not selfish. The money he wins is going to mean a great deal to his family and others in Japan. Although it seems ill intentioned because on the other hand he could be home helping his family, what he is doing in America will be a great help in the end. He is also representing his home country and showing everyone that he is still strong even in this time of crisis. Though raising money for relief efforts is definitely a justification for not being in Japan, I think it is a valid one.

  2. Brian Wandschneider permalink
    April 17, 2011 9:23 PM

    I understand how Hobbes can claim that many, if not all, acts of charity are for one’s own self interest, but I still have to disagree with that claim and lean towards Solnit’s view. There are a lot of situations in which people don’t think about little things that help other people and do it anyways. I don’t think Ryo finishing this season on the PGA tour is selfish, and I don’t think he had to make up for it by donating his winnings. He is a professional golfer, it is his job. And by doing his job he helps the greatest amount of people. By playing golf and earning money, he can do a lot more to help Japan than he can do at home. Had he not donated his money, I highly doubt he would be under any scrutiny because he is simply doing his job. He had little obligation to help Japan, outside of his family, and I think his act was largely selfless.

  3. Layne Simescu permalink
    April 17, 2011 10:29 PM

    Another idea to consider would be that he was donating the money not only to help his family and country, but also to make a good name for himself. People always think better of stars and professional athletes when they donate large sums of money to some sort of effort. Fans tend to think better of a player when they know he is not just a selfish millionaire. But, i think part of the reason stars and athletes donate is precisely to look favorable to the public and get more publicity and sponsorship opportunities. While this may not be the only reason a person might donate, it is definitely a big perk. So, although I think Ryo donated the money for his family and country, I also think that there was some selfishness under the surface. I would also argue that he could have gone home to help with the relief effort instead of just donating money. I do agree that part of the reason for the donation was also to justify him in continuing in the tournament. I mean if he’s only 19, he has plenty of time to play. He could have taken some time off to help back home instead of just donating a large amount of money from America. These are just other possibilities in defense of Hobbes’ selfish acts argument.

  4. Bri Kovan permalink
    April 17, 2011 11:46 PM

    @Layne, I totally agree with your comment. I think a big part of celebrity charity is to create that “good” image of themselves in the public’s eye.

    At the same time, I struggle with Hobbes’ stance on the issue. At a certain point, why do we waste our time dilly-dallying in the fine details? More than likely all decisions, like the one Ryo faced, are going to be a mixture of selfishness and selflessness. You can never bind them into one category or the other. Instead, what I think it’s important to keep in mind is that good is coming from their actions.

    Like all acts of charity, regardless of the underlying motive, good is coming from it. Unfortunately, Hobbes makes us pick apart people’s every actions and evaluate the level of good they are doing. If he decided it was self-interested, so what? In the long run, good was still done.

    That should be what matters.

    • Rebecca Birnbaum permalink
      April 18, 2011 11:58 AM

      I agree with this comment. The truth is, there’s no way to know what someone’s true motivations are. If donating money is a self-interested act, so be it – greater good is coming from it, and that is what really matters. Rather than analyze the donation as either selfish or selfless, I think we should just stop being critical and appreciate that money was donated in the first place.

      • Pierre Gerondeau permalink
        April 19, 2011 11:00 PM

        I agree with these two comments. It is very interesting to think about professional athletes and celebrities who donate money to charity or other worldly causes. I would agree that it these cases there is going to be positive and negative motives for the athlete/celebrity to do so, and the media can definitely try to spin it both ways as well. Famous people usually have a lot of money, so they are better able to help out unfortunate countries or countries devastated by disaster. But regular citizens are always critical either way, regardless of how the celebrity spends his or her money. Either the celebrities do not give enough money to a cause, because they are making a 100 million dollar contract and should be more caring/charitable (not necessarily in Ryo’s case, but for celebrities in general), or the celebrities are selfish and obviously only giving money because they want positive stories in the press. I agree with Rebecca, who said that “we should just stop being critical and appreciate that money was donated in the first place.”

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