Compassionate Competition: Is It Possible?

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2013 was an encouraging year for Australian philanthropy. The ‘top ten’ of giving for 2013 is a list of generosity worth reflecting on. The mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest and his wife Linda top the list with the $65 million they gave to the University of Western Australia last October.

2014 was off to a steady, albeit quiet start with the $5 million that Roy Thompson (Sunshine Coast property developer) and his wife Nola gave to the University of the Sunshine Coast in February.

About 18 moths ago Andrew and Linda Forrest nailed their philanthropic colours to the global mast when they signed The Giving Pledge. The Giving Pledge, set up in 2010 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, commits the signer to the giving away of at least fifty percent of their fortune during their lifetime. Originating in North America, The Giving Pledge has its roots in the cultural practice of philanthropy in that country. Significantly, of recent times, the pledge has been slowly growing internationally. Currently though only 5% of the globe’s billionaires have signed the pledge. The Forrest’s are the only Australian billionaires to have so far signed up.

Giving back money accrued over a lifetime of opportunity and hard work, doing so for the improvement of society, is of course to be applauded and encouraged. Fellow citizens who did not have the opportunities the philanthropist had can benefit. Why keep to yourself and your family too much of a limited resource (money) that, when released, can improve the quality of many lives?

The philanthropist, through the very act of giving, is acknowledging our interconnectedness. This interconnectedness is something that the spiritual writer and contemplative Thomas Merton points out as also being the foundation for compassion. Merton said: ‘The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all living beings, which are all part of one another and all involved in one another.’ The compassionate philanthropist fosters a compassionate societal interdependence.

Compassionate action means risking psychological, physical, and spiritual encounter with the other who does not have what we have. We can then feel this lack and dare to know the reasons for it. If we accept it as reasonable to do something about it, we can learn what can be done to help. Then we do it. This approach is a good description of philanthropy when motivated by compassion.

The way in which successful entrepreneurs accumulate wealth also shapes our cultural interconnectedness. Like the philanthropist, their actions are not separate from interconnectedness. They too can influence the movement of this interconnectedness towards compassion in how they do business.

The Scottish-American entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), a doyen in the history of modern philanthropy, published an essay in 1889 entitled The Gospel of Wealth. In his essay Carnegie advocated that a person of wealth be “animated by Christ’s spirit”.

Carnegie was quick to recognise the nature of the new industrial age developing around him. The “law of competition” was one thing that Carnegie spoke of as part of the nature of this new age. Carnegie names it as the best law for humanity generally because “it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department”. He names competition as an essential ingredient between business people ensuring that the accumulation of resources and wealth by entrepreneurs is ambitiously stimulated through competitive interaction.

Carnegie’s hope was that a highly developed culture of philanthropy would balance any over-accumulation of resources in the hands of a few, something that he admitted the law of competition would inevitably cause.

However for philanthropy to be effective in delivering Carnegie’s hope of balance, the business community – so much the incubator of philanthropists – needs to be familiar not just with the law of competition which helps deliver their fortune, they also need to be just as aware of the ‘law’ of compassion – a law so intrinsic to the human spirit.

Religion tells us that compassion is a response of deep purpose and ultimate meaning. Contemporary psychology alerts us to the importance of empathy and other-centredness for a healthy human life.

It is realistic to argue that one of the reasons why philanthropy is not a main stream activity in the culture of wealth is because too many entrepreneurs have been schooled in a competition largely devoid of compassion. The Dalai Lama points to this when he says ‘as idealistic as it may sound, altruism, not just competition and the desire for wealth should be a driving force in business.’ In a similar way, Pope Francis has emphasised in his latest exhortation The Joy of the Gospel that it is the culture of prosperity without compassion that deadens all of us to the needs of others.

Compassion and competition need to come to exist together in the heart and mind of the developing entrepreneur because today’s entrepreneur can be tomorrow’s philanthropist. The earlier a potential philanthropist’s actions can be shaped by compassion the more compassionate philanthropists we could have.

It is lamentable that Carnegie did not explicitly state compassion (so much a part of Christ’s spirit) as a balance to competition. Meanwhile the acceptance of compassion as vital to the happiness, purpose, and survival of humanity is being lost in a society increasingly shaped by material accumulation, consumption, and a lack of compassion. More compassionate entrepreneurs and philanthropists, as people of influence in a capitalist society (because of their accumulation of wealth and resource), could help address this lack.

The vital question in all of this, of course, is whether a compassionate entrepreneur is even possible. Is there such a thing as compassionate competition? If so, what would it look like? How would a compassionate entrepreneur handle competition? Is competition just about the survival of the fittest, or can its living out include those of us deemed as somehow unfit? Compassion is about the vulnerable first, could competition ever serve this end also? Is it possible for an entrepreneur, while in competition with fellow entrepreneurs, to be motivated by compassion for the vulnerable?

Ideally, the economy of Capitalism today needs entrepreneurs formed in compassion. It needs more philanthropists as a natural product of a business culture that values compassion. It may be the reality, however, that in order to accumulate ‘mega-wealth’ compassion just gets in the way. Perhaps a more compassionate Capitalism would simply not have any room in it for a value system consistent with the accumulation of mega-wealth. Resources would simply flow and be released for others as a given and not become the measure of a capitalist’s success. Compassion would be there to at least temper rampant competition.