Appendices: "If We Talk About the Democratic Problems with Philanthropy, We Should Talk About the Limitations of Democracy"
Author’s Note: this post is a response to an earlier post of mine
So, I decided a little while ago that I might like to go back to a couple of articles of mine that I feel could be expanded on or that I have problems with in some way. Therefore, I have decided to try out articles of this format, in which I take an article I have already written, and write a series of short essay-like responses, without much connection to each other, as a sort of supplement. I would encourage you to read the original article first, as I will write these pieces with the assumption that you have read it. I am calling these “appendices”, because this is the format I see that I am most interested in emulating, short essays with interesting points of expansions at the ends of a work. That said, don’t take this to imply anything more specific about the formatting than that. I needed some name, but this is not supposed to be a classic appendix, insofar as there is anything specific appendices normally consist in, but a compilation of tangents, errata, and responses to comments on the original post. Generally, it will be a mix. Also, I plan to link to this particular appendix at the beginning of each subsequent appendix post, so that I don’t need to reexplain it each time. Given this, this will be one of those rare appendices I write that is not specifically about the article it is an appendix for. So…I guess add onto tangents, errata, and responses, the category of PSAs.
What motivated me to write this particular appendix post to begin with was that, among the many very important things that have happened in the long period between my philanthropy article being posted and now, one comparatively tiny thing also happened. I had my fifteen minutes (possibly quite literally fifteen minutes, I didn’t time it) of fame on the r/philosophy subreddit. For something like a day, a post by Nick linking to my philanthropy article was on the front page of the subreddit, for a brief period of this day, it was even at the top of the page, it accumulated 137 comments, and then went quiet. 1
This appendix may feel ungenerous to my critics, because it won’t talk about their substantial critiques much, but if you read through the comments, the reason is fairly simple, there was very little interaction with my actual thesis. I feel less obligation and preparation to discuss the other issues brought up at length. I do think this is a bit of a shame, I would have liked to see points related to my main argument show up, especially because the main point of the article was to highlight an argument that I didn’t think was being discussed enough in the big philanthropy debate, but I’m not bitter about this. This was a popular thread on a long, apparently dense article, arguing with and about things that many people don’t care much about, like foreign aid and animal rights. Probably a good deal of interest on the thread came from people using it as an opportunity to share and argue about their opinions on a related topic, which seems like a valid motive to me 2. It is even possible that some people didn’t notice the article at all, the biggest words in the post were the title, which sounds like the sort of no-context philosophy hot take someone might just post for discussion, “If We Talk About the Democratic Problems With Philanthropy, We Should Talk About the Limitations of Democracy”.
That said, since the article has received this sort of attention, and I did not personally interact with the commenters on my own views 3, I wanted to use this opportunity to share my own views/how some of these points related to my article, in retrospect. I have roughly categorized the type of comments I got into four categories, in descending order of relevance to my main point:
1. Debates about which is better, capitalism or socialism
This is the type of debate I see as most fitting into the “use this space as an opportunity to argue about something other than the article” trend. On a philosophy subreddit, this is expected and maybe even desirable. Still, although I didn’t emphasize the point much, I never get into points that really contribute to the capitalism versus socialism debate. My main argument is about the failure of political, democracy-oriented arguments to present valid criticisms of certain types of philanthropy. I do at one point get into policy, but at this point my main argument is that it seems like a good idea to have funding that is based on private rather than purely public, government spending, a point I steal from Scott Alexander, and which he recognizes Rob Reich for making as well. You can have such a system in which everyone is nonetheless equal, and we have a socialist (though not super centralized) economy. In particular I make note of the RadicalXChange idea of “Quadratic Finance”, which attempts to solve problems with centralized funding, while working best under the assumption that citizens have equal wealth. For my own part, I don’t have a super confident answer to the socialism/capitalism debate, and was not looking to write a tract defending my own views. I lean closest to some sort of Georgist social democracy, though as I’ve said I have been influenced by RadicalXChange ideas as well, and I’m not particularly confident in my views in this area.
