You would think that the matter of philanthropy would be relative free of controversy ethics-wise.  Giving to others is good.  Case closed.  But it turns out, as most of life does, to be more complicated than that.

Ethics Unwrapped’s good friend, Prof. Paul Woodruff, a philosopher and classicist who has taught here at the University of Texas since 1973, recently edited a book called The Ethics of Giving: Philosophers’ Perspectives on Philanthropy.  We recommend the book, which makes for fascinating reading.  Its essays address such issues as:

  • Is giving moral only if motivated by the right reasons?
  • Must giving be demonstrably effective to be moral?
  • Is it more moral to work to correct structural injustice rather than throw individual donations piecemeal at our systemic problems such as inequality and discrimination?

However, the Woodruff book does not address a philanthropic moral issue that has been in the news recently.  Two situations have caught our attention.

First, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to reject future donations from the Sackler family because its wealth was in large part derived from the sale of OxyContin, the opioid that has contributed to the overdose crisis afflicting many parts of our country.  The Sacklers and their company, Purdue Pharma, have been sued around the nation for their role in the crisis.  This is not the place to resolve the matter of their moral fault, but there is sufficient evidence of blameworthiness that the Met decided there was too much blood on Sackler money to take any more of it, though the Met will not return what it has previously received nor will it remove the Sackler name that adorns one of the museum’s wings.

Second, in the wake of release of the Netflix series “When They See Us,” which is about the wrongful prosecution of the “Central Park Five” (addressed in an earlier blog post on this site), the NYC head sex crimes prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, was pressured to resign from two nonprofit boards where she had been donating her time.

So, the question is posed:  Should nonprofits reject the filthy lucre and/or volunteer services of controversial donors like the Sacklers, Fairstein, the Kochs, and even, conceivably, the Trumps?

In a New York Times op-ed, Anand Giriharadas argued that nonprofits must reject tainted money, asserting in part that “[f]or far too long, generosity has been allowed to serve as a wingman of injustice.”  This column spawned a debate on the Times’ op-ed page that was insightful.

Arguments for rejecting donations included:

  • Nonprofits should not assist wrongdoers in whitewashing their reputations.
  • The public interest, widely-perceived, is not served by charities accepting tainted donations.
  • Nonprofits risk being permanently sullied when they accept donations from controversial sources.

Arguments for accepting donations included:

  • It is always good to separate bad people from their good money.
  • Nonprofits are always underfunded and can accomplish much good with donations of money and time regardless of their source.
  • If you decline a particular donor’s offer, where do you draw the line?
  • The benefits that will flow from putting tainted donations to use will outweigh any damage caused by abetting the whitewashing of reputations.
  • No one, and no donor, is perfect.
  • Wrongdoers, such as the Sacklers who have made huge fortunes by injuring others, should make donations to help to right the wrongs they have caused.

This is a hard one. There are both principles-based and consequences-based arguments on both sides.  Most people, we presume, would conclude that if Joe robbed a bank and immediately donated his ill-gotten gains to the Met, that the Met should reject that donation.  Or if Charles Manson had been suddenly paroled and offered special skills to the Met, that its officers should have rejected that offer as well.

At the same time, we suspect that most people would conclude that if Joe had engaged in a lot of underaged drinking forty years ago when he was in high school and before he entered the priesthood, that his donations of time and money could be accepted today without moral shame.  But where between these extremes, would a line properly be drawn?.  We suspect that people would disagree wildly.

In The Ethics of Giving, Paul Woodruff emphasizes the important role of justice in determining our giving obligations:

Elizabeth Ashford argues convincingly in this volume that first-world wealth was derived from exploiting the third world, and that, therefore, the first world has a debt to pay to the third.  A similar injustice may be found inside a first-world country: if the great wealth of a family has been derived from exploiting workers or consumers, then that family owes a debt to those exploited or their descendants….Those who have profited from unjust structures have no right to their wealth.

Thus, the fact that the Sacklers profited from wrongdoing convinced Woodruff that they may not justly keep their fortune and should donate it to charities, and convinced Giriharadas that the nonprofits should not accept it, leaving it with the Sacklers.  The resolution of these conundrums is beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but they do give us all something to ponder.



Associated Press, “Central Park 5 Prosecutor Resigns from Nonprofit Boards,” New York Times, June 4, 2019.

Anand Giridharadas, “Museums Must Reject Tainted Money,” New York Times, May 19, 2019.

Elizabeth Harris, “The Met Will Turn Down Sackler Money Amid Fury Over the Opioid Crisis,” New York Times, May 15, 2019.

Ethics Unwrapped “Cognitive Dissonance and the Case of the Unindicted Co-ejaculator”

Ethics Unwrapped:  Justice.

Patricia Illingworth et al. (eds.), Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy (2011).

“Letters to the Editor,” New York Times, June 2, 2019.

Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America (2019).

Alex Marshall, “Museums Cut Ties With Sacklers as Outrage over Opioid Crisis Grows,” New York Times, March 25, 2019.

Paul Woodruff (ed.), The Ethics of Giving: Philosophers’ Perspectives on Philanthropy (2018).