In Defense of Generosity

What is generosity? Perhaps generosity’s most authoritative treatment in the history of philosophical ethics is found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which states that generous people give the appropriate things in the appropriate amounts to the appropriate people at the appropriate times in the appropriate ways and for the appropriate reasons, doing so for the sake of what is fine and beautiful. Generosity, in other words, is a human excellence, and those who have developed and practice it are excelling as human beings. Generosity cannot tyrannize. 

What is tyranny? Perhaps tyranny’s most authoritative treatment in the history of political philosophy is found in Aristotle’s Politics, which states that tyrants tend to arise when the same person becomes leader of both the people and the military, and comes to disregard the common interest—unless, of course, it happens to converge with the tyrant’s own. Of all the forms of government, Aristotle asserts, tyranny is the most harmful to its subjects, because tyrants make it their object to accumulate wealth and undermine the excellence of others, whom they see as rivals. A tyrant cannot be generous.

Hence my beef with Theodore Lechterman’s new book, The Tyranny of Generosity: Why Philanthropy Corrupts Our Politics and How We Can Fix It. Whoever chose this title has done readers a grave disservice, by tainting generosity with tyranny. To be sure, it is possible for tyrants to make gifts, but in doing so they are acting not generously but selfishly, giving with the intent to enrich themselves. Likewise, donors may exert some influence over their beneficiaries, but this influence could never be simultaneously generous and malign.

What Lechterman is really arguing is not that generosity is tyrannical, but that philanthropy can undermine democratic sovereignty. By “philanthropy” he means the transfer of private resources to a public purpose or an agent entrusted with carrying out such a purpose—these days, often an incorporated nonprofit organization. By “democratic sovereignty” he means the maintenance of public control over public goods that are intimately linked to fundamental rights, duties, and opportunities. He worries that rich donors exert undue influence over what are essentially democratic responsibilities. 

To prevent those who have more from unduly swaying those with less, Lechterman explores various policy proposals, including what he calls a progressive voucher system. In this scheme, voting-age citizens would receive equally weighted vouchers, fractions of which they could contribute to qualifying charitable organizations of their choice. Those who so wished could purchase additional vouchers, at progressively increasing cost. This scheme, the author argues, would prevent the wealthy from dominating public culture and enable ordinary citizens to contribute fairly to civil society.

The Tyranny of Generosity thus serves as a striking contemporary example of an old danger. Written in an age marked by a remarkable diminution in poverty, in which even the least well off may enjoy conveniences and luxuries that were unavailable to the very richest just a century ago, it is dominated by a concern with inequality. As Tocqueville saw, when inequality is the common law of society, the strongest inequalities do not “strike the eye.” But “when everything is nearly on a level, the least of them wound it.” As inequality declines, the desire for greater equality becomes insatiable.

Lechterman wishes to limit the influence of the wealthy, for fear that it will drown out the voices of the poor. Yet people are unequal in many ways. Consider height. It is well documented that the average Fortune 500 CEO, like the average US president, is approximately 3 inches taller than the average person of the same sex. The tall, then, exert disproportionate influence over the short. Should we follow the path of Procrustes and, in the name of equality, shorten the tall or heighten the short? Should we rein in the massive gifts of Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates to prevent them from tyrannizing the needy?

The author evinces a deep familiarity with the contemporary literature of political philosophy, but alas, Tocqueville garners nary a mention. Yet it is Tocqueville who points out the underlying connection between freedom and equality, or rather between freedom and inequality or despotism and equality. For equality to be achieved, artificial means are necessary, using tools that only a state can wield. For only a state could impose the author’s progressive voucher system, and with it, a diminution in the freedom, initiative, and efficacy of the citizenry. The unbridled pursuit of equality ends in despotism.

When Lechterman discusses voucher systems and other schemes to promote equality, he sounds like Adam Smith’s man of system, gazing down at the chessboard of flawed human society and plotting strategies to render it more just, fair, and equal. He sometimes seems to forget that the pieces have principles of motion besides those which he and the members of his class of Rawlsian philosophical engineers would impress upon them. He fails to give sufficient weight to the unforeseen consequences that would flow from rewriting traditions of giving that have developed over many generations.

The author rightly critiques effective altruism, which asserts that measures aimed at relieving poverty in the developing world offer the greatest return on philanthropic investment. By distributing mosquito nets in places where malaria is endemic, many lives may be saved. Yet doing so might be a problem if it deters people from making longer-term improvements, such as eliminating swamps where mosquitos breed. Lechterman’s deeper critique is that philanthropy is often harmful when outsiders simply presume that they know what is best for the needy.

This line of argument could have led in a very fruitful direction. If we want to help people in poor parts of the world, we should make the effort to get to know them. We should engage them in conversation around the sort of lives they aspire to lead, and work in partnership with them in pursuit of that vision, never presuming that we know best simply because we are richer or better educated. Yet anyone who has participated in such conversations knows that some people have more to contribute than others, which rankles Lechterman’s egalitarian sensibilities.

The Tyranny of Philanthropy is so concerned with equality that all giving becomes highly suspect. Every gift, no matter how small, comes with an intention, meaning that givers threaten to impose their hopes and fears on their beneficiaries, thereby potentially denigrating and oppressing those they seek to help. Lechterman seems to think that alternative means of discharging our “other-regarding duties” such as political activism, volunteering, and different consumption choices might offer less menacing opportunities. 

But every choice a person makes influences the choices and life circumstances of others. When we engage in political activism, we seek to sway the opinions. Organizations we volunteer for don’t always turn out to be what we think. Even our purchasing decisions exert influence over the employment opportunities of others. Every choice involves risk. We are, as Aristotle declared, social and political animals, bound together in a complex social and political tapestry that renders us responsible to and for each other, meaning that we are always shaping one another’s lives.

Given the choice between a world in which potential givers are paralyzed by the fear that their well-intentioned gifts will undermine democracy and one where givers, mindful of the responsibility they bear, still extend a helping hand, sensible readers would opt for the latter. Sincere efforts to give are no more fraught with moral peril than any other actions in life, and because they are grounded in a desire to serve others, they deserve as large a sphere of liberty as any human activity. Instead of sowing seeds of suspicion, we should strive for generosity’s enrichment.

Aristotle thought so highly of generosity that he regarded it as one of the principal arguments for the existence of private property. If people have nothing they can call their own, they have nothing they can choose to share with others. Yet we have so much more than property—treasure is in many respects not so great a philanthropic resource as time, talent, and testimony. As Thomas Aquinas indicated, none is so poor as to lack the means to be generous. The planned, egalitarian society is not the only just or good one, and a community in which generosity thrives is the very antithesis of a tyranny.

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