Research


Works in Progress

"'That the Earth Belongs in Usufruct to the Living': Perpetual Philanthropy and the Problem of Perpetual Power"

"Donations and Democracy"

"The Effective Altruist's Dilemma"

"A Farewell to Alms"

Broadly speaking, my research considers how contemporary social and political institutions can be justified and appraised. I am especially interested in social practices that have escaped sustained critical attention. Among these are voluntary efforts to address social problems, most notably in the form of organized philanthropy.

Despite its growing significance and numerous normative challenges, organized philanthropy has only just begun to garner attention from political theorists. This is due, in part, to the fact that political theory has only recently begun to broaden its gaze from its customary object of analysis and evaluation: the state. Attention to contemporary politics reminds us that other types of agent can in fact alter the distribution of resources in profound and controversial ways. Philanthropic donors and their intermediary organizations are primary examples. Another reason for philanthropy’s neglect has to do with the assumption that philanthropy is an inherently virtuous activity. In a world with no shortage of evils, one might think that looking a gift horse in the mouth serves only to express crassness or pathological cynicism. This view fails to appreciate, however, that despite the great good that it might accomplish, philanthropy is also an exercise of power. Not only do the benefits it provides come with significant strings attached, but the secondary effects of philanthropic gifts work to shape a society’s collective features in controversial ways. Those who are subjected to this power are entitled to justification for why they should submit to it. Finally, there seems to be a widespread belief that the normative study of philanthropy is properly confined to moral philosophy, which can provide guidance on the manner and extent to which we ought to benefit others with our resources. But this view fails to realize how background conditions can render philanthropic giving something other than an exercise of personal liberty and thus needing a different level of analysis. For instance, because the modern state heavily subsidizes the practice of philanthropy, one might reasonably hold that the resources that donors give away are not entirely “theirs” to give: donations are partly public property, and as such, the framework in which they operate requires public justification.

My work on this topic so far has explored three particular problems of justifying the practice of organized philanthropy in a liberal democracy. One of these is whether the common practice of subsidizing philanthropic donations can in fact be justified. Solving this problem requires analyzing and evaluating the various public interests that philanthropy might serve, and determining whether subsidizing private donations is a reasonable way of protecting or advancing these interests. In this work I have found myself defending a specific version of liberal pluralism that sees private philanthropy as a way of giving expression to citizens’ diverse conceptions of the public good. The other two problems that I have explored concern the way in which philanthropy can transmit inequalities in power. One of these problems reflects the fact that under conditions of economic inequality, lax regulation of philanthropy allows wealthier citizens to amplify their influence over public affairs to the prejudice of poorer citizens. I have argued that this state of affairs is in fact incompatible with democratic legitimacy, and I have explored some ways of redressing it through policy measures. A second problem regarding philanthropic power concerns the way in which philanthropic 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 philanthropists. I have argued in relation to this problem that 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.

My near-term research plans include deepening and supplementing these arguments for the purpose of a book manuscript. The book aims to tackle two additional problems while also reflecting more specifically on the policy implications of the conclusions that I draw. These further problems include the practical ethics of donation and the regulatory challenge of transnational philanthropy.

In a short amount of time, “effective altruism” has become the most prominent account of the ethics of donation, encouraging relatively affluent individuals not only to donate generously but also to target their donations toward the most cost-effective improvements in global welfare. Effective altruism is commonly contrasted with expressivist positions, which hold that individuals are entitled to donate in whatever manner expresses their particular ends, and prioritarian positions, which hold that individuals ought to donate to the least advantaged—even when the chances of relieving their plight are relatively hopeless. My own view is that effective altruism depoliticizes problems whose resolution requires collective deliberation and response, and that an attractive alternative position would seek to bolster democratic processes rather than bypass them. Developing such an alternative and defending it against objections from effective altruists presents an ongoing challenge.

A further problem concerns the distinctive challenges of transnational philanthropy, which operates under structural conditions of massive resource disparities and nondemocratic governance. Some have argued that these conditions should lead us to conclude that different norms and regulatory strategies apply to transnational philanthropy than domestic philanthropy. My hypothesis is that this view is correct about the regulatory strategies but wrong about the norms. For instance, when donors and their agents stand in place of a duly constituted democratic government, they are subject to the same norms that attach to the conduct of such a government. This does not entail that philanthropists must submit their decisions to a vote, but it does entail that philanthropists must be accountable to their beneficiaries in other ways. Accountability here might mean seeking, in time, to transfer their initiatives to local control or crafting their initiatives in ways that accommodate their beneficiaries’ divergent judgments.

My research on philanthropy has sparked my curiosity about several underlying and related intellectual challenges. One of these is the institutional division of labor, the subject of the research I plan to pursue after the book manuscript. Many people share an intuition that certain public functions can only be legitimately funded or administered by the state. “Outsourcing” these functions to private donors or market mechanisms comes at a significant moral cost—even if it proves desirable in other ways. Extant explanations of the wrong of privatization focus on the corrupting effects of markets on the value of public goods, the technical superiority of the state as a financier or administrator, and the proposition that matters of distributive justice are agent-relative duties—they are not free-standing obligations but apply to specific agents uniquely. In my estimation, each of these views contains precious insights, but none is entirely persuasive. My own hypothesis is that there are certain matters of public policy over which each citizen is entitled to an equal opportunity for influence. These matters are those that involve the assignment of fundamental rights and duties. Outsourcing can thus be objectionable when it cedes or undermines democratic authority over the assignment of fundamental rights and duties. Such an account would help to explain how objecting to charter schools and private prisons can be consistent with endorsing private garbage collection and private institutions of high culture.