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Emma Saunders-Hastings: Philanthropy, Inequality & Democracy

In this episode we talk to political philosopher Emma Saunders-Hastings about her new book Private Virtues, Public Vices: Philanthropy and Democratic Equality and some of the big questions that philanthropy raises for philosophers and political theorists.


  • What is the distinction between distributive and relational concepts of equality?
  • Many modern critiques of philanthropy focus on the former, but there is a rich history of exploring the latter (by people like John Stuart Mill, Jane Addams etc). Why have we forgotten this tradition? And why is it so important to revive interest in these questions?
  • What should we make of examples where philanthropy is based on unequal relationships but still produces positive social outcomes?
  • In terms of  relational inequality is there any difference between everyday donations  and those of big money donors? Or do both run the risk of perpetuating unequal relationships between individuals?
  • Is rejection of the idea of gratitude on behalf of the recipient a necessary part of seeing philanthropy more as a matter of justice than of charity? Is there any danger that in doing so we lose something important about the reciprocal nature of giving? (Or, more pragmatically, that we lose an important part of what keeps people giving?)
  • Can an increased emphasis on everyday giving help to counter concerns about the anti-democratic impact of big money philanthropy?
  • Does philanthropy have any value as a “nursery of democracy” (a la Tocqueville)?
  • Does a focus on this aspect of philanthropy dictate prioritizing particular kinds of activities or causes (e.g. volunteering rather than cash giving etc)?
  • Do any of the efforts to make philanthropy more democratic by adopting participatory grantmaking or embracing traditions of mutual aid address the concerns raised in the book?
  • Is Effective Altruism particularly prone to criticism that it is paternalistic and furthers relational inequality, since it prioritises measurable outcomes dictated by donors over  empowering recipients?
  • What value can historical or philosophical perspective bring to our understanding of philanthropy?
  • Do critiques of philanthropy too often confine themselves to the realms of ideal theory, or fall into the trap of comparing worst-case examples of philanthropy with idealized conceptions of government? How do you avoid this risk?

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Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.