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  • Philanthropy and Cosmopolitanism
  • Eugene F. Miller (bio)

Clear thinking about philanthropy requires us to define it — to specify the boundaries between motives, means, and objectives that are truly philanthropic and those that are not. Any proper definition must pay attention to how the term "philanthropy" has been applied in practice, and yet, description alone cannot suffice. If, for example, we should wish to survey philanthropy in the United States, either historically or with a view to contemporary practice, we must decide what to include and what to exclude. Can actions be philanthropic if they are rooted in self-interest? If they are undertaken not to provide charity but to promote justice? If the primary agent is government? If we harm recipients by our well-intentioned actions or fail to extend equal consideration to all? Obviously these are contested issues. Resolving them compels us to look to the essential and try to say what philanthropy is.

Philanthropy, by that name, is not a leading theme today in moral and political philosophy, but questions about its character are treated, to a remarkable degree, under the heading of cosmopolitanism. The forms of cosmopolitanism vary, according to whether their grounding is primarily moral, political, or economic, but all look beyond the local or particular to human obligations and associations that are universal in scope. From complex and overlapping motives, cosmopolitans extol the benefits of world markets, or push to expand the responsibilities and powers of international institutions, or insist that our moral obligations extend not only to the stranger but also to the "distant other," i.e., to all of humanity and even to all sentient beings. Some moral cosmopolitans insist on a strict impartiality in weighing interests, so that it would be unethical to prefer one's own family members, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, or even oneself to the needy but distant stranger.1

The cosmopolitan vision dates back to the ancient Greeks. It flourished with the Enlightenment and has gained new force and prestige in our time as a way to understand the moral and political significance of globalization — the relentless process by which advancing technology and expanding markets are "shrinking the Earth," i.e., multiplying contacts among the world's peoples, easing communication, facilitating mobility, fostering interdependence, eroding national sovereignty, and posing issues of global concern. The increasing emphasis today on "global philanthropy" undoubtedly reflects this process.

Cosmopolitans generally look for ways to benefit others, but their inspiration need not be philanthropic. Economists might encourage the rational pursuit of self interest, with the unintended benefits that accrue from it, as a reliable path to the greater good. Politicians might be driven by a fear of mutual destruction or ecological catastrophe to empower international organizations. Moralists might insist on deriving a universal duty from reason alone and deny that it can be grounded on human feelings, such as love, benevolence, or sympathy. Thus cosmopolitanism need not be philanthropic, but it is the case, I believe, that philanthropy is essentially cosmopolitan. One aim of my essay is to show why this is true.

Philanthropy's Meaning and Cosmopolitan Reach

Since philanthropia, in Greek, means literally the "love of humankind," philanthropy's cosmopolitan leanings are visible in the very term from which it originates. In Prometheus Bound, where we find perhaps its earliest surviving usage, this term is closely associated with the arts — an association that leads in the modern age to the highly-visible union of philanthropy with technology.

Aeschylus's tragedy revolves around the severe punishment that Zeus inflicts on Prometheus, a Titan, for defying him and giving to the weak race of human beings the gift of fire, along with all the arts and also "blind hope." Zeus's agents, Might and Hephaestus, both attribute Prometheus' impious act of defiance to his humanity-loving (philanthropou) ways (lines 11, 28). Prometheus' gift is meant not only to relieve humankind's suffering, but also to foster its independence. Under Zeus's scheme, humans must depend entirely on the gods for their well-being. [End Page 51] Only gods or titans could be philanthropists. Once having received the arts, however, humans can help themselves and also benefit others. Is Zeus then a humanity-hater...


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pp. 51-60
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