Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Conversation 9: Commitment, Identity, and Collective Intentionality: The Basis for Philanthropy Download Printable PDF

Paul Lewis

Philanthropy—“voluntary giving and association that serves to promote human flourishing” (Ealy 2005, 2)—is often said to have three key features. First, it is said to involve behavior that is in some sense “disinterested,” “benevolent,” or “altruistic.” For Steven Grosby, for instance, the existence of philanthropy reveals that there are “a number of diverse orientations of human action,” one of which takes the form of “disinterested or ‘selfless’ action, of works on behalf of others whom one knows or does not know which imposes costs on the individual but which confers benefits to others” (2009, 2, 4). Similarly, according to Jacques Godbout the gift is “a moral act and as such is ‘intrinsically motivated and not subject to means-ends analysis’ ” (1998, 91).

The second feature of philanthropy that is often highlighted concerns the origins of the motivation for such disinterested behavior. The latter is often said to derive at least in part from the way in which people form attachments to one another and thereby forge a sense of identity (that is, a sense of who they are). According to Godbout, for example, we should “consider the gift mainly in terms of the dimension of donation as part of self expression” (1998, xi). Kenneth Boulding elaborates on this point by noting that philanthropy is “an expression of [a person’s] sense of community with others” (1974 [1962], 240), an endeavor involving a non-calculative act of benevolence “in which the decision maker elects to do something not because of the effects the decision will have in the future but because of what he ‘is’ here and now, [that is, because of] how he perceives his own identity” (1970, 132):

It is to the subtle dynamics of the integrative system—that set of social relations involving status, identity, community, legitimacy, loyalty, and trust—that we have to look if we are to understand the growth and structure of the grants economy (1973, 5).

Similarly, Lenore Ealy observes that people’s actions are driven by a variety of motives—some benevolent, some not—and each of us has to “struggle with our conflicting drives and ends as we seek to understand and forge our own identities” (2007, viii).

According to this view, benevolence—like other forms of self-sacrificing, group-oriented action—is said to reflect “an essential part of man’s nature—his need to identify with others, his need to expand his interests and concerns beyond the sphere of his own body” (Boulding 1974 [1965], 250). It follows, and here is our third point, that understanding such behavior requires us to acknowledge an “expanded notion of the self” (Grosby 2009, 1, 5) that—in contrast to the isolated, hermetically sealed atom that is homo economicus—is constituted at least in part by the relations in which the individual stands to other people.

However, while (as we have seen) these three aspects of human nature are regarded as significant for understanding philanthropy, writers on the topic have yet to provide a coherent account of how these elements combine to give rise to philanthropic activity. It is this lacuna that I aim to remedy in this essay (cf. Garnett 2009, 7, 9). In what follows I shall draw on the work of a number of social theorists and philosophers, most notably the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, in order to outline several concepts—specifically the notions of “commitment,” “collective intentionality,” and “identity”—that will help us to elaborate on those ideas in order to provide a more coherent conceptual framework for thinking about the nature of philanthropic action. The following section of this essay offers an account of Sen’s work on the nature of rationality, focusing on his distinction between sympathy and commitment. The section after that elaborates on the notion of commitment by drawing on the philosophical literature on collective intentions to bring out the links between commitment and personal identity. It then goes on to suggest how a person’s efforts to forge their identity might involve them engaging in philanthropic behavior. In the subsequent section I attempt to allay some of the concerns that classical liberals might have about the role of philanthropy, by pointing out that—contrary to what some classical liberal authors suggest—the type of (other-regarding) motivation that underpins and gives rise to philanthropic action also plays a significant role in the generation of the orderly outcomes in decentralized market economies. The final section offers a few concluding remarks.


