Philanthropic Enterprise

The Difficult Art of Doing Good

(with props to Kenneth Boulding)

The first in a series of journalistic reports on presentations at Acton University 2018 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The lectures took place in June. 

Dr. Lenore Ealy attempts to make the case for a better way to promote human flourishing by helping us learn how the spheres of beneficence, commerce and justice interact and maximize one another.

She argues that human flourishing can be optimized by ensuring space for volunteer social cooperation among artisan citizens.

She begins by raising up two insights by Adam Smith:

  1. The capacity for MORAL IMAGINATION and sympathy are key ingredients of a society’s moral quality.
  2. Justice and beneficence are very different. The former can be coerced. The latter must be left free.
  3. From Adam Smith’s works:
    1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
    2. The Wealth of Nations (1776)

Some bullet points in her presentation:

  • Human anthropology is complex. Neither total depravity on the one hand nor “born innocent and corrupted by society” are satisfying.
    • We are selfish, but we are also interested in the plight of others; the happiness of others is necessary for individual flourishing.
  • Humans are not only capable of fellow feeling (sympathy) for all positive and negative experiences of others; we also tend to explore the question: “What caused this?”
  • Charities play off of this universal part of human nature: They show suffering to secure donations.
  • We naturally seek positive fellow feeling among others.
    • When confronted with pain in others, we seek one of three paths.
      • Don’t look. Deny to ourselves the pain we see in others.
      • Give to help our conscience (beggar) or avoid/rationalize.
      • Enter in to the pain and seek to relieve it.
  • Benevolence = Bene + Vol(ition). Good will.
  • Beneficence = Bene + fic/fac. Good making. Good action.
  • Philanthropy = The love of what it means to be human.
  • The problem of beneficence:
    • No person can make it universal. We only succeed in part.
      • We are limited in time, knowledge, and resources.
  • The problem of the tendency toward telescopic (distance) philanthropy.
    • Mrs. Jellyby (Dickens, Bleak House). Social Justice Warrior (SJW) of 1865. Concerned about global issues but not her own household, who were neglected.
  • Toward an ethic of beneficence.
    • Our limitations (time, knowledge, resources) and the reality of opportunity costs.
      • Helping one means we can’t help another; this requires discernment and prudence.
        • The difficult art of doing good.
        • Good intentions are no excuse for bad results.
  • Economics and ethics overlap always. Both, in tandem, shape our beliefs about the world.
  • Beliefs, thus, matter. Some false beliefs:
    • Marx. Conflict Theory. Justice can only be achieved through power.
    • Many US Progressives: “Only government, policy, and bureaucracy can solve the big, complex, social issues; they are too complex for philanthropy.”
    • Ayn Rand’s Objectivism: Benevolence is immoral. The market can fix everything.
  • How do we get philanthropy right? It’s so easy to do it wrong (unintended consequences).
    • For this we need a solid ANTHROPOLOGY (view of the human person).
  • A more accurate, compound view of human nature (both selfish and sympathetic) requires a careful division between JUSTICE and BENEFICENCE.
    • SJW’s get it wrong, mixing the two, when they try to coerce beneficence.
      • After all, social POLICY requires POLICING (force).
  • Adam Smith: “All people are in need of mutual assistance. The more voluntary this is, the more joyful the society.”
  • Society, however, can exist without beneficence. It cannot exist without justice. We viscerally get that justice is essential.
    • But to extort (force) beneficence risks destroying both justice and prosperity. A paradox.
    • A cooperative society is more attractive than a conflicted society. Joy is higher. Joy brings life and human flourishing.

Acton University

Justice is central and is necessary.

  1. The healthier the commerce, the more a society thrives.
  2. The greater the culture of voluntary beneficence, the greater the human flourishing.
  3. Coercion tends to crush the two outside spheres, which are optimized by voluntary action.

More insights:

  • If we over-focus on justice and make it the whole sphere, we crush commerce (through regulation) and beneficence.
  • We need all three spheres intact and separate to thrive; for a robust civil society.
  • Human action is messy; clear definitions (see spheres above) help.
  • The SJW paradigm over-focuses on justice and coerced redistribution.
  • The Beneficence paradigm focuses on creative, cooperative, and neighboring activity.
  • Our language about justice gets slippery. How do we promote biblical justice (good news for the poor) without crushing commerce (which also raises well-being; in China, 700 million people (!) have been raised out of poverty in one generation through freeing up commerce) and beneficence.
  • Government always fails at beneficence, because it, like individuals, does not have a monopoly on knowledge. Hayek’s “knowledge problem.”
    • De-centralized cooperation has more collective intelligence.
  • Voluntary action fails too, sometimes.
  • The local church can be a powerful partner in helping solve the knowledge problem.
    • Churches and local governments tend to work well together.
    • At a national/imperial level, the two spheres bifurcate; a walling off from one another.
      • Imperial-level action tends to be less intelligent.

Doing good (beneficence) is hard. It requires maximum-intelligence choices keeping in mind the reality of opportunity costs (things we cannot do because we choose to do something).

For more from Dr. Ealy, check out the Philanthropic Enterprise.

Lenore Ealy Philanthropy Acton

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