New Works in the Field / Uncivil Civil Society

When Philanthropy is Uncivil

Editors’ Note: As the first contributor to an ongoing forum that HistPhil will be publishing over the next several months on the “uncivil” nature and histories of civil society, Chiara Cordelli illuminates the uncivil dimensions of philanthropy.

Philanthropy, once again, has stepped in to meet unmet needs. The amount donated in response to the pandemic far exceeds donations given to previous disasters. In the celebratory words of McKinsey & Company: “What’s striking is not only the scale of capital being committed by major philanthropists (at least $10.3 billion globally in May 2020…) but also how it is being given: at record speed, with fewer conditions, and in greater collaboration with others.” Between May and now, billionaire author MacKenzie Scott (also known for being Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife) alone donated $4.1 billion to hundreds of US organizations fighting the devastating effects of the pandemic.

As big philanthropy grows, so do criticisms of it. Some have questioned whether philanthropy really is effective at achieving just or desirable social outcomes; others have voiced concerns about its plutocratic character; and others again have raised suspicion about the intentions that lie behind the magnanimity of the super-rich.

Without denying the importance of these criticisms, I want to ask a different question: is philanthropy civil?[1]  

Philanthropy is often praised as a feature of, and tribute to, the civil character of societies. Here by “civil” is meant a mode of social cohabitation (and discourse) characterized, among other things, by virtues of respectful interaction, cooperation, and even friendship. Hence philanthropy—whose etymological root refers to the love of fellow man—is naturally understood not only as compatible with, but as an important component of, the ideal of civil society.

This view may arguably be sound if we think that the civil character of a society can be reduced to a question of virtuous individual attitudes and behaviors. But doing so would be a mistake. Whether a society can count as “civil” is also, and more fundamentally, a function of its ability to overcome the defects of a pre-civil condition – what some past thinkers would call “the state of nature.” In this sense, I want to suggest, big philanthropy is all but civil. Paradoxically enough, big philanthropy participates in the very undoing of the civil character of political societies. Indeed, it reproduces, within these societies, the very same defects of the pre-civil condition. This is so however well-intentioned philanthropists may be.

The fundamental problem with big philanthropy is not then a problem about what philanthropists intend – whether the wealthy give to shore up their reputation or cover up abuses of power (although intentions matter too). It is rather a problem about what big philanthropy, as both a practice and an ideology, does to society, and to human relationships within it.

All this may sound overly dramatic. Do not philanthropists do many good and indispensable things? Absolutely. But that is the point. What makes them indispensable is also what explains why they are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, agents of a process of social regression to a pre-civil state. How so?

Let’s start with a sketch of some of the central features of a pre-civil condition. When people think of the state of nature, they generally imagine a state of inescapable conflict. This is our Hobbesian inheritance. But there is an alternative, Kantian tradition that does not treat conflict, or even the presence of a disposition toward conflict, as an essential feature of the pre-civil condition. According to this tradition, the pre-civil state is first and foremost a state of undue dependence. In the absence of political institutions, we necessarily remain unduly dependent on the merely private and unilateral will of others. Conflict, or its possibility, is not necessary for such dependence to occur. We can be unduly dependent on others even in a peaceful society, where everyone is norms-abiding and even altruistic. The Kantian tradition is, I believe, correct in showing that the overcoming of such dependence provides us with sufficient reasons to strive to bring about and maintain a civil condition.

But what is the problem with such a state of dependence? The answer is that dependence, of a certain kind, makes us unfree. Although humans are by their very nature dependent beings and absolute independence is neither possible nor desirable, a certain kind of independence is required by freedom. To be free entails being able to pursue certain life plans without these being imposed on us by someone else. Insofar as we need at least some secure rights and resources to make choices and pursue goals, freedom requires that the enjoyment of such rights and resources do not depend on the will of particular others. In what sense? For one thing, the adjudication and enforcement of our rights cannot reflect the merely private judgment of someone else – you cannot unilaterally decide what I have a right to, or to do. Further, the secure enjoyment of these rights cannot depend on the goodwill of others – my ability to freely move, speak, and acquire what I need to live a decent life cannot depend on your whims of the day. Last but not least, the ability to pursue a life plan also entails the ability to maintain a secure sense of our own worth. Freedom is therefore incompatible with allowing others to treat us as a mere means for their own ends.

