The French term noblesse oblige translates to "nobility obligates," meaning that with great wealth comes the responsibility to give back to those who are less fortunate than oneself. Its relevance today in the practical philanthropic landscape is one example of donor motivations. Over the past two centuries, the meaning of the term has evolved depending on political, econmic, and social factors of the time.
The term, noblesse oblige, was "first used by [French] novelist, Honoré de Balzac in 1835 (McGoey, 2018; Nelson, 2017).” In his novel, The lily of the valley, it is referred to as an antiquated term belonging to an earlier time of medieval generosity where lords claimed the responsibility for the wellbeing of serfs because of their hereditary inheritance of privilege. Despite this term first being used as reference to the feudal era, Balzac employs the term in his novel through a letter written to a young man explaining “that with noble privileges comes the obligation or service to others (McGoey, 2018).”
Balzac’s framing of noblesse oblige influenced Alexis de Tocqueville, author of several volumes of Democracy in America, which was published in the same decade as Balzac’s The lily of the Valley (McGoey, 2018). In Tocqveville’s analysis of America’s newfound democratic system, he notes how specialization in the age of the Industrial Revolution leads to increasing power and wealth imbalances. As factories provided more jobs for lower classes, the business elites of the Industrial Revolution grew steadfastly richer. Tocqueville expressed his fears and concern for these American laborers operating in dire working conditions and called upon this new class of elite businessmen to take on the responsibility of noblesse oblige in his writings. He felt the “new rich were [underestimating] their own direct role in creating and compounding their workers’ suffering,” and that these successful businessmen had a “duty to share at least some of their fortunes (McGoey, 2018).”
With the deepening of social hierarchies in American society through the 1800s, Andrew Carnegie would emerge as a leader of philanthropy, and in the 1890s would pen his famous line, “the man who dies rich, thus dies disgraced (Cannon, 2017; McGoey, 2018).” Carnegie, a businessman in his own right, but of new money—not old, or inherited—gifted what would amount to billions of dollars today by taking a “modest salary” and donating the rest during his life and in his death (Cannon, 2017). He believed that it was not only a moral imperative, but a social responsibility of the elite to support and grow local economies for lower classes (Cannon, 2017; McGoey, 2018).
The basis for noblesse oblige is the assumption of a characteristic motivation for giving. While being wealthy is one reason someone could be motivated to act philanthropically, what are other reasons someone might decide to give? In the world of philanthropic studies, there are two main arguments explaining why people give—altruism versus self-interest. Altruism is considered a purely selfless act done for the public good, while self-interested giving implies that one gains something from performing an act of good. Examples of self-interested giving might include one gaining a better reputation or coming to be seen in a better light because they helped others, or even giving as part of a transaction (such as giving to a nonprofit that promises a calendar or t-shirt in thanks for your contribution). Other motivations for giving that perpetuate the expression of noblesse oblige are seen in psychological, sociological, and economic outcomes.
According to a psychological motivation theory called ‘Power Distance Belief,’ a wealthy person is more likely to give to those of lesser means because they find that their own wealth is unwarranted, perhaps a circumstance of luck, or understands that those without wealth are powerless. This theory perpetuates the idea of noblesse oblige, which assumes that people of wealth give more because they feel morally obligated to do so (Han, 2017; Plunkett Tost, 2015). While the wealthy do give more dollars to charity every year, it’s important to remember that according to annual reports of American charitable giving, median-income homes in America give away a higher percentage of their wealth every year versus those with higher-incomes (Zinsmeister, 2016).
A sociological theory called ‘positioning’ by Melissa Bocci, examines the ramifications of noblesse oblige and service-learning on people and communities of color (Bocci, 2015). Throughout Western philanthropic history, a theme of white privilege and white normativity emerges, reinforcing minority stereotypes and oppression as white charities and service-learning opportunities cater to the perceived needs of people of color. Melissa Bocci calls this the “positioning” of people of color as “charity cases.” This is separate to examples of identity-based funds and institutions serving within their own communities, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), because it does not include “white people [entering] the narratives as providers and leaders while people of color are relegated to the role of ‘served’ or ‘needy’ (or are ignored completely) (2015).” Bocci goes on to claim “positioning reinforces the white normative dynamic [warned to be too] prevalent in our current practice (Bocci, 2015).” Examples of this include the white savior complex and how primarily white philanthropists and volunteers in positions of power and wealth perpetuate a perspective that reinforces white normativity and thereby cultural stereotypes (Bocci, 2015; Stewart, 2019).