Varieties of Motivation: Sen on Sympathy and Commitment

Sen begins by arguing that the standard account of the nature of self-interest typically provided by economists elides three different ways in which considerations of one’s own “self” enter into reasoned decision-making, each of which reflects a different degree of “privateness” (that is, a different degree to which the self alone is central to a person’s behavior). The first, and narrowest, account of the role of the self rests on the assumption of self-centered welfare, which holds that a person’s welfare depends only on his or her own consumption, ruling out the possibility that the person’s welfare is affected either by considerations of sympathy (or antipathy) for others or by a personal concern for more abstract, distributional issues pertaining to social justice. The second conception of the self rests on the assumption of a self-welfare goal. The latter permits the individual to display more concern for the rest of the world than does the assumption of self-centered welfare, and so permits a broader notion of the self to figure in people’s decisions, because, while stipulating that a person’s only goal is to maximize his or her own welfare, it allows that the latter may be directly affected by the welfare of others. That is, it permits the possibility of sympathy, a notion that will be discussed at greater length below. The third assumption is that of self-goal choice, according to which a person’s choices must be based only on the pursuit of his or her own goals. This assumption excludes the possibility that a person’s choices may be influenced by factors other than his or her own goals, in particular by self-imposed restrictions on the pursuit of one’s own goals (reflecting, for instance, the influence of social norms and rules that discourage the pursuit of goals that the individual, taken in isolation, would prefer to pursue) (Sen 2002a, 33-35).

Sen elaborates on the nature of such other-regarding behavior by drawing a distinction between sympathy and commitment (1977, 326-29). As noted above, sympathy involves one person’s welfare being affected by the welfare of others—as, for example, when one gains pleasure from observing the happiness of others. Of necessity, sympathy involves a departure from the assumption of self-centered welfare, though it leaves intact the assumptions of self-welfare goal and self-goal choice. Commitment, on the other hand, denotes a person’s willingness to act in a particular way not because doing so maximizes his or her welfare but simply because the type of action in question is required for conformity with a social rule or norm that the individual regards as inviolable. While behavior that is driven by commitment need not violate the assumption of self-centered welfare, it does involve a breach of the assumptions of self-welfare goal and self-goal choice because it involves people refraining from pursuing the (individually chosen) goals that would maximize their personal welfare, in favor of adhering to social norms and rules. Commitment therefore “drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare” in the sense that it leads to a person “choosing an act that he believes will yield a lower level of personal welfare to him than an alternative that is also available to him” (329; also see 2002a, 35; 2005, 7).1 And as we shall discuss in more detail below, by violating the assumption of self-goal choice, Sen’s approach permits a broader conception of the self than does homo economicus, in the sense that it allows that a person may reason from a vantage point taking into account not only their narrow self-interest but also what is best from the point of view of a group of people of which that individual is a member.

More specifically, the possibility of commitment is related to a fourth aspect of the self or person distinguished by Sen. In developing his account of commitment, Sen emphasizes that people are reflexive beings who are able to scrutinize themselves and in particular to reason about the propriety of their desires and values. According to this view, far from reason being the slave of the passions, people are able to use their power of reason to reflect upon, to control, and even to override their desires and individual goals, so that the latter do not always manifest themselves in people’s actions: 

A person is not only an entity that can enjoy one’s own consumption, experience, and appreciate one’s welfare, and have one’s goals, but also an entity that can examine one’s values and objectives and choose in the light of those values and objectives. Our choices need not relentlessly follow our experiences of consumption or welfare, or simply translate perceived goals into action. We can ask what we want to do and how, and in that context also examine what we should want and how (Sen 2002a, 36; also see 25 and 40-42).

Indeed, according to Sen (2002a, 5-7, 50-52) it is precisely this capacity to reflect upon one’s values and actions and to make commitments to shared social rules and norms that makes someone a person (Frankfurt 1971). By ignoring this fourth aspect of the self, and therefore in effect denying the possibility that people can reason about their desires and goals, standard rational choice theory “involve[s], in effect, a basic denial of freedom of thought” (Sen 2002a, 5):

[T]he insistence on the pursuit of self-interest as an inescapable necessity for rationality subverts the “self” as a free, reasoning being, by overlooking the freedom to reason about what one should pursue (46; also see 37).

For Sen, therefore, we can do justice to the influence of reason on human action only if we acknowledge that the domain of reason extends beyond the (instrumental) task of assessing the most effective means of satisfying preferences and goals that are not themselves given by reason to embrace the possibility of (deontological) reasoning about the values and goals that people (should) choose to pursue (2002a, 40; 2006, 20-22; also see Hirschman 1984). 

