When my father died, I inherited a large trust fund and sole ownership of a family business. I was young and woefully unprepared, so I put my inheritance on the back burner and lived my life as if I was financially “normal.” However, since the pandemic, my portfolio has hit a new high. I am utterly distraught. I feel that I should have never gotten so wealthy when people are suffering so much.
I’ve been seriously considering giving a large portion away, but the more I talk to people, the more I realize that to give away large sums of money responsibly and ethically turns my life into a job that I never wanted. I don’t want my father’s money to become my life, my career or the most significant thing about me, even though I know that I benefit from it. I have privileges with it, it gives me options and frankly I could not afford to live in a big city without it.
My questions are these: How much money is it ethical to keep, and how much would it be ethical to give away? What is the best way to decide who should receive the money? And how much time and responsibility and rewriting of my life do I owe this gift that often feels like a burden? Name Withheld
On the one hand, your father was entitled to leave these assets to you, and you were entitled to accept them. (Assuming, of course, that they weren’t acquired through criminal means.) Maybe the tax code should have taken more of it from you: Many people think there’s a moral case for steep taxes on intergenerational transfers of wealth, because it’s a source of unfair inequality. Maybe taxes on capital gains should be higher: Many people think such revenue should be treated as regular income. If you supported such reforms, you’d have reason to back candidates who favored them. This one bequest, though, will make a de minimis difference to inequality in the world.
On the other hand, having this money puts you in a position to do good, and there’s something to the thought that luck of this kind (you didn’t earn any of this money) places you under an obligation to give back. I understand that you don’t want to devote your life to doing this. But giving money away just isn’t that hard. You’re not in some “Brewster’s Millions” pickle.
There are many excellent philanthropic organizations in the world, with staffs and boards who focus on making positive change. I suppose you could also identify a foundation that has its own portfolio of philanthropic projects and see if you can add your gift to its endowment. That’s what Warren Buffett, with his rather sizable family business, did when he committed 30-odd billion dollars to the Gates Foundation. There are also groups — e.g., BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch — that evaluate philanthropies, although smaller ones may not be on their radar. GiveWell, an organization associated with the effective-altruism movement, identifies charities it thinks could deliver “maximum impact” per dollar. Insecticide-treated bed nets, which prevent malaria, score high in its system.
Unless you’re committed to utilitarianism, “maximum impact” — in lives saved or suffering averted — need not be your only guide. Ours is a richly variegated world, with many values and many things to value; it isn’t as if all charitable giving must go to malaria prevention. You’re not wasting your money if you want to donate to that performing arts center you love — or maybe it’s a public radio station or a nonprofit legal-aid provider or a music program for children. You’ll have helped make the world, or at least your community, a better and perhaps a more vibrant place. You may take a special interest in certain causes, owing to your own experiences. Taking a couple of days to consider some options isn’t going to derail your life.
Speaking of which: Giving back doesn’t require sacrificing your ability to keep living as you’d prefer in the place you prefer. (Remember, too, you can bequeath your estate — including, say, that apartment you couldn’t otherwise afford — to worthwhile beneficiaries.) You say you feel distraught; let me urge another sentiment. “The reaction of my family and me to our extraordinary good fortune is not guilt,” Buffett has said, “but rather gratitude.” You can free yourself from whatever part of your father’s legacy you find burdensome. But the time and thought it takes to make the necessary decisions should indeed be an expression not of guilt but of gratitude.
In an effort to provide for the long-term financial stability of her children, my grandmother bought a large amount of stock in a fossil-fuel company, which she left to my father. I find it heartbreaking that the investment she made and that my father has maintained to provide safety and security is one of the things that is actively moving the planet toward terrible destruction. My father is elderly and would not consider divesting from this company. This stock will be a majority of his bequest to my siblings and me. I hope my father will live for many more years, but when that stock — and the associated wealth — come to me, what is the ethical thing for me to do with the money? I feel guilt and disgust at the prospect of profiting off the suffering of so many. Name Withheld
The case for divesting from fossil-fuel companies is that such divestment, on a large scale, would stigmatize their activities, exert a downward pressure on their share prices and (through an indirect mechanism of action) reduce the amount of capital available to them. We want to restrain investment in the exploitation of fossil fuels; we want to encourage investment in alternatives. But some people are motivated less by considerations of capital flows and more by a desire to have clean hands — to feel unsullied by the fossil-fuel industry and its grievous legacy.
There are a few complications here. One is that most oil reserves are state-owned and aren’t directly affected by divestment campaigns, so the strategy is quite limited in its effects. Another is that the world currently relies on fossil fuels for most of its energy needs, including most of its electricity, and though we should decarbonize as fast as we can (which is much faster than oil-and-gas companies would like), there’s no switch we can throw that would obviate a period of transition: Oil companies can’t yet be wished out of existence.
Then there’s the question of how to think about socially responsible shareholder activists. The hedge fund Engine No. 1, by becoming an Exxon Mobil shareholder and corralling the support of much larger investors, succeeded in installing three directors committed to getting the company to spend more on carbon reduction. Can investors who are devoted to E.S.G. (environment, social and governance) issues play a positive role in reforming the energy sector?
If you’re simply concerned with keeping your hands clean, you won’t be able to explore these matters. The great economic and political theorist Albert O. Hirschman explored “exit” and “voice” as among the ways we can respond to dysfunctional organizations. Exit, in this case, means withdrawing from these entities; voice means speaking up and trying to redirect them. Some combination of exit and voice might be optimal here.
And when the stock passes into your possession? I would recommend a forward-looking approach: The question is what you can do that would contribute to solving one of the great problems facing humanity. That might mean liquidating your holdings and adding to the social pressure on the company. It might also mean donating some of the money to a nonprofit group that works for a greener world; it might mean putting resources into the alternative-energy sector.
Your father, out of sentimentality, won’t consider divesting from this company. He’s caught up, it seems, in the fact that his mother made the investment — a backward-looking consideration. Don’t get caught up in backward-looking considerations, too. To dwell on the fact that this wealth came from an investment made by someone else a few generations ago is another form of sentimentality. Almost any inheritance entails profiting from the sins of the past. An awareness of historical mistakes is salutary, but the task is to help put things right in the future.
Kwame Anthony Appiahteaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to email@example.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)