The pre-civil condition is necessarily a state of undue dependence and unfreedom in all these respects because, in the absence of authoritative and representative institutions that can both adjudicate and secure our rights “in our name,” we necessarily remain subject to the merely private will of others for both the adjudication and the enjoyment of the very conditions of our freedom.  

How is philanthropy bringing us back to a pre-civil state then?

As I argue in my new book, The Privatized State, it is impossible to separate the role that big philanthropy plays in many contemporary societies from the privatization of public goods that has happened under neo-liberalism since the 1970s. The more democracies have seen increasing cuts to the public funding of important goods and services – such as primary education and health care – the more their governments have publicly encouraged private giving as an alternative way of financing their production. In turn, the wealthy have concomitantly developed a self-understanding as entrepreneurial agents of social justice – as substitutes of democratic government, effectively.

One first, obvious problem with this arrangement is that, even if philanthropy could by assumption achieve the same, or even better, outcomes than government action, this fact would not be sufficient to make philanthropists into legitimate agents of social provision. Philanthropists may be effective, but only a democratic government can be legitimate.

While a democratic government is authorized by us to act in our name, private philanthropists are their own, private persons. While government, in a democracy, is entrusted to represent and instantiate a public, or as Kant would say, “omnilateral” form of judgment – a judgment that is not reducible to the merely unilateral will of some private persons – the form of judgment philanthropists represent is merely private and unilateral. This is so necessarily, however well-intentioned philanthropists may be. After all, we call office holders who act for private purposes “corrupt,” but no such idea of corruption applies to private philanthropists, the idea being that the latter are entitled, by their very nature as private agents, to act in light of private purposes. 

The result is the unavoidable subjection to an illegitimate power. As far as legitimacy is concerned, nowadays big philanthropy stands to the citizenry not that differently from the way in which a benevolent colonial power stands to those subject to it. While subjection to this power may be the only way for the subjects to obtain the material preconditions of their freedom, and even if (by hypothetical assumption) the colonial power is well-intentioned and acts in good faith, yet, it is still a “colonial” power. It cannot truly act “in the name” of those subject to it, and those subject to it are in turn left dependent on a merely unilateral will for the guarantee of their freedom. Yet this kind of dependence is precisely the kind of dependence that, as we saw above, is constitutive of a pre-civil condition.

But there is more. Big philanthropy is inseparable from a background of vast inequalities in the distribution of private property, including wealth. As forcefully denounced by Anand Giridharadas in his best-selling book Winners Take All, philanthropy contributes to the reproduction of inequality itself, by enabling, legitimizing and, we could add, magnifying it. Importantly, big philanthropy can play an ideological role in legitimizing large inequality, even independently of the conscious intentions of individual philanthropists. Inequality may simply appear more acceptable, if those who benefit from it are so kindly willing to voluntarily redistribute part of their wealth to society. Yet a system of private property that, uncoupled from effective state provision, generates the kind of deprivation and inequality that societies nowadays face cannot be legitimate. For this system reproduces, once again, the very kind of undue dependence that a civil condition, and arguably the institution of private property itself, exists to overcome.

You don’t need to embrace any kind of socialism to agree on this point. Kant himself, although he regarded private property as a necessary condition of personal independence, and the institution of a civil condition as in turn necessary to secure private property, was aware that a system of private property, if designed to allow for vast inequalities while being uncoupled from effective state provision for the poor, would reproduce, within the state itself, the same very problem of undue dependence that characterizes the pre-civil condition.

But isn’t dependency on philanthropy the same as dependency on the state? No, it isn’t. For one thing, philanthropists can discretionally decide whether or not to support the vulnerable. The state, by contrast, has a duty, grounded on justice, to provide that support – a duty for the breach of which public officials can and should be held accountable. Only in the case of philanthropy, then, is necessary provision made entirely dependent on the goodwill of particular persons. Second, whereas, through taxation, the democratic state can provide for all its citizens in a mutual and reciprocal (even if not perfectly equal) way, wealthy philanthropists make gifts that can, in no way, be reciprocated. Yet, as Hobbes (Leviathan, Ch. XI) would remind us, receipt of benefits, especially if needed, that cannot be reciprocated transforms beneficiaries into permanent debtors. The kind of dependence philanthropy generates is thus qualitatively different – a form of genuine subordination – from reciprocal dependence on the state.