2. High-level arguments about the value of democracy or billionaires
There were some arguments against the level of wealth inequality in the US, as well as others about how our democracy should work better, or even that we shouldn’t have democracy at all. Unlike capitalism and socialism, I talk about democracy and billionaires a lot, so the connection is more direct. That being said, my thoughts here are relatively simple, and not directly related to my thesis. Maybe we shouldn’t have billionaires or, rather, maybe we shouldn’t have inequality of the sort we currently do. As with the first type of comment, I’m just not totally sure. I have seen interesting arguments for a maximum wage, although I am not sold on it as proposed, I am not entirely willing to rule something like it out. As I said, the inequality discussion was not the point of my post, which was more about, given that billionaires do exist and have money, is it wrong for them to spend it certain ways/a good idea to condemn them for it. Even more specifically, does the value of democracy present a good enough argument against this. As with Scott Alexander, I want to separate the question of whether billionaires should exist at all from the question of how they should spend their money. On the point of democracy, I am pro-democracy, big shock, and think a great deal could be done to improve on the democracy in the US, including restricting the influence of dark money on that democracy, but also things like getting rid of the electoral college and the senate, granting statehood to disenfranchised American regions like Puerto Rico, and more radical things like changing our voting system to something like approval voting or perhaps a version of Quadratic Voting. My thesis, however, assumes that we have an ideally running democracy. This is where my major difference from Alexander lies, in that he mostly appeals to the failures of the current democracy, rather than the issues more entangled with political philosophy itself. My argument is that even in an ideal democracy there will be interests that matter which aren’t counted in decisions concerning them.
3. Other arguments about the value of philanthropy itself
These are very much part of the conversation I was contributing to, which on the one hand makes them very on-topic, but on the other hand makes them basically what I was writing in frustration against, what I wanted to supplement with an argument that I hadn’t really seen being made. Have you heard of money influencing policy? Yes as a matter of fact, I mention it, and mention that it’s bad. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who thinks it’s good. If you are making an argument that this influence should be stopped more drastically by preventing people from being that rich at all, my arguments do not contradict that possibility. Grass-roots organizations can still try to influence the law through things like lobbying, without any one donor needing to be rich, so it isn’t a total fix, but it is a reasonable argument in that space, and makes any influence less imbalanced at least. As I said, I am not arguing in favor of there being billionaires, but about philanthropy generally and what current billionaires are and are not justified in doing. I just don’t see criticizing Bill Gates for (out in the open for everyone to see and criticize) saving a bunch of kids from preventable illnesses being part of the good fight against the influence of dark money. As being anything but a way of confusing the message. As with Kelsey Piper, I think there is more possible value in criticizing billionaires for doing philanthropy that isn’t good enough than Alexander seems to allow, but criticizing them for doing philanthropy that doesn’t have a democratic stamp of approval is not so simple in all cases.
4. Comments either acknowledging the main argument of my post but calling it “a distraction”, or comments just summarizing my point or defending me for making it, without saying how good or bad it is.
This is about as related to my thesis as the comments got, acknowledging that my point had been made, but not saying whether the point itself was right. One version of this was the occasional accusation that my argument was a “distraction”. First of all, I was talking primarily about the three main focus areas of Effective Altruism, and how basically all of them have trouble with democracy. I am an Effective Altruist, so these are the types of topics me and my friends talk about most, and tend to care about most, to begin with. The fact that all of them give the democratic objection to philanthropy trouble, even if the democratic objection is not the only relevant one, is certainly significant to me. Furthermore, I wrote this with marginal impact in mind. I didn’t see it discussed, and I wanted to try to get it discussed more not because it was more important than other arguments concerning philanthropy, but because I thought it had at least some relevance 4. I didn’t expect it to be as widely viewed on reddit as it was, but I still don’t regret it, because it was honestly not that widely viewed, and based on the comments, my main argument didn’t interest many of the people who contributed to the thread anyway. My intention was marginal impact, and I achieved, at most, marginal impact. I do not think it’s fair to say I have “distracted” anyone, if that is the main concern you have with my argument. The posts summarizing or defending my main point, while not unwelcome, did not as far as I recall really comment much on the quality of my point either.
