Theodore M. Lechterman

Postdoctoral Researcher in Political Theory & Applied Ethics


As a political philosopher, I take special interest in how democratic ideals apply to emergent economic practices—and how studying empirical phenomena illuminates and challenges existing theoretical paradigms.

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 gratuitously transferring private property for public purposes. Organized philanthropy is philanthropy in its modern form, facilitated by law and public policy. Despite the benevolent intentions and great achievements of many donors, it is easy to overlook 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?

Recent normative discussions of philanthropy have tended to treat it as a realm separate from politics, and to focus inquiry on what it means for individual donors to give well. Those who do recognize philanthropy as a political problem have explored some specific facets, such as the threat of paternalism, and how philanthropy can support liberal ideals. But they have not addressed the conflict between philanthropy and democracy in a sustained or systematic way.

I am currently developing a book manuscript that deepens and broadens the account set out in my doctoral dissertation, “Donors’ Democracy: Private Philanthropy and Political Morality.” The book builds upon recent attempts in democratic theory to articulate precisely what makes democracy valuable and to separate questions of legitimacy from questions of justice. It explores these larger questions through specific puzzles in the practice of philanthropy. The exploration yields conclusions about the regulative ideals that apply to this practice, conclusions that reinforce certain elements of existing policies and imply radical reform for others. In the process, the book also shows how exploring the topic of a social practice like philanthropy tests and refines existing views about democracy’s value.

Consider, for instance, the common policy of subsidizing philanthropic donations, today a fixture of the public finance regimes of many democratic societies. Most instantiations of this policy make subsidies available on a neutral basis, with no special priority accorded to specific categories of nonprofit activity. Numerous critics have found this policy wanting, contending 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 democratic aims: compensating for limitations of majoritarian decision-making, enriching the quality of a society’s cultural language, and securing the organizational foundations of democratic deliberation. In the process, my account also challenges conventional perspectives on the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory.

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 less advantaged. Under conditions of economic inequality, subsidizing donations on formally equal terms allows wealthier citizens to augment their influence over public affairs, further marginalizing poorer citizens. I argue that this state of affairs is ultimately incompatible with the demands of democratic equality, and I offer a radical way of redressing it through policy measures. In the process, I reexamine and rearticulate the nature of political equality and what it demands.

The book addresses several other topics, such as how legal instruments that allow philanthropic entities to exist in perpetuity can be reconciled with intergenerational justice. It explores underappreciated ethical quandaries faced by donors and NGOs attempting to assist members of the global poor. It rejects dominant views about the justification for corporate philanthropy. And it shows how the value of democracy bears on the practical ethics of donation. In June 2018, I hosted a book manuscript workshop at Stanford to discuss a preliminary draft, and I am now beginning conversations with publishers.

Besides the book project, my work on philanthropy has spawned freestanding papers in various stages of the publication process. An article critiquing the effective altruism movement is forthcoming in Polity. A reply to Larry Temkin’s Uehiro lectures on this topic will also be published by the Journal of Practical Ethics. A piece on intergenerational philanthropy is slated for inclusion in a volume to be published by Rowman and Littlefield. A chapter co-authored with Rob Reich on political theory and the nonprofit sector will be included in the third edition of the Nonprofit Sector Research Handbook, published by Stanford University Press. Pieces I have penned on related topics for general readers have appeared in outlets such as Salon, Chicago Tribune, and Business Insider.

I am beginning to turn my attention to a second project on the ethics of technology, which I believe presents us with similar, and similarly urgent, problems of political morality. It is no coincidence that the most significant philanthropists of our era come from technology companies. Both philanthropy and technology challenge societies with the specter of technocracy—and the question of its compatibility with democratic values.

 Technologists and philosophers alike are now sounding alarms about the risks that artificial intelligence poses to human existence and distributive justice. Less clearly have scholars in this area articulated the challenges that artificial intelligence poses to democratic governance. The development of artificial intelligence threatens to take more and more social decisions out of human hands. Under what conditions should this be welcomed or resisted? Another neglected issue concerns the public power of technology corporations that design products around which we organize so much of our lives. Besides the obvious concerns about privacy and security, these developments raise larger questions about the power to referee the public sphere and the power to shape cultural norms. What are the public responsibilities of technology producers, and how should they be held accountable? I will present my preliminary findings on these questions at conferences in 2019.

Outside of these specific projects, I maintain active interests in global justice and social policy, and I have published stray pieces on both of these topics. I also have an ongoing interest in methodological questions, such as the extent to which theories of political morality should be sensitive to social and ontological facts, the distinction between the values of justice and beneficence, and the broader debate over the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory. 

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