The Atlantic

Is It Unethical for People to Pass Their Wealth On to Their Children?

A conversation about inheritance, philanthropy, and aging with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the law professor Saul Levmore
Source: Dennis Hallinan / Getty

What is the right way to age? It’s a question that isn’t explored enough in American society, where, seemingly, people are expected to be forever young, until, suddenly, they are not. Reflecting this binary, any writing about a long life’s final decades tends toward extremes. On one hand, there are the accounts of heroic men and women who still put in more than 40 hours a week on the job in their late 60s and early 70s (a genre I like to call “retirement porn”). On the other, there are the articles warning about the dangers of not adapting a home for aging bodies, or the plague of financial scammers targeting lonely or cognitively challenged seniors.

That leaves out a vast middle, the space where many older people actually, you know, live their lives. Luckily, Martha Nussbaum, the renowned philosopher and ethicist at the University of Chicago, and Saul Levmore, the former dean of and a current professor at the university’s law school, decided to explore that middle. The result? The recently published Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret.

The book’s final chapter, “Giving It Away,” discusses what people should do with their money before they die, and how they could arrange for it to be dispersed when they are no longer alive. For The Atlantic’s series on philanthropy, “Who Gives?,” I spoke to Nussbaum and Levmore about these questions, and our conversation touched on why people give money to charity in the first place as well as the benefits of giving those funds to, among other places, the opera. (Spoiler: They disagree.) The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.


Helaine Olen: Why do people give money away both before they die and in their final wills? Are there different motivations in each case?

Well, that’s a really good question. Some people give money away, I think, as a way to

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