There was another, more specific post, which for a time was the top-rated comment on the thread, and which directly interacted with a point from my post. I want to give it a little more dedicated attention. The gist of this response was that my article was long, didn’t make arguments, didn’t use statistics, and was poorly written. Basically a pan review, saying that it was a bad article. It gives a specific example as well, saying that my claim in the article that the children of immigrants are functionally “second-class citizens” was not given any justification, and that it was just an attempt to guilt-trip the reader. This confused me a great deal, I did make an argument for it, though I probably could have made it more clearly:
“If we say that the motive of a well-run country, in part, is to take a special interest in its future as well as current interests (which for reasons I discussed earlier, seems like a problematic duty for standard political theory to account for), then it seems strange to think that our current pool of citizens is descended from a pool of people including some who got to be part of this decision, and some who didn’t. In the sense in which a country consists of representatives both of themselves and their descendants, the eventual citizens who are descended from immigrants are second-class citizens, because their inclusion in this pool was conditional, while that of citizens descended from the citizens of the time was not conditional in the same way.”
Essentially my argument goes like this: one way voters might frame what they’re doing, is that they are voting for the good of the country. In part this involves voting for their own good, but there is also an implicit duty to vote for the good of the next generations of Americans. The next generations of Americans, defined as descendants of present day people, consists of some descendants who would be Americans by default whatever we decide now, and some who only might be Americans, whose default citizenship is decided by the same process meant to serve the good of those who will be citizens. This second category, although they would be full citizens if they are citizens at all, therefore only have their good counted conditionally in current decisions, and therefore can be thought of as functionally “second-class”.
For my own part I do not find this argument compelling, because as mentioned in the parentheses, I just don’t think democracies are able to account for future generations well at all. I was trying to make a more robust case by arguing about how immigrants are affected by the types of legitimacy problems I describe elsewhere in my post, even if you assume that there is some significant sense in which future generations are accounted for in a well-functioning democracy (for instance if you frame these future generations as “descendants” rather than particular people, to avoid the non-identity problem and try to assign them present-day representatives). I also don’t want to guilt anyone with this argument, my point is that there is nothing we can do about this problem, it is an intractable issue for even just political structures, and therefore a place where ethics is more relevant than things like “legitimacy”.
The more general point this commenter was trying to make with this example was that my post did not make arguments or use data. Most of the responses I have to this comment were summarized in the first reply to it in the thread. I do indeed try to make arguments, but these arguments are mostly philosophical. They are not data-driven, but I do care about data, I just wasn’t arguing about the empirical side of the issue. I was arguing about certain assumptions in the space of politics and ethics, and the tensions that make these assumptions questionable. That said, as this reply, and the other replies to my article help indicate, a more serious problem may just be clarity. My style was hard to unpack, it seems like many readers couldn’t tell what my points or arguments were, and that’s on me. I will try to do better next time, for what it’s worth Nick recommended a style guide to me (though I’m being pretty inefficient getting through it). Some of my style problems have been with me for as long as I can remember however, so I make no guarantees of improving in the near future, and don’t blame anyone who would rather just not read my work.
Since my main thesis didn’t get many responses in the reddit thread, I wanted to take some time to develop in a bit more detail what my interest with this article was. To elaborate (and frankly go on a tangent) with some of the theory behind it, to offer a broader context. So, in the first place, I want to distinguish “politics” as a type of action subject to things like practical ethics from “politics” as a kind of normative theory, either distinguished from or in some way related to practical ethics, but not directly based on it. If you were to say “I think the government should spend more, and more wisely, on foreign aid to poor countries”, in all likelihood, this is a statement about practical ethics directed at the actions of the state. If you were to say that giving money overseas in a certain context is opposed to the ideals of democracy, you are making a statement about political justice. The difference is that one deals with specific good choices while the other deals with choices that are part of good social systems.