In explaining why people might depart from the instrumentally rational mode of conduct presupposed by rational choice theory, Sen emphasizes that, far from being isolated atoms, people are social beings whose values, goals, beliefs, and actions are all shaped by the network of social relations within which they are embedded (cf. Godbout 1998, 16-18). More specifically, according to Sen one important reason why a person might refrain from pursuing her individual (self-)goals in favor of conforming to social rules and norms is because doing so enables her to form attachments to various groups and thereby to cultivate her identity (that is, a sense of who she is) (2002 [1985], 215; also see 211-12; 2002a, 40-41; 2005, 5, 7). The connection between a person’s commitment to social rules, on the one hand, and his or her identity, on the other, has been fruitfully analyzed by philosophers working on the notion of collective intentionality, to which concept we now turn our attention. 


Collective Intentionality, Identity, and Commitment

The philosophical literature on collective intentionality suggests that in addition to having the individual intentions—the individual commitments to (purposive) action—that economists typically attribute to them, the individual members of a group might also possess “shared” or “collective” intentions that involve them making a commitment to act in concert with one another, as a group (Davis 2002; Gilbert 1989, 1996). The distinction between individual and collective intentionality often arises in everyday life: people use the language of individual intentionality when they view themselves as acting independently of others (“I want,” “I hope,” etc.), and they invoke collective intentionality when they see themselves as acting as part of a group (“what we want,” “what the Austrian school aspires to do,” etc.). As we are about to see, the theory of collective intentionality suggests that, far from being an insignificant linguistic trifle, the distinction between “I” and “we” intentions signifies an important difference in the type of motivation driving people’s actions, the recognition of which can enable us to conceptualize the roles of commitment, identity, and (a broader notion of) the self in reasoned decision-making. 

Collective intentions—or we-intentions as they are also known—have two key characteristics. First, an individual who expresses a we-intention believes that the intention in question is widely, though not necessarily universally, held by the other members of the group. Second, the individual believes that the intention is mutually or reciprocally held by members of the group, in the sense that they too believe that it is widely held by their fellow members. Thus, for example, if Ludwig, who is a member of a group of Austrian economists, says, “We believe in the efficacy of the free market,” Ludwig is saying that he believes in the efficacy of the free market and that, in addition, he believes that the other members of the group both believe in the efficacy of the market themselves and also attribute that belief to one another (cf. Davis 2002, 14). In a nutshell, we-intentions involve a structure of mutually reinforcing, reciprocal beliefs shared by the individual members of the relevant group, such that each believes that the others hold the same belief and each also believes that the others think the same about their fellow members (cf. Shils 2006, 197-98).

Significantly, and in keeping with Sen’s notion of commitment, behavior driven by we-intentions is not reducible to instrumentally rational behavior (Searle 1995, 23-25; Davis 2002, 20-22; 2004, 392-93). The reason is as follows. An individual’s we-intention centers on what (s)he thinks the intentions of the other individuals in the group actually are, not what (s)he would likethem to be, so that there arises the possibility of a tension between what an individual believesa group’s collective intention to be and what (s)he would prefer it to be. If an individual (sincerely) expresses a we-intention in a situation where that tension has indeed arisen, then (s)he has effectively made a (Senian) commitment to act in accordance with the group’s collectively expressed view that a particular goal should be pursued, or that a particular type of action is required, and so forth, even though that might not be what the individual would have preferred were (s)he not a member of the group in question. According to this view, the shared intentions that arise when a person uses we-language involve him imposing upon himself obligations or commitments that qualify the unconstrained pursuit of his own (self-)goals, simply because expressing a we-intention requires an individual to conform to how other people use that same “we.” Hence, people may share a collective goal without each of them also having it as a personal goal (Davis 2002, 21-22; 2004, 399; Anderson 2003, 191-93). 

