Interview with Peter J. Gomes
Interviewed by Bob Kenny and Pamela Gerloff
You use a wonderful line in your book about participating
in something that is “truly good and truly great.”
I’d like to think that’s why people give money
philanthropically. When I talk with More Than Money members
one-on-one, they seem excited to be doing good in the world
with their money. But I’ve also noticed that people
who enjoy doing good are not always comfortable talking
about that with others. Why do you think it’s so hard
for us to talk about wanting to be both good and great?
I think our culture has a pathological fear of exceptionalism.
Nobody wants to be exceptional, although everyone wants
as being exceptional. Talking about
moral greatness or goodness is intimidating because it implies
that some are more morally acceptable than others. Yet we
don’t really have a way of measuring that. There is
also the question of who made those decisions—by what
right does anyone make those judgments?—and that’s
against our democratic and elitist nostrums. The whole notion
of goodness is a discriminatory notion and is one imposed
from the top, rather than from the bottom. Hence, to talk
about goodness as an achievable and desirable station to
aspire to is very frustrating. It’s not in our lexicon.
We don’t really have the language to talk about it.
One of the reasons I wrote that book is that it is essentially
using practical formulas to discuss the concept of goodness.
What do you think the value is of talking about goodness?
The value is in helping us define what goodness is. If you
define what goodness is, it gives us something to aspire
to—something that is, in my view, the ultimate object
and definition of what it means to be human. We have the
pursuit of happiness as the constitutional goal, but we’ve
failed to understand —to our peril, I think—that
happiness is not a goal. Happiness is a consequence. I think
what the founding fathers really meant was life, liberty,
and the pursuit of goodness.
classics have taught us that goodness is the goal and that
happiness comes from that, quite distinct from what one
has, or even what one does. But in a culture that is defined
by the pursuit of happiness because it is economically a
viable pursuit to attain, the notion of happiness as a by-product
of something else is hard to imagine. In my book, the way
I’ve schematized it, goodness is the objective, happiness
is the byproduct. The means are the virtues and the content
of the virtuous life, and the cardinal virtues are faith,
hope and charity. I outlined it that way because otherwise
people wouldn’t be able to visualize that there is
a structure to all of that.
In your book, you talk about the difference between making
a good living and making a good life. But the good life
part can be tough when you have so much money that you don’t
have to make a living.
When you have nothing to aspire to and the challenges that
you’ve defined, you have already met—like, “I’ll
make my first million by the time I’m 30”—you
end up like young Alexander the Great. How many more kingdoms
are there to be conquered? “Been there, done that”
is so much the feeling of many of these achievers. So they
live lives of quiet desperation, in my opinion. But the
fact that one doesn’t pursue the good life doesn’t
mean that it’s not there to be pursued. We’ve
defined the good life in terms of having as much of this
world’s goods as we want—not as much as we need,
but as we want. When it’s actually impossible to achieve
what you want, and you want the wrong things, or you want
inadequate things, that is all the more frustrating.
When you have enough money to get everything that you would
want, then what?
That’s a question I’ve asked another way: When
is too much not enough? One way of framing the answer is:
when it does not satisfy, when it does not give that sense
of achievement or accomplishment or stability that allows
you to employ and enjoy what you have. When I was a boy,
we used to talk about the wealthy as the “well-to-do.”
Now the phrase is banished from our lexicon. The moral implication
of the phrase was that you have all you need in order to
do something. Now, people are just rich. Wealthy. “Well-to-do”
no longer works.
I’ve noticed that when people have a certain understanding
about their role as the well-to-do in this society, then
doing good does bring them happiness. There is a sense of
“Holy cow! This is more fun than buying a new house
in the Hamptons.”
That’s right. My money is not being taken away from
me, and I’m not throwing it away. It’s transforming
Sociologist Paul Schervish, at Boston College, studies people
of wealth and he says that money is as much fun to give
away as it is to get. Actually even more fun.
That’s right. There was a wonderful instance many
years ago: I was at a dinner at which we were honoring one
of Harvard’s greatest benefactors, Thomas Dudley Cabot.
Mr. Cabot had given many millions to Harvard in the late
’70s and was lauded for it. He stood up at the dinner
and said that he and his wife had wondered what was the
most fun. Was it making the money? Getting the money? Or
giving it away? He concluded that giving it away was even
more fun than making it.
experienced in the management of money, over a very long
period of time, almost universally testify to the great
joy of giving. But for those who are new to money, the thrill
of getting it hasn’t yet been supplanted by the thrill
of giving it.
I talk quite frankly with some of the young and newly wealthy,
and their anxiety is that the money is easy come, easy go.
They know it could be gone as easily as it came. And so
these multi, multi-millionaires at age 35 become extremely
cautious —far more so than their parents, who have
next to nothing and are much more generously inclined. There
is the terrible specter of their contemporaries—these
dot-commers who made all that money but who never had the
joy of giving it away. They made it all. They lost it all.
No middle passageway.
