“A man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” So said Andrew Carnegie, setting a pattern for philanthropy that many have emulated down the years. It is by definition, an activity largely confined to people of means. While many of us like to think that we would disburse our theoretical Lotto winnings for the benefit of others, it is not likely that we will have to consider such a situation too seriously. Neither, by and large, have we the entrepreneurial spirit or genius, to amass great wealth. We accept the benefits of long-standing philanthropy with gratitude mingled with complacency. Carnegie’s decision to spread literacy as widely as possible, had a major transformative impact on society, which continues to this day.
We look in admiration at Bill Gates’s drive to provide clean water to everyone in the world. It is something we take for granted. It is a basic requirement for an acceptable standard of health and well-being but to provide it to the many millions who suffer and die for the lack of clean water, is a task beyond the ability of ordinary people. That is where the extraordinary people come in. People like Chuck Feeney, see it as their bounden duty to use their wealth to improve the lot of others. There are many like him. Philanthropists act out of “love for their fellow human beings”. They shine out like beacons to the world.
Personal altruism, (‘selfless actions for the benefit of others’,) on the other hand, is not confined to people of means. Look around at your community. Notice all the people who volunteer to assist others, without demanding any return for their efforts. Never mind bleak psychologists who see ulterior motives in everything. Never mind Dawkins, who sees everything as a ploy by our selfish genes. Altruism springs from generous instincts (Okay, define ‘instinct’. You have me there, Professor Dawkins) and from personal decisions as to what is right. By the time we define it, the moment may have passed.
The Roman Emperor imposed a duty on all citizens to act as guides to travellers on the roads. Particular praise was given to those who ‘went the extra mile.’ We remember particularly those who exceeded their duty, who took the extra bit of trouble to do things properly, who gave of their time. When you count the number of times in the day that people give a little extra, a smile, a helping hand, an encouraging word, you will conclude that the world is not so bad after all. There is a button on the radio that can limit the amount of gloom and bad news emanating from the experts. Avoid the snarling soap-operas. Life could not be so consistently miserable all the time.
In the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, philanthropy and altruism come together in a perfect fusion, to assist all in peril on the sea. The flag transcends nationality, race, creed, language, political division. It streams proudly, but never arrogantly, in the wind. The members are volunteers, prepared without question or hesitation, to risk their own safety for that of others.
Charlotte McMaster married Louis Simson in 1882. One hundred and thirty one years later, a promise she made, came to fruition on a blustery September afternoon in Skerries, when a lifeboat, bought with her legacy, was named in honour of her husband. It is housed in a specially built house, substantially financed by Joseph Bogdanovich, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and The Ireland Fund. Generations as yet unborn, will honour them for their generosity and foresight. They may also have good reason to thank the men and women of the RNLI.
On 9/11 is is fitting to think of the all people in the emergency services who put their own lives at risk for the benefit of others. How often do they go above and beyond the notion of duty without counting the cost?