As a political theorist, my research considers how social and political institutions can be justified and appraised. I take special interest in contemporary social practices that have escaped sustained critical attention. Clearly enough, applying the analytical tools of political theory to contemporary problems helps to orient our assessments of, and guide our responses to, ongoing practical puzzles. Less obvious, perhaps, is that exploring real-world normative conflicts also feeds back into normative theory itself. Existing theories of justice or legitimacy are seldom sufficient for resolving complex practical challenges. Grappling with these complexities can reveal unnoticed deficiencies in received theoretical frameworks and prompt us to modify, extend, or replace them.
CURRENT FOCUS: PHILANTHROPY AND DEMOCRACY
The practice of organized philanthropy, which has occupied much of my work to date, is a case in point. Here philanthropy refers to the practice of voluntarily committing private property to public purposes. Organized philanthropy is philanthropy in its modern form, facilitated by law and public policy. Particularly in a world with no shortage of evils, one might think that this practice deserves nothing but our gratitude and encouragement. But this view fails to look below the surface. Despite the benevolent intentions and great achievements of many donors, we must not forget that philanthropy is also an exercise of power. Using private property to promote public purposes allows wealth to define the contours and content of civil society. And allowing wealth to control social outcomes appears to collide with core commitments of a democratic society, a society in which persons are supposed to be equally entitled to control their common affairs. What place can philanthropy have in a society committed to legitimizing power democratically?
Exploring the conflict between philanthropic practice and democratic theory has helped me to make sense of several contemporary problems. One of these is whether the common policy of subsidizing philanthropic donations can in fact be justified. Numerous commentators propose that public support for philanthropy can only be justified as a way of responding to poverty. Against this view, I argue that public support for citizens’ varied philanthropic commitments achieves three legitimate public aims: satisfying diverse preferences for public goods, enriching the quality of a society’s cultural language, and securing the organizational foundations of democratic deliberation.
But there are alternative ways of providing this public support, and unfortunately, common practice in many Western societies falls short. Charitable tax deductions serve to amplify the voices of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Under conditions of economic inequality, subsidizing donations on formally equal terms allows wealthier citizens to augment their influence over public affairs to the prejudice of poorer citizens. I argue that this state of affairs is ultimately incompatible with the demands of democratic legitimacy, and I offer some ways of redressing it through policy measures.
A second problem regarding philanthropic power concerns the way in which charitable gifts exercise control over future generations. Charitable bequests and trusts, which are popular instruments of donation, bind future generations to respect the wills of past donors. I argue that this “dead hand control” is objectionable because each generation has an interest in sovereignty over its collective affairs. Taking this interest seriously tells in favor of restrictions on the duration that donors can expect to have their wills honored.
I have found that the resources of existing theoretical frameworks are insufficient for assessing principled conflicts in the practice of philanthropy. For instance, issues of justice between generations have generated considerable attention in recent years, with commentators exploring how much current generations must save for future ones. But few scholars have considered whether current generations can legitimately impose conditions on the future use of these savings. Answering this question is essential for determining the conditions under which charitable bequests and trusts might be legitimate policy instruments. And it has forced me to articulate a general view about what makes sovereignty valuable, a view that has helped to guide my thoughts on other questions.
Consider another example that illustrates how exploring a narrow practical controversy can inform broader concerns in political theory. Prominent theories of democracy tell us that citizens are equally entitled to influence political decisions. The standard model assumes that decisions will be made formally by an elected legislature, and that the principal threat to political equality lies in plutocratic control of electoral campaigns. But contemporary conditions have revealed that private benefactors can control critical public functions by bypassing legislatures altogether, and that the ability of wealthy elites to set the political agenda by financing ideas in civil society may ultimately afford them more power than campaign spending does. Contending with these problems has required me to reexamine and rearticulate the nature of political equality and what it demands.
Presently, I am working on deepening and extending these core ideas for a monograph on the relationship of philanthropy to the value of democracy. The problems I mentioned above lie squarely within political theory, addressing how a democratic society ought to regulate a practice of philanthropy. But resolving these problems still leaves unaddressed how individuals and groups should think about their own philanthropic decisions—questions that apply more directly to readers’ own conduct. The final chapters of the book aim to provide some guidance here by illustrating how political considerations are essential—though often neglected—ingredients for practical reasoning by donors and their agents. To this end, I have been exploring two case studies. One case develops a critique of “effective altruism” as an account of the ethics of giving and points toward a constructive alternative. A second case examines a dilemma that confronts humanitarian NGOs operating outside of humanitarian emergencies.