The Australian wildfires burned more than 27 million acres of land—a mass of area almost the size of Pennsylvania. The death toll has risen beyond two dozen. Thousands of homes have already been burned. Somewhere between a half a billion and a billion animals have been harmed or killed.
Philanthropic support has been generous and international—and criticized. Recently I commented in passing about Jeff Bezos being panned for his “meager” $690,000 donation. Nevertheless, his gift was followed by many more massive donations from donors as diverse as Metallica and Elton John.
But one of the more interesting stories is that of the “Naked Philanthropist.”
The staggering scale of the koala deaths struck a nerve with Instagram model Kaylen Ward, who leveraged her assets to generate support for organizations involved in wildfire relief efforts. Ward promised to send a nude photo to anyone who donated $10 to an organization that she recommended.
Her inbox was soon flooded with donation receipts, and recent estimates suggest that Ward has raised more than $1 million in donations for wildfire relief efforts. Unsurprisingly (given the “donor premium”), they are overwhelmingly low-dollar donations, too.
This is an encouraging story in one sense: motivating thousands of people to support a country in desperate need is certainly a good thing. Vox.com celebrates this example of “charity porn.” In another sense, there is the important question of how these donors were motivated—and what that means for the virtue of this gift.
Facebook has not recently been known for a paragon of good moral judgment. And yet, Facebook canceled Ward’s Instagram account for violating community guidelines. Of course, “community guidelines” fall far short (and sometimes far afoul) of moral integrity. But in this case, they seem to be onto something.
2019 was the year of woke-washing—first as companies scaled up their social enterprise image, and later as the term entered the philanthropic landscape. After organizations as prestigious as the Metropolitan Museum of Art were criticized for accepting money from families like the Sacklers (who made their fortune off of OxyContin), woke-washing soon came to describe donors giving to nonprofits in order to cleanse their public image.
These “toxic gifts” were criticized and sometimes refused and organizations (allegedly) took an interest in seeing where their donations came from.
Jeffrey Epstein is, no doubt, the most vicious example of this issue in living memory. Of course, his giving was typically anonymous, preventing to some degree the woke-washing narrative—but the profound criticism of places like MIT accepting his donations are in the same vein. Epstein’s money, like the Sacklers’, is dirty money and it shouldn’t be accepted.
The curious thing regarding Epstein and the Sacklers is that critics see a connection between ends and means. In other words, there is some connection between what is being achieved (the ends of the donor’s actions) and how it is being achieved (the donor’s means). This money is “dirty money” (and to-be-refused) because it was made through questionable or vicious means. These critics are not—in this case at least—utilitarians.
In the case of the Naked Philanthropist, one of two things is going on. One option is that this is mere intellectual inconsistency: the “integrity of the ends and means” matters for the Sacklers but not for Ward. The other option is that there is little-to-no concern about Ward’s means: she is simply sharing naked photographs in exchange for charitable donations. This, it would seem, is not “dirty money.”
If I were a betting man, I would put my money on the latter. Ward’s decision to peddle personal pictures does not draw public scrutiny or moral outrage. Hers is not dirty money because she, a free and rational adult, exchanged photographs with other consenting and interested adults—not a morally problematic decision in America today.
I do not want to detract from the opioid crisis, but it is worth attending to the blatant but unspoken parallels between the Sacklers and the Naked Philanthropist.
The specter of Epstein lurks in the background.
In the height of the #metoo movement, Mary Rose Somarriba had the unique insight that pornography is the missing piece in the allegations against comedian Louis C.K. Somarriba is unperplexed by C.K.’s sexual misbehavior because of his celebrated use of pornography, as well as its influence on the human brain.
Given the deleterious effects of pornography that Somarriba explains, you would expect that she would be unperplexed (if more appalled) by Epstein, too. There is, then, an uncanny relationship between The Naked Philanthropist and Epstein. His gross moral evils are downstream from a sexualized culture that the Naked Philanthropist participates in and celebrates.
Epstein and Ward are not morally equivalent actors. But the philanthropy of each is wrapped up in a tragically sexualized culture, and the connections should not be overlooked.
If nothing else, this shows again the importance of a gift acceptance policy—and the importance of incorporating some philosophical sophistication in crafting those policies. Both the ends and the means ought to be carefully considered before accepting a gift.