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House of Winds: Ross Douthat on particularity and partiality in philanthropy

A certain sadness hangs over Harkness State Park: The estate passed to the State of Connecticut in part, one presumes, because Edward and Mary had no living children, which lends various features of the property a special poignancy, from the game rooms in the carriage house to the carefully tended pet cemetery in the flower garden.

But that personal poignancy is part of the park’s interest and appeal. If the Harknesses had deliberately built the park for the public, with purely altruistic ends in mind — if it were more like Rocky Neck State Park, a little farther westward, which has a nifty pavilion built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s — the result would have still been beautiful, but also a little bit less remarkable to visit. It’s precisely the fact that someone once loved this particular landscape as an owner that makes the gift they made feel striking; that a millionaire’s private beach is now a place for kids with disabilities to play. And its beauties gain interest for having been shaped and sculpted in the first place to a particular set of tastes — both where all those efforts are lovingly preserved and where nature and time (the ivy snaking up the carriage house walls, the crumbling edges of the proud facades) are working against such preservation.

Partiality, in other words — toward a particular place, a particular community, a particular house — has to have a place in the would-be altruist’s decisions. And with it, a certain humility as well, because in the end we all give away everything we own — to our heirs, to the future and God’s providence. It’s good to have metrics for measuring how your donations improve health and save lives. But it’s also good to see wealth poured out into vessels of great beauty. And sometimes it’s good to see wealth’s lovely relics, standing empty beside a long green sweep where kids can run and parents wander after, reminding us that every human habitation is a house of winds.

Ross Douthat – The Case for a Less Effective Altruism

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