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Get rich first: Stanford’s theory of social change


If students are truly interested in making a positive social impact post-Stanford, it is quintessential that we have a rigorous theory for how social change is created and how we contribute to the process that creates this social change. At Stanford, a prevalent approach towards creating social change is the “donor mentality” wherein students plan to enter into a lucrative profession, get rich and then donate that money to noble causes. To many, this strategy to create positive change is valid. It allows students at Stanford to get the best of both worlds: to generate large amounts of money, live a lavish lifestyle and earn social status points while also contributing to social change. However, the “donor mentality,” in fact, may preclude truly sustainable and effective social change.

When considering a theory for social change, it is important to first conceptualize a theoretical goal for what a “just” society would look like. One prevailing view in ethical theory is that a just society is one where there exist only voluntary rather than involuntary inequalities. By this, theorists mean that financial inequalities do not originate from the arbitrary and uncontrollable circumstances of one’s birth, including both social circumstances like race and income and biological circumstances like natural talent or disabilities. Rather, in a just society, inequalities only stem from one’s choice to put in varying amounts of effort towards their careers.

If we take a just world to be one where there is an equality of opportunity and each individual’s level of success can be attributed solely to their choice of effort, then charity has no place. In this world, if someone transfers their wealth to another who is less wealthy, they are, in effect, providing more wealth than is due to that individual given the amount of effort the less wealthy individual put in. The same is true in reverse when a less wealthy individual transfers money to a wealthier individual. Thus, in a just society, it appears that charity only distorts incentives for individuals to work.

However, moving away from the realm of the ideal, we can also consider whether charity has a role to play in reaching this just, equal-opportunity society. In particular, we will prove that private charity alone cannot deliver us to a just society. Charity provides only band-aid solutions to problems that require institutional reform. In the status quo, there exist unjust institutions (i.e., access to quality education, healthcare, employment opportunities) that allow individuals with class, gender and racial privilege to utilize such institutions to succeed. Private charity, such as alms used for food, health and education, provides temporary and often insufficient aid to victims who have already been wronged by broken institutions that do not provide equality of opportunity. A more effective approach to private charity would be to reform the broken institutions themselves.

In addition to not addressing the root cause, private charity tends to be unreliable and uneven in responding to involuntary inequalities. Individuals with wealth to spare are more likely to help those who are close at hand or those who subscribe to their particular ethnic or religious belief system, while ignoring others. Moreover, the donors themselves have complete freedom and reign to decide how to allocate their money. However, donor preferences might not match the actual needs of those less wealthy, resulting in an inefficient use of resources to reduce involuntary inequality.

Finally, the very concept of charity can sustain unjust institutions because it implies that people who have unfairly accumulated their wealth are entitled to that wealth. In particular, during a charitable transaction, people who are giving away money are believed to have a rightful claim over that money. The idea that the distributor of charitable donations is not obligated to transfer her wealth, but rather is “generous enough” to donate money she accumulated through unjust institutions perpetuates the belief that status quo institutions are fair and that the donor earned her money fairly. In essence, then, charity becomes a benevolent act for a world that is perceived to be as just as possible.

As students plan their careers to make a social impact, they should consider whether or not getting rich and making charitable donations is the most effective way to make social change. If we believe that a just society is one where there is equality of opportunity and success does not depend on one’s circumstances, then we should pursue a career where we can work to reform unjust institutions rather than attempt to change the world through private donations, which, at best, provides an ineffective solution to involuntary inequality and, at worst, serves to preserve such inequality.


Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’


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