Is it ever OK to take donations from people like Jeffrey Epstein?

Can dirty money be used for good?
Can dirty money be used for good?
Image: Reuters
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The founder of Salvation Army, William Booth, was once reportedly asked about the ethics of taking money from dubious people and replied: “The trouble with tainted money is t’aint enough of it.”

Though Booth was confident in his answer, the ethical question has been revisited time and again. It contains a seemingly impossible conflict of consequentialist utilitarian ideals (if money can be put to use saving lives, then surely those results are worth pursuing) and inviolable principles (deals should never be made with plundered funds.) 

The actions of the MIT Media Lab, which accepted large donations from convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein while covering them up, provide the latest example of this problem. The Media Lab has been widely criticized for its actions.

In recent years, charities have also been condemned for accepting money from the Sackler family, which has members who have been assailed for profiting from the opioid crisis, and the Koch brothers, who have been denounced both for their oil company’s environmental impact and safety standards, and for their influence in conservative politics. In decades past, gifts from the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cecil Rhodes, whose collective sins include workforce exploitation and virulent racism, have also caused consternation. Little wonder that, 110 years ago, philosopher G.K. Chesterton described philanthropy as “the recognizable mark of a wicked man.”

When to refuse donations

First: Is the wealthy person immoral for non-financial reasons, or was the process of making the money corrupt? Rob Reich, director of the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University who writes on the ethics of philanthropy, says cases where the money itself is tainted presents the “stiffest challenge.” In such cases, he says, reparations are necessary, and charities should refuse funds unless their work addresses the original harm committed. “The only kind of philanthropy the relevant members of the Sackler family should be permitted to engage in is philanthropy to organizations combating the opioid addiction crisis,” says Reich. This suggests taking tainted money is not inherently wrong: That an opioid addiction charity could conceivably use the Sackler’s funds to try and abate the health crisis. 

Money is also problematic when it comes from someone such as Epstein, condemned not for how he made his money but his sexual assaults on girls. Bruce Sievers, who lectures at Stanford on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, says Epstein presents a clear-cut case of someone whose funds should be rejected. That MIT Media worked to keep Epstein’s donations hidden from the public suggests officials knew they shouldn’t have accepted his money. “Nonprofits depend on a trust relationship with the public,” said Sievers. “If they’re keeping a donor confidential to protect their reputation, they’re violating that trust relationship.”

The anonymity of donors can also influence the ethics of their donations. Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, wrote a Medium article last week arguing that it’s OK to accept money from criminals and those who’ve accrued wealth in corrupt ways as long as they do so anonymously, so as not to bolster their reputation. “No one who knows little about Rockefeller or Carnegie thinks anything negative about those criminals,” he writes. “That’s because whitewashing works.”

Though reputation laundering is certain a downside to criminal donations, Reich notes that Lessig undermines his own argument by writing that Epstein’s gift was “a ticking time bomb” that was “destined to be discovered.” True anonymity is difficult to guarantee, notes Reich—after all, a donor can always tell friends. Sievers agrees: It’s morally acceptable to accept a truly anonymous check in the mail, he says. Sievers says he’s heard of such donations, which list a bank account but no identifying name. Simply agreeing to keep a donor’s identity quiet isn’t true anonymity. 

The potential for nefarious influence

It’s one thing to donate to a general fund and ensure a charity has complete discretion over how the money is spent. A dubious donation is far more problematic if the giver buys influence as a result. The Koch brothers, for example, have had considerable sway as a result of their university donations.

Charities need money, and donations can achieve a huge amount of good. If a criminal isn’t able to donate to charities, and there aren’t formal reparations to account for their crimes, then the alternative is that they and their families have even more wealth to enjoy. From a utilitarian perspective, which focuses on the consequences of actions, some charities would have a greater need to accept tainted money than others, depending on the good they do. Though MIT is a nonprofit, an organization that saves lives or protects children from abuse has greater charitable impact. 

Given the myriad ethical concerns, there’s no clear-cut rule on when to accept donations. “People will have reasonable disagreements about whether the Koch brothers constitute blood oil money,” says Reich. Rather than create a black-and-white line, Reich proposes a structural solution: The creation of an intermediary nonprofit organization that would accept money from “dastardly” people. This intermediary would then direct funds to the nonprofits of its choice, so as to protect against donor influence and to create some system of reparations for the crimes committed. 

It’s a scenario unlikely to please everyone. The 1905 play Major Barbara, by George Bernard Shaw, explores the question of whether the Salvation Army should accept a donation from an arms dealer, presenting  convincing defenses of both sides of the argument. More than a century later, we’re still arguing over the answer.