It is my impression that many people focus on political justice as the priority over any other form of practical ethics, which is fairly reasonable from even a practical ethics standpoint, after all political systems are massively influential, but I think this leads to mistakes. In the case of philanthropy for instance, when someone objects that giving large portions of money based on your individual decision is “undemocratic”, well, this is sort of right, but there are many cases where democracy is limited, and accepting it as an all-encompassing ideal requires us to ignore basically everything a democracy does not do.
A corollary point, which perhaps offers the best explanation for what disturbs me about some of these political takeovers of practical ethics: it is possible, in certain cases even likely, for an ideally politically just society to commit massive moral wrongs. I don’t mean that politically just systems can fail in practice, the way that Hitler was elected by a democracy 5, but rather that, if a legitimate system respects the wishes of its constituents, how about non-constituents, those who are outside of the “political” system? A well running democracy can still engage in unjust wars to crush less powerful countries, subject non-humans to lifelong suffering to meet the tastes of citizens, and recklessly deplete resources in a way that won’t be felt until generations out.
Non-intervention is a tempting answer, though it requires the unrealistic bar of avoiding any sort of relationship to non-constituent groups in practice. Still, a well-running democracy, that is a just and legitimate government, will only favor non-intervention for ethical reasons, the impression that burdening the unrepresented is just wrong. A non-interventionist democracy only represents the will of its people so long as its populace is feeling nice, not so long as the democracy itself is working. An evil polity, in a politically just society, will do morally evil things even when the political theory is fulfilled to the best of its ability otherwise. An imperfect, non-evil, one is capable of this as well. In the case of democracy, this is relatively predictable along certain lines, though arguably it’s a feature of any political system. If you can incorporate non-intervention into a political theory though, then you still need to defend the idea that isolation is morally permissible, failing to help those not represented, or else an unethical but politically just society is still a problem. As I have pointed out in the original article, there are compelling arguments that non-intervention is not simply “permissible”.
One possible view of this is that political theory should be all that really matters in ethics. A just society cannot commit moral wrongs, because no moral wrongs exist, by definition, except for political injustice. This seems a bit arbitrary to me. The limits of political structures are largely limits of social technology. For example, is a functioning worldwide democracy possible or not? If it might be possible, a democracy neglecting the interests of other countries is unjust, not necessarily because of its actions, but because of the lack of worldwide democracy limiting these actions. If it is not possible, then every country, in its most just form, only really ought to serve its own interests. It also leads to unpalatable conclusions such as the total neglect of future generations. This assumption seems to actually be implied outright by some arguments about the non-patienthood of non-humans on the other hand, especially among social contract theorists. Peter Singer, in “Animal Liberation at 30”, points this out when arguing that appeals to a standard of political relationship such as this is unappealing when applied consistently,
“Peter Carruthers argues that it is the lack of a capacity to reciprocate. Ethics, he says, arises out of an agreement that if I do not harm you, you will not harm me. Since animals cannot take part in this social contract we have no direct duties to them. The difficulty with this approach to ethics is that it also means we have no direct duties to small children, or to future generations yet unborn. If we produce radioactive waste that will be deadly for thousands of years, is it unethical to put it into a container that will last 150 years and drop it into a convenient lake? If it is, ethics cannot be based on reciprocity.” (Singer, 20)
While the type of social contract theory Singer is interacting with is not the same as democracies, almost identical arguments can be made for other theories of political justice such as democratic ones, by generalizing “reciprocity” to any given role citizens play in order to participate in a political system.
Another way to try to fix this is to say that ethics is reducible to political justice, but political justice is not just a social technology, relativized to what is possible. A truly politically just world would give a vote of some kind to future generations and the possible people who might exist in them, and others who cannot be incorporated into possible political systems. Therefore we ought to act in a way that tries to approximate things like how groups would ideally vote in this impossible theoretical political system. Something a little like this can be seen in ideas like John Rawls' “Original Position”, in which we are asked to design a politically just world around a hypothetical fair scenario that does not, in fact, exist (although, rather notoriously, Rawls doesn’t even expand this to international relations). I do not have a huge problem with this, except that if you are theorizing a perfect world that cannot exist which, by some principle, is ideally just, and then make decisions based on this world without hoping to actually realize it, it sounds an awful lot like you have just made a theory of normative ethics. That this principle by which you determine what makes this hypothetical world politically just is your normative ethical theory, rather than a theory of political justice by which to judge the real shape of social relationships. For instance some sort of hypothetical “ideal democracy” might just boil down to preference utilitarianism.