Finally, a society where the wealthy can praise themselves for being entrepreneurial agents of justice, while contributing at the same time to maintain a highly unequal system in place, is also a society that structurally forces some (the poor who cannot reject philanthropic gifts) to become mere means to the self-realization of others (the wealthy who derive social recognition from those gifts). Once again, this is so independently of the intentions of individual philanthropists. This kind of society is also inherently paternalistic; big philanthropists get to decide what social causes should be supported and what the well-being of their beneficiaries should consist in. But for adults to be treated as children just means not to be granted that intersubjective recognition that make self-respect – itself a condition of freedom – possible.

In sum, by (i) making the enjoyment of rights of some dependent on the merely unilateral decisions of other private persons; by (ii) legitimizing, thereby reproducing, a distribution of property that makes some fully dependent on the goodwill of others; and by (iii) treating competent adults as children, and as mere means for the self-realization of others, big philanthropy contributes to the undoing of the very reason that justifies the existence of a civil society in the first place: overcoming undue dependence. In this way, it actively participates in a process of regression to a pre-civil condition – a condition of dependence and unfreedom. This is the sense in which big philanthropy is not “civil,” and this is so however well-intentioned philanthropists may be.

Where do we go from here? Does this mean that big donors should stop giving their money away here and now? Not necessarily. One distinctive feature of the (Kantian) pre-civil state is that it is a state of contradiction. In this condition, while freedom requires that individuals be able to do certain things (e.g. acquire property), freedom also prohibits them to do those things (because, in the absence of political institutions, acquiring property would necessarily amount to imposing one’s merely unilateral will on others). I believe that a somewhat similar contradiction characterizes the situation of philanthropists in contemporary societies. Ideally speaking, human freedom is incompatible with philanthropists bearing the primary responsibility to fulfill the demands of justice because leaving the fulfillment of these demands in the hands of philanthropy is antithetical to freedom itself; it would make recipients dependent on the merely private and unilateral will of others. Yet in a situation where a legitimately authorized government grossly fails to fulfill the demands of justice, the wealthy acquire a provisional duty to fulfill such demands, so as to compensate for the unjust failures of their government, from which they benefit. The fact that this duty is provisional, however, means that it should be discharged in a way that facilitates rather than frustrates the exit from the current situation. What does this mean?

Philanthropists should not present themselves to the public as legitimate agents of social provision – agents that compete with government and aim to eventually replace it. Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter philanthropist Bill Pulte should stop going around saying that the wealthy “do many things BETTER than government.” To the contrary, and as naive as this may sound, they should publicly acknowledge their lack of legitimacy and should actively work to strengthen rather than weaken public action. Philanthropists should further publicly acknowledge that the wealth they possess is itself the result of an economic system that is unjust and in need of reform (indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, a large part of their wealth does not even count as their own). It is not enough to say, as MacKenzie Scott does in her Giving Pledge statement: “We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand.” Wealth doesn’t come from lucky breaks. It comes from a (carefully crafted and strategically supported) economic and legal system that allows some to earn and retain an unlimited amount of money or assets, while leaving others destitute. Philanthropists have a moral obligation to publicly acknowledge this fact and to call for reform (e.g. by publicly calling their governments to increase wealth taxes and to strengthen regulations against capital flight and tax heavens). Finally, current practices of philanthropy should become more internally democratic. Foundations, for example, should include grassroots organizations, social movements, and other representatives of potential beneficiaries in their decision-making process, not as mere consultants but as co-determinators. Although the internal democratization of philanthropy cannot confer to it full legitimacy, it may temper its dependence-inducing vices.

Of course, this is (a part of) what morality would require of big philanthropy. But this is not to say that what morality requires is easily achievable. If philanthropy plays an important ideological role, it is because it makes appear civil what is and should be regarded as essentially uncivil. A public acknowledgment of this fact would require action on the part of those very people whose interests this ideology serves. I fear this is unlikely to happen. 

Chiara Cordelli

Chiara Cordelli is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Her main areas of research are social and political philosophy. She is the author of The Privatized State (Princeton University Press, 2020) and the co-editor (with Rob Reich and Lucy Bernholz) of Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (University of Chicago Press, 2016).


[1] Historians have shown how philanthropy has been used throughout history to support unjust institutions, including slavery, as well as cultural and religious prejudices in a way that may well qualify as “uncivil.” My argument, however, proceeds from a philosophical perspective and aims to apply also to circumstances where the causes philanthropists espouse are not per se objectionable.

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