Five Questions with Emma Saunders-Hastings, author of “Private Virtues, Public Vices”

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Private Virtues, Public Vices is a thought-provoking challenge to our ideas about philanthropy, marking it as a deeply political activity that allows the wealthy to dictate more than we think. We spoke with the author, Emma Saunders-Hastings, to hear a little more about the inspiration for this book, some of her research experiences, and the plans for her next project.

How did you become interested in the politics of philanthropy? What led you to write about it?

I’ve been interested in philanthropy since the early 2000s, the beginning of a boom in high-profile elite philanthropy. Initially, I was especially fascinated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s international programs and by the political implications of such a powerful non-state organization.

I decided to write about philanthropy because I thought there was room for a specifically political theory of philanthropy: something focused not on evaluations of donor ethics or program efficacy but on philanthropy’s relationship to democratic institutions and value.

Can you comment a bit on the culture of philanthropy in the United States today?

I started thinking and writing about philanthropy during something of a high watermark of public enthusiasm about it. At the time, what struck me about philanthropy was the degree of deference that it received, including from some people who were generally skeptics about plutocratic power. (This was especially striking to me when I moved to the US for graduate school: I come from Canada, where big philanthropy has not played as prominent a public role and where there’s less of a tendency to cast philanthropy as a desirable alternative to government.)

Some of that has changed over the period that I was researching and writing the book. There has been a resurgence of academic and public criticism of philanthropy, and it is now more common (as it was in the early twentieth century) to see people worrying about philanthropy as a vehicle for elite power and (often) elite self-interest. Of course, this isn’t uniform, and we’re already seeing a kind of backlash to the backlash: people worrying that criticism of philanthropy is unfair to well-intentioned donors or that it will deter donations. Incidentally, it’s worth thinking about how odd those worries would sound applied to the activities of other powerful social actors like politicians: does anyone think we should avoid criticizing politicians, for fear that they’ll respond by behaving worse or withdrawing from politics—that we should just trust to their good intentions?

I think that criticism of philanthropy is important, at least to the extent that we think philanthropy plays a public role of any significance. And I think that criticism (at least of the right kind) can lead to improvements in the culture of philanthropy. So in the book, I try to articulate a framework for how we can evaluate philanthropy by democratic standards. I focus on two ways that philanthropy can violate democratic principles: it can contribute to political inequality, by enabling the wealthy to exercise outsize influence in public life, and it can put in place objectionably paternalistic relationships between donors and their intended beneficiaries. And those are problems that can arise even in the case of well-intentioned donors, and even when donations produce some good outcomes.

While working on the book, what did you learn that surprised you the most? Did your research turn up anything interesting that didn’t make it into the final manuscript?

I initially approached philanthropy through the lens of contemporary political science and political theory, where discussion of philanthropy as a political issue was minimal. As I worked on the project, though, something that fascinated me was learning about historical political theorists and actors who did see philanthropy as an important site of and influence on social and political relationships. In the book, I discuss some examples of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century political theorists like John Stuart Mill and Jane Addams, who analyze philanthropy’s relationship to democracy and egalitarian relationships.

I’ve since continued looking at the historical practice and criticism of philanthropy in different contexts. I’ve recently published an article on Frederick Douglass’ campaign, in the 1840s, against the Free Church of Scotland, which had accepted donations from slaveholders. Douglass charged that by accepting this “bloodstained money,” the church had “made itself responsible for slavery,” and he used the controversy to build transatlantic support for abolition. Douglass’s speeches and writings from this time give us an important example of a major thinker subjecting philanthropic relationships to political criticism, while also recognizing them as sites of opportunity and leverage for positive political change.

What do you most hope people take away from your book?

I hope readers are persuaded that we need to evaluate philanthropy not only on the immediate goods that it can provide but also on the ways it shapes our social and political relationships. Of course, I also hope that people are persuaded by the substance of the relational theory that I develop in the book, which argues that political equality and anti-paternalism are important democratic values that should guide the practice of philanthropy and the ways we regulate and respond to it. But more broadly, I hope that the book provides a useful framework for thinking politically about philanthropy and about the standards we should use to evaluate it.

Where will your research and writing take you next?

I plan to continue exploring political questions around dirty money, which my recent research on Douglass led me to think more seriously about. Previously, I had thought of dirty money as primarily a moral issue; Douglass helped me to better understand its political importance.

I am also interested in how some of the problems that the book explores in philanthropic contexts—the role of private power in democracies, and relational vices like paternalism—manifest in political life more broadly. Part of the book’s argument is that thinking carefully about philanthropy can inform our thinking about broader issues in political theory. That’s been true for me, and I hope that it will be true for readers of my book as well.


Emma Saunders-Hastings is assistant professor in political science at the Ohio State University. Her writing on philanthropy has appeared in the Journal of Politics, the Boston Review, and Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues.

Public Virtues, Private Vices is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.

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