The Philanthropy Trap
Sunday, June 19, 2016

What is it

Many of us generally admire people who donate large sums of money to charity. Yet people donate for all sorts of reasons – some selfless, some not so much. Should we consider philanthropy as mere ego expression for the wealthy, or is it genuinely altruistic behavior? If philanthropists are so concerned with having an impact on society, how should we think about "measuring" this impact? Are there better ways than philanthropy to achieve positive social change? John and Ken donate their time to Bruce Sievers from the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

Listening Notes

Is philanthropy just the rich undemocratically imposing their values on the rest of society? Is the rise of philanthropy just a negative side effect of not having high enough taxes? Why do we, the public, subsidize philanthropy? John and Ken go back and forth on whether philanthropists should be praised or blamed. John suggests that we may want to roll back some of the subsidies and praise given to philanthropists. Ken in turn pushes John to appreciate that interventions in civil society (e.g. philanthropy) may be more efficient that government.

Scholar and philanthropy-expert Bruce Sievers joins the show. Sievers makes the pointed claim that, even in the ideal world, we would still need philanthropy. Sievers points to Michael Walzer’s argument that, even in a good socialist society, there would be philanthropy. John presses Sievers on why we subsidize the activity of philanthropists with the modest tax breaks that we give them. Ken registers a knee-jerk reaction against the idea of turning an altruistic impulse of charitable giving into a self-interested, subsidized activity.

Ken guides the conversation towards the undemocratic nature of philanthropy – whether it’s the rich imposing their values on the rest. Markets hold businesses accountable, and the public holds politicians accountable. Who holds philanthropists accountable? Sievers thinks that there’s a new type of accountability held to philanthropists that’s not majoritarian, instead allowing for pluralism. He refers to stats to defend this pluralism point; there’s a huge diversity of persons donating.

This discussion of pluralism leads to a discussion of civil society and its longer term focus allowing each to articulate their conception of the good. John then wonders why political speech isn’t tax deductible, but donations to all sorts of nonprofits is. A caller asks why philanthropists are being subsidized to simply fulfill their obligation to society. Ken wonders how much of charitable giving is motivated by self-interest? Is philanthropy just ego-stroking for the rich?

Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:28): Shuka Kalantari documents the case of an “indie-philanthropist” who diversifies her portfolio to an enormous extent. Moreover, she recognizes a need to undermine the systems of our day and sees her philanthropy as supporting this cause.

Sixty Second Philosopher (seek to 45:43): Ian Shoales begins riffing off the history of the word ‘philanthropy,’ which translates from Greek to “the love of humanity.” He discusses the secularization of philanthropy over centuries. He points out the shady origins the wealth of the biggest philanthropists in history.

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Bruce Sievers, Visiitng Scholar, Haas Center for Public Service, Stanford University

Researched By

Mohit Mookim

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