Another possible class of solution is to say that doing ethically good things and having a politically just world both have intrinsic normative value that can be traded off together. The key problem I have here is that, it seems to me, one generally has a “double-counting” problem. In many theories of plural value, there is some apparently deep difference in the types of things viewed as valuable, knowledge may be valuable in itself, and happiness may be valuable in itself for instance (to be honest this is a steelman of pluralist consequentialism, I think one of the strongest objections to it is similar to double counting, in that it seems like many things that are valuable can be reduced into a common value, for instance happiness and preference seem awfully close to each other, beauty seems heavily relativized to both in practice, and knowledge is pretty useful to fulfilling any of them. 6). In the case of political justice, it seems as though politically just systems are often meant to serve certain interests or empower certain perspectives, certainly democracy is.
Let’s go back to the preference utilitarian perspective, let’s say that you are a democrat and a preference utilitarian separately, it seems as though those who might be empowered by democracy are, in a significant way, counted more times than those who can’t be. Their preferences are both intrinsically valuable to fulfill, and it is intrinsically valuable to bring about a system that happens to be designed to fulfill them. One possible solution to this is to say that the intrinsic moral value of serving some moral patients should be discounted to the degree this value is served by implementing a politically just society. Here we see the opposite problem, if you are a preference utilitarian liberal democrat in Nazi Germany 7, it is perhaps much more valuable to help the poor overseas in some minor way than to hide Jews in your basement by this reasoning. After all, those Jews would not need protection if society was politically just, so the value you get from helping them now is heavily discounted. Perhaps there is value in trying to bring about this politically ideal world, but immediate action to help is devalued to an absurd degree.
I actually see something like this reasoning used by some critics of philanthropy. An argument that goes something like “after politics are fixed, when equality will reign and the underlying causes of global poverty are crushed, there will be no need to give aid to the global poor. Helping them now is therefore just pointless.” In my view, when comparing this to more culturally resonant scenarios, the strangeness of this logic is made much clearer. 8
Finally, you could say that when you are serving someone through a politically just system, helping them ethically in that same way is discounted to the degree to which this political system already serves the goal of this ethics. In other words, it is equally valuable to serve someone’s preference through democracy as through direct interventions, but this isn’t counted twice. At this point, it sounds like you are just functionally viewing political structures in terms of their instrumental value to an ethical theory. Saying that they are nonetheless, somehow, intrinsically valuable, is bizarre to me. Their value is entirely relativized to the ethical theory they exist alongside in practice. The value of implementing a politically just world or not implementing it only matters based on its degree of service to the ethical theory.
At last we come to my own view, that politics should be viewed as a subfield of practical ethics, specifically a moral machine that can be helpfully discussed on unique terms like “liberal democracy”, but which is rooted in the same normative ethical theory as the rest of practical ethics. I don’t think the arguments in my philanthropy article rely on the reader sharing this view, just on distinguishing the things democracy systematically serves and the things it doesn’t, but my cards are now on the table. Politics is, in my view, only one realm of ethical discussion, and one with some rather huge blindspots. Philanthropy is often an unusually good way to try to serve practical ethical interests that are systematically underserved by democracy, even a well running democracy.
This one is more of an errata section. In the original article, I make the parenthetical statement,
“I don’t buy that billionaires generally fund charities, or would stop funding them, out of pure greed. As Alexander points out in his followup article, it makes little sense to give away as much of your income as donating billionaires often do to get some fraction of that back in tax breaks or enact some roundabout PR plot to get your overall taxes decreased by a couple percentage points.”
