The False Premises Behind “Giving Back”

by | May 1, 2023 | Psychology & Living

The implicit motive of the “payback concept” is to help you reduce your feelings of guilt for allegedly unearned personal achievement and pride. But why would you feel such guilt?

“It Is Important to Give Back!” When I hear someone espouse this concept, my first thought is: “So, what did you take or borrow that did not belong to you? Your neighbor’s lawn mower?”

Of course, that is not what “giving back” means today. It means that if you are successful, you owe somebody something. But what do you owe, whom do you owe it to, and why? Often the answer is: “You should give back to society.” Remember, though, that society is a collection of individuals, 99.99999 percent of whom have nothing to do with you.

So, let’s start with people who may have helped you in life. For example, a teacher may have encouraged you to learn or given you wonderful career advice. You certainly owe that person recognition and thanks, though not your life savings. Your teacher did not create the wealth that you earned. The education or career advice that your teacher gave you may have been a piece of the puzzle, but it was not the full reason for your success. If it were, every student who received the same advice and encouragement would have reached the same level of success. You succeeded in the end because of your efforts, your hard work, and your commitment to productivity.

Perhaps you had a business and employed competent, hard-working people, so you are led to believe that you owe them something. Yet, the relationship was one that involved a trade. Your employees worked, and, ideally, you treated them fairly with competitive pay, earned bonuses or stock options, verbal recognition, and other awards. If you cheated them, say on salary, then you should give back what you owe them, but otherwise, it was your leadership, your willingness to take risks and make investments, and your reputation that allowed the business to thrive.

What about payback to those who produced the goods and services you bought (e.g., Apple, Amazon)? You paid them by buying what they sold, and, perhaps, by recommending their product.

What about giving to your community in the form of donations to parks, scholarships for students, or financial contributions in emergencies, such as storms or floods? This is wonderful if you can afford it. Such actions show generosity and create good will, but they are not the payment of a debt. Framing your generosity as “giving back” implies that you are completing your part of a pre-arranged deal between partners in which you were given something for which you must pay. But this is an inaccurate representation of the arrangement.

The implicit motive of the “payback concept” is to help you reduce your feelings of guilt for allegedly unearned personal achievement and pride. But why would you feel such guilt? This guilt arises if you accept the premise that you did not earn what you got, and that self-interest and pride are immoral, and that a moral person would work only for the good of others. Payback, in this context, is a way of seeking forgiveness for personal achievement. But you do not need justification for an achievement that you earned. You have a right to your own life and to pride in your achievements.

It is legitimate to ask: what if the city or state gave me a tax break for putting my business there? I am not in favor of such breaks (which are widely used) because they are unfair to the local businesses that did not qualify for the same tax breaks. But if you made a deal to hire 250 people in exchange for a tax break, you need to keep your promise or give back the money.

Maybe you are thinking: “I am worth millions or billions, what should I do with the money? It would bore me to spend it all on houses and yachts?”

Good question.

Your first order of business should be, if attacked, to defend your absolute right to the money you earned and to do what you want with it, assuming you earned it honestly and paid your legally owed taxes.

But you could then ask: “Now that I have the money, what else is personally important to me?”

Warning: there is a movement toward self-appointed gurus, with their own personal agendas, telling people what kinds of volunteer projects are “acceptable. Ignore such people. What you choose to do with your time and money is none of anyone else’s business.

Aside from supporting, but not spoiling, kids and valued relatives, the possibilities are endless. You could start a new business; support other entrepreneurs; fund think tanks; support research so scientists without political pull do not have to beg the government for money. You could open scores of private elementary schools, ideally based on the Montessori Method, open to all applicants and with scholarships for all students who are admitted if needed. (You could set your own admission standards.) You could open private hospitals with low fees; pioneer breakthroughs in low-cost, private housing; support non-profits that defend individual rights; provide college scholarships to high-achieving high school students; create and open high-tech (STEM) schools with admission based on merit only; give time and money to animal shelters; start an organization that donates money to universities that support individualism; or support a political candidate, if you can find one you can trust.

The options are endless; the key is to engage in philanthropic acts because you personally love the cause you are supporting and want a sense of purpose. Wanting to make the world you live in a better place is a great thing but do it through activities that have personal meaning to you.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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