Book Forum on Philanthropy in Democratic Societies / New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

The Problem With Discretionary Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: Since our last conversation on philanthropy and the state, we have been working on two other forums for the site. Highlighting new scholarship in the field, this next forum centers on the edited volume, Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (U. of Chicago Press, 2016). In the book, editors Rob Reich, Chiara Cordelli, and Lucy Bernholz have brought together an interdisciplinary community of scholars to discuss the role that philanthropy has played and should play in democratic societies. We have invited the volume’s authors to present synopses of their chapters, and we begin with Chiara Cordelli‘s evaluation of discretionary philanthropy’s moral limits. 

A perennial question in the field of philanthropy is this: How much discretion should donors enjoy in deciding whether to give away their resources, and to whom exactly? Often, it is assumed donors should enjoy wide discretion in deciding how to direct their donations to causes that they–the donors–personally care about. After all, it is their money that they are giving away. But is this assumption justified? I don’t think so.

The question matters, since today many governments have institutionalized such a ‘discretionary view’ of philanthropy. For example, the British Government (HM Government 2011), while encouraging philanthropy to fill the gap left behind after the government withdrawal from the provision of many goods and services, still insists that giving should happen “on the back of free decisions by individuals to give to causes around them” to which “they care about.” Similarly, charitable tax-deductions in the United States leave donors with wide discretion in selecting the organizations that receive their tax-exempted donations.

This discretionary view of philanthropy is also supported by some philosophers who claim that citizens are morally permitted to donate resources to certain causes, rather than to other, more urgent causes, if “one’s vision or life history” makes the former especially important to the donor (Richard Miller, “Beneficence, Duty and Distance.Philosophy and Public Affairs 32 (2004): 357–83). Even so-called “effective altruists,” who argue that people should donate in order to promote humanitarian outcomes most effectively rather than according to their personal policies, assume that donors have the moral right to choose among available charities. From this perspective, donors should make their choices as if they were making a private investment in those organizations.

In Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, I argue against this discretionary view. Indeed, I make the case that, under certain conditions, donors are entitled to no personal discretion when deciding how and to whom to give. By “personal discretion” I mean the moral prerogative to appeal to reasons that make reference to a particular agent’s identity, life history, conception of the good, or personal attachments. Minimizing personal discretion, I argue, requires that public officials constrain discretionary forms of philanthropy through appropriate institutions.

Those who allow for donors’ wide discretion assume that donors have full ownership rights over their resources. They regard giving as a duty of beneficence, that is, a duty to use one’s own resources to promote valuable ends, rather than as a duty of justice, that is a duty to return to others what is rightfully theirs. After all, we would all agree that if the money I have in my pockets is not mine but rather yours, I have no right to discretionally decide whether to give the money back to you or not, or whether to give it back to you or to someone else, or whether to give it back to you in cash or in some other form. Debtors cannot be choosers.

But are donors’ resources truly their own, to do with whatever they like? This may be true under ideal conditions. The political philosopher John Rawls famously argued that where political institutions discharge their primary responsibility to secure justice effectively, citizens provide their fellow citizens with what they are rightfully entitled to have. They do so by contributing their fair share of resources to both the redistributive and the public provision branches of government. If that happens, then citizens can be said to rightfully own what remains in their pockets. Then they can do what they want with those resources, including giving them away.

But in many contemporary societies, the division of labor between taxation and donation is blurred. For example, basic education and healthcare in the United States are financed and produced through a very complex hybrid system of public and private funding. The same is true of the UK and continental Europe. Under such conditions, it becomes unclear whether the money philanthropists give away can be regarded as rightfully their own.

Further, when the public provision branch of government shrinks, the well-off tend to benefit from this withdrawal, while the worst-off are harmed. The well-off benefit for several reasons. First, they pay fewer taxes than they would have had to pay to support a just, government-funded system of public provision. Second, they are not themselves damaged by the cuts, for they can self-segregate and afford access to justice-required goods privately through the market. Empirical research, for example Anthony Atkinson’s book Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2015), demonstrates that the rich have benefitted from government withdrawal over the past decades in precisely this way.

Benefiting from a system that unjustly harms the worst-off by depriving them of what they have an entitlement to possess provides reasons to attribute to the wealthy a duty of reparative justice towards the worst-off. By a duty of reparative justice, I mean an agent’s duty to fairly compensate another for harm for which the former can be held liable, where “harm” means a setback to a person’s interests.

Moreover, wealthy citizens may acquire reparative duties even without benefiting at all from injustice. Indeed, I can have a duty to compensate others for an injury that I negligently inflicted on them, regardless of whether I benefit from it or not. Similarly, the wealthy may still acquire duties of reparative justice if they can be held liable for their government underproviding certain goods, regardless of whether they benefit from these policies or not. Now, as a long tradition of democratic theory holds, citizens of minimally legitimate, democratic states may acquire such liability for their states’ unjust policies, carried out in their own name, even if they did not directly vote for those policies. Because of this and other reasons, I argue that wealthy citizens in contemporary democratic societies bear duties of reparative justice towards their fellow citizens who suffer from deprivation as a consequence of insufficient public provision by the government.

The question then becomes how the wealthy should discharge these duties. While wealthy citizens have a duty of distributive justice to support, through political advocacy, more just political institutions, reparative justice demands that we contain the extent of the harm generated by the withdrawal of government provision by providing time-sensitive goods before more just institutions can be brought about. In contemporary societies, given non-ideal conditions, this is what philanthropy should primarily do, or so I argue in my contribution.

Understanding philanthropy as a means of reparative justice has important implications for how donors should give. First, nonpublic reasons that make reference to what donors’ “care about” should play no role in giving decisions. Donors should make these decisions as if they were repaying a debt. This does not mean, however, as it is sometimes assumed, that donors’ decisions should be dictated by the recipients’ preferences. For recipients do not generally get to decide in what currency a debt should be repaid either. All that should guide wealthy donors’ reasoning is a concern about bringing their co-citizens as close as possible to a pre-harm baseline, defined according to sufficientarian principles of justice. In this respect, the focus should be not so much on democratizing philanthropy but in forcing it to track principles of justice (although, in the real world, democratizing philanthropy may be the only way to achieve this purpose). Second, those who are deprived of justice-required and time-sensitive goods such as primary education and maternal care should be served first. Third, and most importantly, governments should strive to minimize donors’ discretion, for example by matching tax deductions with specific causes, selected according to the very same sufficientarian principles of justice. This in turns means that donations to unrelated causes should receive no incentives and there may even be reasons to restrict philanthropy especially when it threatens public commitments to political equality and fair equality of opportunity.

There is a final upshot to my argument. Only by supporting, and ultimately achieving, just public institutions can citizens create the conditions necessary so that private philanthropy might then fulfill the discretionary and expressive wishes of donors. Insufficient state provision is a curse rather than a blessing for philanthropy.

-Chiara Cordelli

Chiara Cordelli is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Before joining Chicago, she was a postdoctoral scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. Her field of research is contemporary political philosophy. She is the author of several articles on the duties of justice of civil society actors and the co-editor of Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

One thought on “The Problem With Discretionary Philanthropy

  1. In practice, donors will give less if their freedom to invest is limited or controlled by anyone or anything but themselves. In philanthropy we are all on the same team; our mutual interest is in maximizing charitable giving and its societal benefits. Academics can surely think of ways to maximize efficiency, but they also need to consider how to maximize charitable giving. For that, freedom of donors to define their own humaneness is essential.


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