The notion of collective intentionality is significant in understanding the role of identity and commitment in human action because one way of conceptualizing a person’s identity is in terms of the social groups with which she chooses to affiliate herself. Such affiliations can in turn be thought of as involving the use of first-person plural speech in order to form collective intentions about what “we” want, believe, and so forth (Davis 2007). As Sen has put it,

The nature of our language often underlines the force of our wider identity. “We” demand things; “our” actions reflect “our” concerns; “we” protest at injustice done to “us.” This is, of course, the language of social intercourse and politics, but it is difficult to believe that it represents nothing other than a verbal form, and in particular no sense of identity (2002 [1985], 215; also see 2002a, 41).

According to this view, people’s capacity to identify themselves with others, and thereby to define who they are, is captured by the way their use of we-language requires them to embrace—in Sen’s sense of commitment—the intentions of the other group members (to whom the “we” is meant to apply) about what goals to pursue, what counts as acceptable behavior, and the like. For the (sincere) use of such language requires a person to adopt the same (joint) standpoint as others in the group, “accept[ing] as reasons for action only those considerations that each person would be willing to accept as reasons for everyone to act” (Anderson 2001, 29). We-intentions can thus be seen to involve people transcending the narrow confines of their own self-interest in order to consider what is right or best not from their own point of view but from the perspective of the group as a whole. In Sen’s words, “the pursuit of private goals may well be compromised by the consideration of the goals of others in the group with whom the person has some sense of identity” (2002 [1985], 215; also see 214 and 2002a, 40-42).

It is especially noteworthy in this regard that a person’s membership in social groups is often conditional upon his or her faithfully observing various social rules and norms (2002 [1985], 216-17). The latter can be expressed in terms of collective intentions to the effect that “we believe that members of the group should do x in circumstances z” (where, in addition to being read literally, the phrase “do x” should be interpreted broadly as a placeholder for a variety of injunctions such as, “count as,” “take to mean,” “refrain from,” “donate to,” and so forth) (Davis 2004, 390; cf. Lawson 2003, 36-39). Such rules and norms that specify what types of behavior the members of a particular group count as “correct,” “honorable,” “just,” etc., and in effect constitute a set of guidelines or a script that tells people what they have to do in order to identify themselves with the (other members of the) group and thereby to cultivate and express publicly their identity as group members (Sen 2002 [1985], 215). Such rules and norms have motivational force because they furnish people who wish to become or remain members of a particular group with reasons for acting in certain ways:

One of the ways in which the sense of identity can operate is through making members of a community accept certain rules of conduct as part of obligatory behavior towards others in a community. It is not a matter of asking each time, What do I get out of it? How are my own goals furthered in this way?, but of taking for granted the case for certain patterns of behavior towards others (216-17).

More specifically, the motivational force of social norms derives from the fact that group members accept the authority of “us”—of “our” shared view of how “we” should behave—to determine (key features of) their conduct in the domain defined by the norm. As Elizabeth Anderson has put it, “To count as a reason for action, a consideration must appeal to a person’s self-understanding, not [necessarily] her self-interest. It must fit into her understanding of her identity” (2003, 192; also see 193). 

In this way the notion of collective intentionality makes it possible to conceptualize how people can have sources of motivationincluding, as we shall see, those that enjoin them to engage in philanthropyabove and beyond the instrumental desire to satisfy their preferences. People not only have the capacity to behave in an instrumentally rational fashion, asking what should Ido and striving to satisfy their own preferences, they also have the (often countervailing) ability to act in accordance with social rules and collective goals, their commitment to which may involve stepping back from their individual goals and asking what is the best strategy for us to adopt:

Behavior is ultimately a social matter as well [as an individual one], and thinking in terms of what “we” should do, or what should be “our” strategy, may reflect a sense of identity involving recognition of other people’s goals and the mutual interdependencies involved (Sen 1987, 85; also see 2002 [1985], 41).

The members of a social group think of themselves as a “we” and understand one another to be jointly committed to various goals, including that of upholding shared social rules and norms. In identifying with a group, therefore, an individual understands that she is accepting responsibility for doing her part to advance the group’s goals and to uphold the rules and norms that operate within it, making a commitment that motivates her subsequent actions. Hence, as Sen has put it, “the sense of identity takes the form of partly disconnecting a person’s choice of actions from the pursuit of self-goal” (2002 [1985], 216).

