The ethics of giving money to Harvard

HarvardRandy Cohen, aka the Ethicist at the New York Times, had an interesting post on his blog about whether it is moral to give money to Harvard.  The short answer: don’t bother.  In Cohen’s words, it’s like offering “more pie to a portly fellow while the gaunt and hungry press their faces to the window.”  Cohen’s argument elicits a “duh” response from any good consequentialist, which is Cohen’s default ethical position.  Clearly, if your aim is to do the greatest possible amount of good, then giving your extra dollar to an institution with $26 billion will not be as effective as, say, giving it to a poor community college.  (Though, come to think of it, why give to institutions at all?  How about just giving it to a starving third-world child instead?)

What especially interests me about Cohen’s post is what it reveals about our notion of what universities are.  Cohen suggests that universities–even private ones–should be considered public institutions like national parks and roads.  Indeed, in Europe and Asia, higher education institutions are overwhelmingly regarded as such, though the trend may be towards more privatization.  America is the exception here, and higher education is often spoken of as a commodity.  Similarly, the relationship between student and the university is discussed in legal terms (by courts and legal scholars) as almost exclusively a contractual relationship.

Yet the practice of donating to an alma mater belies this conventional wisdom.  Why do people give to Harvard and other educational institutions when they (usually) receive nothing of value in return, other than some marginal reputational gains and a generic thank-you note from the Dean of Development?

Something more than a consumer mentality is obviously at work here.  Alumni give to a school out of perhaps a sense of loyalty to the community that the university has fostered, or to an identity that the university represents, out of nostalgia for the golden days of their school years, or perhaps out of gratitude for what the university has helped them become.  What is clear, however, is that the role of a university in people’s lives is complex and cannot be defined by only economics.

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