Good Intentions: Moral Obstacles and Opportunities
edited by David H. Smith
Indiana University Press, 2005
241 pp., $35
If you decide to read this book, start at the end, with William Sullivan’s arresting essay, “Philanthropy in Question.” After surveying what he sees as disturbing social indicators since 9/11—the War on Terror, fear of outsiders, media criticism of charities, inequality and class stratification, social isolation among American elites, and the breakdown of national membership organizations—Sullivan asks: “Could philanthropy, and the American polity, be entering a period of crisis without alternative?”
It’s a pretty big challenge. After all, most of us philanthropists probably think of ourselves as trying to do our own bit of good, in particular communities, as best we can. But Sullivan suggests that the health of philanthropy and the health of America flourish or fail together—and they’re failing. Forget about that second martini. It’s time to get busy. Departments
Though none of them are as pessimistic, the other essays in this scholarly collection lend some weight to Sullivan’s challenge. A recurrent theme throughout the book is the question of how philanthropy embodies a form of “citizenship.” Sullivan, for example, rejects Peter Drucker’s claim that the wealthy today operate within “spheres of effective citizenship.” Sullivan instead complains that the rich often turn to philanthropy as a way to live out their own dreams or pursue their own “spiritual paths,” and hence do little to unite our “culturally fractured world.”
Several of the other essays offer more hopeful views of philanthropic citizenship. Such citizenship often has little to do with political acts, such as voting. For example, Booker T. Washington, the subject of Amy Kass’s lovely essay, was born a slave but took for himself the name of the most revered American citizen. This was just the beginning of his civic role. He demonstrated, as a teacher, that by improving ourselves we often give others just what they need most: inspiration. “Self-help” can serve both the philanthropist and his fellow citizens.
Paul Pribbenow’s piece on Jane Addams, the founder of the settlement house movement, strikes a similar note. Here, philanthropy, which Addams saw as a “public work” promoting “human fellowship,” encourages the give and take that binds together every community: Everyone, no matter how needy, also has something to give, and everyone, no matter how rich, also needs something in return. Philanthropy promotes neighborliness.
Neighborliness also captures some of the theme of John Langan’s essay on philanthropy and the Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity. Subsidiarity affirms the natural legitimacy of the state in ordering society toward the common good, but it also teaches that the state should leave room for subordinate groups such as foundations, nonprofit organizations, and neighborhoods to organize much of our civic life. (In this way, Langan’s essay reinforces Philip Turner’s fascinating article on David Livingstone, which describes philanthropy, as well as commerce, as helpful “precursors” to the final purpose of bringing the gospel to “suffering humanity.” It’s hard to convert sick villagers to Christianity if they see the witch doctor as their only source of healthcare.) And Paul Schervish both personalizes and amplifies this theme when he describes philanthropy as expressing “the moral citizenship of care,” which binds together givers and recipients as they recognize each others’ needs and each others’ aspirations.
This vein of thought is a rich and suggestive one. And I think it represents the beginning of a response to Sullivan’s challenge, the challenge that the rich mainly use philanthropy to pursue only their own “spiritual paths.” It raises and begins to answer the question, “What sort of citizen is the philanthropist?”
After all, philanthropists do not usually appear in the midst of the political battles that many other citizens take up—and there’s something to be said for that reserve.
But while philanthropists often appear “cosmopolitan,” they do not float free of the political sphere altogether. Just as it does to other citizens, the American polity greatly shapes philanthropists’ private thoughts and deeds. For example, venture philanthropy’s hands-on approach is not merely a product of the “new economy,” but of our longstanding love of individual initiative and distrust of collective or “expert” solutions. The delegation of many seemingly public functions to private charity reflects our love of freedom, as we let people keep their money to help others as they deem fit. (Even when that deeming looks foolish or unfair in others’ eyes.) And the discovery of philanthropy as a new sort of spirituality stems from a relatively recent movement to make religion less public and more personal.
Being a citizen under such circumstances is a challenge, but an invigorating challenge. Even if we dispute some of the social ills that Sullivan claims to diagnose, there are others that he does not name (such as the breakdown of the family, or the lurking lawlessness that revealed itself recently in New Orleans), which loom large in the philanthropic and political world. We cannot and should not back away from his challenge.
Meeting this challenge means both calling ourselves—and being—citizens. And that requires thinking seriously about what we, as citizens with many means, should do. To be great philanthropists, we need to think more seriously about what we must do to be great citizens. Citizenship doesn’t amount just to following the latest dictates of the compliance police or the Senate Finance Committee. Nor is it encompassed by well-meaning mission statements or family meetings. As Socrates and Martin Luther King found out, being an excellent person won’t always satisfy a court of law. But if being a good person is not necessarily the same as being a good citizen, I think you’re unlikely to reach the former goal without taking seriously the latter.
Albert Keith Whitaker is research fellow, Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy; director, Calibre Advisory Services; and president, The Morton Foundation.