No one called me on this, and it is sort of a throwaway line that isn’t super relevant to my thesis, but in retrospect, it is embarrassingly clueless. What I appeal to in defending my statement is claims about taxation policy, largely inspired by one response of Alexander’s (which did not go as far as I did). The obvious response, which for some reason just didn’t occur to me at all at the time, is that billionaires aren’t spending money for the tax benefits, but to get good PR in order to encourage more people to spend money in their businesses, thus making billionaires more money through customers. This is an especially embarrassing mistake because it is an easy extrapolation on one of the most common arguments, that billionaires just give money away for the PR. That being said, I have two objections to this line of reasoning that land me in roughly the same place as I was when I wrote this.
The first is that I still don’t think this is enough to argue that billionaire philanthropy is always about trying to get more spending money. The fairly simple version is that it seems very unlikely that a billionaire giving away 90% of their fortune will make up for it with increased sales due to PR due to donations, in expectation, relative to just not donating. Of course many billionaires do not give away that much of their fortunes, but if plenty of other billionaires are giving away that much of their fortunes, you will probably get little good will for your brand by spending only a little of your own money. You are competing for PR with billionaires giving away the vast majority of their income.
The somewhat more psychological version is just that it is hard to imagine why someone who was purely motivated by material greed would gain much by more profit if they are already a billionaire. Their marginal utility would be so insanely low from additional gains (the argument you could make here is that, if they do want to advance their welfare, they need to get far far far more additional money than most people would need to advance their welfare by the same increment, but at a certain point I imagine they just wouldn’t want to put in the necessary effort. Even the difference in personal wellbeing between a billionaire and trillionaire is probably not much). There are a number of things that could motivate people to make more money nonetheless. PR for instance may be more reasonable as a direct motive than an instrumental one, if you want people to like you maybe you will give away 90% of your income, even if the PR this generates doesn’t make up for the losses in terms of personal wealth. You might also want to just have a certain status, if you are Elon Musk, maybe you could decide to adopt the goal of overtaking Jeff Bezos one day in terms of how much money you have made. It doesn’t matter how much of that money you spend, for the purposes of this hypothetical, just that you made so much to begin with. Another motive is power, the ability to influence the world, including, well, for good. A billionaire might try to make more money because they genuinely do care about charity, and they are earning to give. All of these motives seem more likely to me than personal material greed. So is them just not caring about making more money at all.
The other objection is that, even if this phenomenon is real, which it may be (if for instance someone wealthy is trying to make more money for status, in the way I said, donating at a net loss could be worth it if it doesn’t decrease and might increase one’s on-paper earnings), this type of donation seems less concerning than altruistic donations from a pure democracy standpoint. If someone foresees a certain type of philanthropy being endorsed by consumer spending, and they are right, then they are rewarded for this. This is less direct, and in many ways importantly different, from standard democracy, but it optimizes in a similar way for the things citizens value funding. Arguably customers buying products to endorse the giving habits of a given philanthropist acts like a sort of fund-matching scheme in practice. It is still not clear to me that this is all that good on a policy level compared to public spending or even direct organizational donations but, in terms of the democratic objection specifically, it does seem like profit motivated philanthropy may actually have advantages over altruistic donations.
Ed. Note: Storytime! That night, I was feeling bad about how I haven’t supported Devin’s writing enough on my site. So I made a post to the /r/philosophy subreddit of his article. I had posted his free speech article in multiple places at the time, but those posts never got traction. I only knew the post blew up when Devin told me it did, which was pretty exciting and nerve-wracking. I’ve frontpaged on reddit before (different account), but I wasn’t trying to e.g. time the post, to get the traction it did. ↩︎
Ed. Note: This is not unrelated to Tolkien’s concept of “applicability”. However, with social media like reddit, you don’t even need to read into the text itself, only the metadata you can see on the platform (like the title). ↩︎
Ed. Note: Also, I don’t think Devin even has a reddit account. ↩︎
Ed. Note: Yes, we are planning on writing more impactful pieces in the near future. ↩︎
(again, I need that article) ↩︎
Ed. Note: This could be seen as a roundabout-strategy/longtermist view, where we keep a laser-focus on fixing politics, in hopes that this fixes everything else later. This is not dissimilar to the reasons for working on A.I. safety, so the trade-off logic can work. ↩︎