People are talking now about the decline of the stock market
and the decline of their sense of wealth. We were talking
about this recently with some More Than Money members and
someone said, “I need to tighten my belts. I need
to tighten my philanthropy belt because I don’t have
as much money as before…” But someone else suggested
that, in fact, it is one belt; if giving your money away
is as much or more fun than making it, then it isn’t
two belts. If you are going to cut back, you figure out
how you’re going to cut everything equally. You won’t
be able to give as much away, but you won’t take as
big a vacation either. To be a philanthropist becomes an
integral part of your life.
Yes. I know that experience.
It seems to me that that experience comes from giving money
away and realizing how much fun it is, along with some serious
Well, interestingly enough, it’s the poor who have
a better experience of that than the rich, because the poor
give away a higher percentage of what they have than the
rich do. They have discovered that having nothing, if you
give a portion of that away, you have a good deal more than
before. Where people tithe to the church, it’s primarily
the poor who do the tithing. It’s the people of vast
income who are very cautious about giving, and who wonder
if they dare give ten percent to anything, let alone to
an ancient lesson, a biblical lesson—the notion that
giving is its own excuse for being. You get extraordinary
dividends from it: You aid whatever is being assisted; and
you get the pleasure of having done it, which builds up
a kind of moral “credit” for you. But you have
to be able to talk the language in the first place to have
that conversation. That is what is so lacking.
You said that people of lesser means tend to give a higher
percentage of their money away. Why do you think that having
more money so often gets in the way of a good life?
I would say that the effort to acquire money means, in some
respect, that you feel you have an incredible obligation
or responsibility to keep it, to maintain it. So it doesn’t
give you freedom, it gives you anxiety. And so you become
obsessed by it as an end in itself and not a means to anything,
and thus you become sort of like Scrooge McDuck, a slave
to your gold coins. You get cold comfort by being able to
slide up and down in them, because you’re constantly
worried about erosion, thievery, pilferage, loss of value,
manipulation, and all those things. Living an obsessed life
like that means you don’t have time to live any other
kind of life. It’s the gated community syndrome. To
those outside the gated community, the gate looks like it
provides security for the insiders, but many of those inside
are prisoners of their own anxiety. One does not imagine
a sense of freedom or liberation on the inside of the gates.
There is, rather, a sense of siege. Hence, you don’t
say, “What good can I do with this?” You say
either, “What good is this?” or “How can
I manage it or keep it, or how can I prevent somebody else
from taking it?”
What is a solution to that?
I think a solution is to understand from the start that
money is the means to a much larger moral end. There is
a self-benefit, but also another benefit. Money is meant
to facilitate everything, and you have a part in helping
to discern what that facilitation will be—so that
instead of being rich, you want to have a sense of being
well-to-do. “I have this money; therefore, there are
things that I will want, even ought, to do.” That
should be part of the basic syllabus of wealth, but it isn’t.
history of philanthropy is instructive in that, in the past,
people found objects that would give them satisfaction in
return for doing good—like hospitals or almshouses—but
there is no equivalent kind of moral ambition nowadays.
The idea in ancient times was that you spent your money
to do good works because that would take time off your years
in purgatory or hell. But, if you make your own hell (or
heaven) as is the philosophy now, and you aspire only to
heaven on earth, the big motivating factor has been removed.
What do you think a motivating factor is now? Is it happiness?
Personal pleasure. But it’s also a sense of doing
social good. I think people do have a kind of social value
gene somewhere. If they can afford to do good, and they
know what to do, they want to do the right thing. I think
everybody feels that way, but they are inhibited—primarily
by their fears. I’m no Calvinist, but I’ve always
preached that the fundamental problem is not people’s
natural wickedness, but their temerity about being good.
They want to be good. They desire it. But they don’t
necessarily know what goodness is, and if they do know what
it is, they don’t know if they dare afford it. I don’t
believe it’s as simple as Calvin says. I don’t
believe in the total depravity of man. I think we’re
not totally depraved; we’re all created in the image
of God, but we’re fundamental cowards. Thus, we’re
totally gutless, as opposed to totally depraved. So it is
not the lack of a sense of goodness that keeps people from
doing good; it is the lack of the will to act upon the inherent
sense of goodness.
Would you agree that given the proper support, when people
have the resources, they really do want to do the good?
I think that, if they are relieved of their fears that the
good isn’t really good—or their anxiety that
they will get caught having to pay a price higher than they’re
willing to pay—and if they have the resources to do
it (motive, means and opportunity), they will do the right
thing. One of the lines I say here in church, when I ask
for money, is, “I know that each of you knows the
right thing to do, and I know you want to act upon that
knowledge. I give you permission. Do the right thing.”
I want to appeal to the moral intelligence. And moral intelligence,
properly exercised, leads to generosity, because we want
to be good and we want to be seen as doing good things.
Reverend Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian
Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church, Harvard
University. In his book,
The Good Life: Truths that
Last in Times of Need
(HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), Professor
Gomes examines what it means to make a good life, not just
a good living. Distinguishing between what our culture tells
us about the good life and what truly brings abiding happiness,
he addresses the questions, “What do I need to be
good?” and “How can I truly be happy?”
Dr. Bob Kenny, executive director of More Than Money, and
Dr. Pamela Gerloff, editor of More Than Money Journal, met
with Professor Gomes to discuss the concept of goodness
as it relates to wealth.
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