by WILLIAM S. SMITH
In this day and age, what does it mean to be a virtuous person? Despite his ruthless business practices, his cruel treatment of his employees, his association with known pedophiles, and his less-than-gentlemanly propriety with women, Bill Gates had, for a time, the answer. Be a humanitarian. Virtue is not a way to live your life with a relentless focus on reigning in your own personal, selfish desires. Virtue is not treating well the people who are right in front of you: your family, your friends, your employees. No, virtue is a sentiment to do good for the downtrodden. It is doing good for people far away. The farther, the better.
Bill Gates is a symbol of our age. A vicious person in his everyday life who built a stellar reputation with the worldwide establishment by constantly displaying his sentimental humanitarianism. The Gates Foundation, the global headquarters of sentimental humanitarianism, has little interest in philanthropic causes in the United States. Sure, they will throw a little money at a few charter schools in the U.S. to help “poor and minority” students. But their real focus of the Foundation is on the most downtrodden, African farmers and other serfs who need mosquito nets. They have a deep desire to improve healthcare in Burkina Faso. They signal their virtue by “helping” people they do not know.
They are a “nonprofit fighting poverty, disease and inequity around the world.” Their virtue does not come from treating their neighbors with respect, but rather because they have, for more than 20 years, “committed to tackling the greatest inequities in the world.” Their philanthropy is spread out over 130 countries in the world. Why help people near you when you can help people far, far away? Be kind to your wife who is standing right in front of you? No, that is too hard. Instead, write a check and send it to sub-Saharan Africa. In our time, the true understanding of virtue is gone; all that remains is the ersatz virtue of the sentimental humanitarian.
With the implosion of Bill Gates, can we finally get over this association of humanitarianism with virtue? What seems positively clear from the Gates example is that many loathsome people embrace humanitarianism as a mantle to disguise personal vice. How many speeches at the Oscars have been given by wretched and contemptible people who were then given rave reviews because they touted a humanitarian cause?
This confusion of humanitarianism with morality has caused great evil. The great ideological movements of the 20th century, communism and National Socialism, were “humanitarian” crusades. Much violence in history has been justified by the “need to save humanity.” The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was sold as a great humanitarian cause, with a utopian goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” Humanitarianism, when you scratch the surface, turns out simply to mask a will to power.
If the modern age confuses humanitarianism as virtue, what is the alternative? The alternative was laid out by the great Harvard professor Irving Babbitt more than one hundred years ago. His answer lies at the heart of every great religious tradition. As he wrote, “there may be something after all in the Confucian idea that if a man only sets himself right, the rightness will extend to his family first of all, and finally in widening circles to the whole community.” This Confucian notion is precisely the opposite of the Bill Gates notion of virtue. Gates associates his virtue with the way he treats people in the farthest circle from his own. For people in his immediate circle, he treats them like dirt. Bill Gates’ virtue is that of Robespierre, who defined virtue as “that compassionate zeal for the oppressed…that still more sublime and sacred love for humanity.”
“Social justice,” is likewise ersatz justice. As Babbitt would have written about Bill Gates, “genuine justice seems to demand that men should be judged, not by their intentions or endeavors, but by their actual performance.” Even many confused religious leaders tout “social justice” when, as Plato taught, it is a thing that does not exist. Justice in society flows directly from just people with just souls. It exists nowhere else.
There are certainly “injustices” in society, such as income inequality, but these inequities flow out of the souls of the grasping and greedy, not from some moral flaw that is found “in society.” Whatever racism exists in society is not caused by something “structural” in society but from actual people who may have racism in their hearts. And none of these vices are corrected by philanthropy, yet some think that philanthropy can serve as absolution.
One cannot simply condemn all philanthropists as masking their loathsomeness by embracing humanitarianism, but the motivation to easily acquire “virtue” by performing philanthropy does not seem uncommon. Some who are loathsome try to wash away their sins by embracing humanitarianism and offering philanthropy.
What modernity has lost is the understanding that virtue starts with self, not with an outpouring of emotion on behalf of the downtrodden. Orderly societies are built not by philanthropy but upon self-ordered people. And the rarest type of society, the free society, only emerges when individual citizens are so well-ordered—themselves—that there is no need to impose order from above. You don’t need a cop with a gun when no one is breaking the law; freedom and virtue are two sides of the same coin.
“Wokeness” is just another chapter in the three-hundred-year-old book of sentimental humanitarianism, a book that was written first by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With Wokeness, if you are a member of a favored group, you possess “virtue” regardless of any vile personal behavior.
Western societies are spiraling downward not because we have adopted the wrong “public” policies, but because individuals have lost the sense that the key to life is controlling one’s own behavior, controlling oneself. As the Buddha said, “Self is the lord of self; who else can be the lord?” And St. Paul would add that this self must not be one’s ordinary self, but the divine part of self.
Someone should have told Bill Gates that personal probity is everything; humanitarianism is nothing.
William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.
Column originally published at Crisis.