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Philanthropy seems borne of the impulse to “do good” and “get involved.” But this impulse comes with its own set of dangers.

“Minding your own business” may not seem like a serious moral imperative. After all, we are often encouraged to take on one another’s burden, to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, and to attend to a range of goods that affect everyone. Given our common humanity it may well seem that the well-being of others is precisely our “business,” and that any well-ordered society would encourage us to act. Philanthropy seems borne of the impulse to “do good” and “get involved.”

Of course, when we “get involved,” that in which we are getting ourselves involved is typically someone else’s business which, as the cliché goes, it is best to keep our noses out of. Indeed, we have it on the good authority of Plato that “minding one’s own business” is the very essence of justice, as he discusses in his Republic.

The phrase “minding your own business” has two distinct meanings. In the first instance, and this is how Plato primarily uses it, it means that we should stick to our individuated and differentiated tasks. Bill Belichek has made a Hall of Fame career off the dictate that players “do their job.” In both instances, the imperative to perform well the task that you’ve been given exists as part of a scheme of social differentiation wherein each person plays a role that, in their convergence and complementarity, lead to harmonious and productive social ordering. A modern business enterprise, for example, operates off a specialization of labor wherein the productivity of each laborer adds up to a profitable whole. Any social organization, Plato argued, will operate “justly” if the different classes within the social hierarchy do their own job and do it well.

There is a second sense of the term, of course, and that refers to the imperative not to be a busybody. Most married couples, for example, don’t particularly like it if outsiders start telling them what is wrong with their marriage. Most golfers hate unsolicited swing advice. Americans may disagree on a lot, but they all agree they hate being preached to by sanctimonious Canadians. This is in part what Michael Polanyi meant when he talked about “personal knowledge”: that is to say, that participation is a condition of knowing, and those who aren’t participants in a particular practice are not only incapable of knowing the practice, they have no moral grounds for weighing in.

There is an expectation, after all, that when someone starts minding your business they have some skin in the game and that they are putting something serious at risk in the process. The worst kind of busybody is the one who tells you how to do things when they have nothing at stake in the outcome.

Let me correct myself: worse still are those who have nothing at stake but nonetheless approach intervening with utter self-assurance.

A brilliant telling of this impulse is found in French novelist Francois Mauriac’s The Woman of the Pharisees, which traces the meddling of the ever-vigilant and self-righteous Mme. Brigitte Pian who, convinced she is helping others, ends up messing up everyone’s life. It is a brilliant story of “public humanitarianism and private inhumanity,” and a book that should be read by anyone in the philanthropy business. Convinced she knows what is best for everyone, she seeks control without genuine love, and without love her interventions become despotic and destructive.

It was Spinoza who wrote “With regard to human affairs, not to laugh and not to cry, but to understand.” Understanding requires a much deeper kind of intimacy than that which can be provided by good intentions, “best practices,” or outcomes metrics. The abstract nature of the term “philanthropy” hides the fact that we are sticking our noses in someone else’s business without understanding and without love. Worse still, without being asked.

I have students who major in social work who tell me they are going to go to the inner city of Chicago to practice their profession. “Were you asked by the people there to come and fix their lives? Did they invite you?” I’ll ask to dismayed reactions. It never occurs to them that these questions are relevant. “How would you like it,” I continue, “if someone showed up on your doorstep unannounced and started telling you how to live and how to raise your children?”

The fiction can only be maintained by a kind of gnostic impulse: that is, that your education and training give you superior knowledge (knowledge never having to be “personal” in Polanyi’s sense) and that in itself justifies your getting into their business. The German term Besserverstehen captures this impulse: there is a class of privileged knowers whose job it is to either raise the consciousness of the ignorant and oppressed, or to run things in the way only they can.

Such an impulse, however, is a negation of the Platonic harmonizing of the different orders of society that, ironically enough, is far less stratified and static than our contemporary world, precisely because everyone is minding his or her own business rather than dictating to others.

We can applaud philanthropists for starting from the premise of a common humanity, even if we condemn them for not minding their own business nearly enough.


Photo Credit: recombiner via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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