From an economic perspective, noblesse oblige can be seen through the practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Corporate social responsibility is when publicly traded corporations claim a responsibility to society and the economy due to their buying power and status. The link between noblesse oblige and CSR is similar in their perceived obligation for the divergence of their resources and wealth to areas of society, environments, and communities which would benefit from additional resources (Hastings, 2016).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The development of noblesse oblige from times of feudal serfdom to the benevolent elite is seen manifest today in intergenerational beneficence (when philanthropists invest in future generations through endowments and innovative projects and programs in an effort to positively influence the future) (Plunkett Tost, 2015). Put together, philanthropic benevolence supporting current and future generations plus corporate social responsibility, begins to illustrate what is now known in America as a culture of philanthrocapitalism (Bishop, 2008; Plunkett Tost, 2015). Philanthrocapitalism is defined “in two key ways. [First,] it is upheld as ‘a new way of doing philanthropy, which mirrors the way that business is done in the for-profit capitalist world’. Secondly, the notion is seen as encapsulating the belief that ‘capitalism itself can be philanthropic, working for the good of mankind (McGoey, 2018)." Arguably, philanthrocapitalism is the new noblesse noblige.
Philanthrocapitalists are also referred to as “social entrepreneurs” or “social investors” and even “venture philanthropists (Bishop, 2008).” These members of society bring business principles such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘entrepreneurism’ to their philanthropic endeavors because they have realized incredible success in the market sector; as Bishop and Green of Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World note that once these business elite have achieved “spectacular fortunes” in the marketplace, they may feel compelled to make a bigger impact—but this time outside the marketplace and, instead, within the independent sector (2008). The largest movement of business elite participating in large-scale philanthropic endeavors is that of The Giving Pledge.
In 2010, The Giving Pledge movement was founded and announced by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, calling for billionaires from around the world to voluntarily pledge to donating a minimum of half of their wealth. As of 2019, 204 philanthropists from around the world have pledged to participate—however, how these individuals and families give away their wealth remains far less regulated (The Giving Pledge). For example, let’s look at the difference between two families that have signed on to The Giving Pledge: Bill and Melinda Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a traditional private foundation established for the dedication of their philanthropy. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chang established a for-profit limited liability corporation “to ‘gift’ their wealth to (McGoey, 2018).” By filing for a traditional foundation, the Gates are responsible for “[complying] with” proper IRS regulations like listing names of donors, recipients, etc. Whereas, the Zuckerbergs have pledged to give away the majority of the wealth (as The Giving Pledge calls for) by way of creating a for-profit company that does not need to “publicly disclose the names of recipients of his philanthropic investments.”
There are popular debates today regarding the concepts and moral ethics of philanthrocapitalism in the United States. Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, questions mega-philanthropy by the country’s elite, calling them the “unelected upper crust” who sway policy making, have a greater hand in dictating the social agenda, and who seek to do overwhelming good in the world, but lose sight of doing less harm (Giridharadas, 2018). Rob Reich is the author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can do Better, and theorizes how America’s wealthy can properly invest in “discovery, or long-time horizon innovations” to create a more democratic society (Reich, 2018). While both Giridharadas and Reich argue philanthrocapitalists significantly avoid regulation from tax codes, they both agree that philanthropy has an opportunity to reduce inequality when funding is thoughtful and engages citizens who are both directly and indirectly affected (Giridharadas, 2018; Reich, 2018).
How can noblesse oblige be used to further the public good without resulting in indirect harm to social outcomes?
What is an example of a purely altruistic gift?
If you were a philanthrocapitalist, what social innovation project would you invest in, and why? Think about who will be directly and indirectly affected as a result of your investment.
- Bocci, Melissa. “Service-Learning and White Normativity: Racial Representation in ServiceLearning’s Historical Narrative.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 2015.
- Bishop, Matthew, and Michael Green. Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
- Giridharadas, Anand. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. First Vintage Books Edition, April 2019. Published 2018.
- Han, Dahee, Ashok K. Lalwani, and Adam Duhachek. “Power Distance Belief, Power, and Charitable Giving.” Journal of Consumer Research. Published by Oxford University Press. Volume 44. 2017.
- Hastings, Gerard. “CSR: The Parable of the Bad Samaritan.” Social Marketing Quarterly. Volume 22, Issue 4. 2016.
- McGoey, Linsey, and Darren Thiel. “Charismatic violence and the sanctification of the superrich.” Economy and Society. Published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. 2018.
- Nelson, Steve. “With Privilege Comes Responsibility.” Parents League Review. 2017.
- Plunkett Tost, Leigh, Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni, and Hana Huang Johnson. “Noblesse oblige emerges (with time): Power enhances intergenerational beneficence.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Published by Elsevier Incorporated. 2015.
- Reich, Rob. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy And How It Can Do Better. Published by Princeton University Press. 2018.
- Stewart, Matthew. “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy.” The Atlantic. Online. 2018.
- The Giving Pledge. Online. www.givingpledge.org.
- Zinsmeister, Karl. “Statistics: Who Gives Most to Charity?” The Almanac of American Philanthropy. Accessed online via PhilanthropyRoundtable.org. Published 2016.
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.