I had a chance to chat with a brilliant man. His name is Zell Kravinsky.
Zell is different. After building a $45m property empire, he decided to give it all away to charity. Then, with no more money to give, he went on to donate his kidney to a total stranger to save their life. As I read about him, I wondered whether their was a method behind his madness. Then I realised I could just ask the man himself.
TFHG: There are 2,550 Google hits for “Zell Kravinsky is crazy”. Are you?
Zell: Yes and no. I think I’ve the same quotient of rationality as everyone else and I think I’d award myself the same “crazy score” scorers who resent what I’ve done would give me but I arrive at it by reversing their valences, i.e., in my mind if I’m half-crazy it’s because I’m still putting my and my family’s interests above everyone else’s half the time, not the reverse.
TFHG: Crazy or not, you’ve given away all your $45m of wealth to good causes and have donated a kidney to a lady you didn’t even know – which is utterly inspiring. What drives you to embrace these acts of helping others so entirely? And to what extent do you think these motivations are innate or learned?
Zell: I don’t know that I believe in innate ideas the way pre-empirical philosophers did but it’s possible that the sharing impulse is hard-wired because it confers a remarkable evolutionary advantage we’re just beginning to appreciate. As I experience this sharing impulse it doesn’t spring from being any better or worse than anyone else (I’m pretty sure I’m morally average, myself) but the sense that if humans are all equal—an equality most of us attest to, rhetorically at least—we’ve an equal right to have our needs and desires satisfied; in light of that equality I’m disinclined to exhaust myself holding onto my surpluses (spare body organs and spare funds) that are others’ necessities.
TFHG: You’ve mentioned before that you’d donate your other kidney, despite it inevitably bringing an end to your own life, if you felt you could save the life of someone who could add more value to the world than you could. I wonder if this is you merely illustrating your rationale to giving as whole, or whether you’re actually serious about it?
Zell: I’m, as it were, deadly serious. I was surprised by the negative response to my argument because I’d made it in an extreme and therefore (I thought) persuasive form; I said I’d give my remaining kidney to someone who could, for example, cure cancer. But yes, I think someone merely likely to do more for the world than me has a greater claim than I do to my kidney, assuming no one else can be persuaded to part with their spare. I do believe the utilitarian calculus, the sum of individual benefits, should govern distribution and that nothing, neither individual funds nor individual body parts, should be withheld from that distribution pool.
TFHG: I’m fascinated by how you’ve described your relationship and connection with other people, whether you know them or not. What do you think are the main barriers to people looking out for one another?
Zell: The current regime, which requires us to look out almost exclusively for ourselves and our children, is persuasive in the same way all regimes are persuasive. I don’t take strangers off the street and bring them home, mostly because I lack the courage to take on my family and the rest of society. A few examples of persons successfully resisting the regime would help…
TFHG: So extreme is your generosity that some people might find it hard to understand the emotional strain that your actions have placed on those closest to you; your friends and family. Do you think they have a point? If so, how do you reconcile with this conflict?
Zell: Maybe we’re all, myself undeniably included, meant to feel some pain when we come up against an idea (like: the other guy deserves what I have more than I do if he needs it more) that challenges the basis of our current and ultimately unsustainable economic system. Maybe that pain is the first stage of change.
THFG: I love that you offered a journalist who was interviewing you $10,000 for him to donate his kidney to someone else. How and why does traditional giving (and our perception of it) need to be disrupted?
Zell: Doubtless some benefit to giver and recipient accrues from the current regime’s modicum of charity but utilitarianism will require us to reach beyond the lateral transfers characteristic of most American charity—gifts to religions, colleges, and other affinity groups, all members of the same affluent society as most Americans—and instead given vertically, downwardly, to the neediest, where the effect is likely to be materially more profound.
TFHG: You’re actions have made a huge statement about what one person can do for others. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make the world a better place?
Zell: In your calculation of what you can afford to give, distrust the hoarding tendencies—encouraged by your upbringing and by similarly indoctrinated friends and family—that concentrate too much of what you have, and are, in your own hands.
Before chatting with Zell, I thought I was blown away by the actual size of what he’s given. Those millions of dollars he donated would have had a huge impact on the problems he chose to help solve. As an act of giving, this is huge whichever way you look at it. His kidney donation too, it saved a life. How much bigger, in terms of human value, can one act get?
But it’s dawned on me now that this size thing is relative and that as a proportion of what Zell could give, he gave it all. In his “calculation of what he could afford to give” he utterly distrusted all possible “hoarding tendencies”. His giving is extreme, even in relation to his wealthy and healthy circumstances, and it’s this bit specifically that has completely blown me away.