Overall, then, the vantage point provided by the theory of collective intentionality suggests that Sen can be thought of as advocating a relational theory of (social) identity whereby, through their use of we-language, people express their joint commitment to various goals and social rules and norms, forging links to the groups in which those rules and norms prevail and thereby conferring identity upon themselves. To put this point slightly differently, Sen is arguing that the possibility of identifying with others presupposes an extended notion of the self that, in contrast to the isolated atom that is homo economicus, is forged at least in part by a person’s affiliations with various social groups (cf. Grosby 2009, 1, 5). Moreover, as we have seen, thanks to her attachment to such groups, the (socially conditioned) person postulated by Sen is able (to an extent, at least) to adopt a more disinterested vantage point that makes it possible for her to act in accordance not only with her narrow self-interest but also with what is right or best from the point of view of a group—or indeed society—as a whole, treating other people not merely as (intrinsically worthless) instruments for the realization of her own ends but as ends in themselves whose own goals have intrinsic value. As Grosby (3) has put it, “the attachments or social relations constitutive of some groups indicate an orientation of human action beyond that of the interest of the individual (in this sense, transcending the self) … such that considerations of what is right or of a common good can co-exist with individual self-interest” (also see Godbout 1998, 7-9, 13, 20). Viewed thus, the notion of we-intentions can be thought of as one way of conceptualizing the “imaginative capacity” of the mind that, according to commentators such as Boulding (1974 [1962], 239-40), Shils (2006, 213), and Grosby (2009, 2-3), enables us to identify ourselves with others and thus gives rise to the possibility of behavior in their service, motivated by ideals of charity, fairness, noblesse oblige, and so forth (rather than by the prospect of personal gain).

In particular, according to Kenneth Boulding it is just such a sense of identity that is one of the wellsprings of philanthropy. “A gift helps to create the identity of the giver, and a gift either to an individual or to a cause or to a community identifies the giver with the recipient.… Thus, the gift builds itself into the identity of the giver” (1973, 27-28). For example, the members of a particular social group—the alumni of a college—might think of themselves as a “we” and understand one another to be jointly committed to various goals, including that of supporting their college through benefactions. As Grosby has put it, in language redolent of the theory of collective intentionality, philanthropy “points to attachments formed by individuals [that are expressed in the form of statements involving] … a ‘we’, implying an expansion of the individual’s conception of the self” (2009, 2, 3; also see Godbout 1998, 16). Whereas self-interested, utility-maximizing behavior involves a person effectively identifying with him- or herself, commitment involves a person identifying with others. In identifying with their college and with their fellow alumni, an individual understands that she has accepted responsibility for doing her part to advance the group’s goals, in this case by upholding the group norm that stipulates that members should give back to their alma mater. Giving a gift to their old college, for example, is one way for alumni to reaffirm their affiliation for it, thereby cultivating their identity as members of that institution. In this way, as Boulding has put it, giving is “a sacrifice we may make in the interests of our identity, for our identity depends very largely on the community with which we identify” (quoted by Ealy 2007, viii).

Moreover, if Boulding (1973, 26-27) is right in arguing that the “we” invoked by alumni when they engage in such altruistic joint giving embraces not only a person’s immediate contemporaries but also other generations of members, then adhering to the norm also enables one to identify with earlier generations (from whose beneficence one benefited) and also with future generations (who will benefit from one’s generosity), thereby becoming a member of a community that endures over time. In this way, giving to one’s college exemplifies Boulding’s point that “in order to establish a satisfactory identity, one must maintain some sort of community, however uncertain and discounted, not only with one’s own day, but with the whole human race as it stretches out through time and space” (97). In this way the notion of collective intentionality might be thought of as one way of conceptualizing the “integrative relationships[,] … that is, [the] groups of people who have some feelings of identification and benevolence towards each other,” which, according to Boulding, lie at the heart of philanthropy and gift-giving (1973, 27; cf. Godbout 1998, 69-72, 94).


Commitment and the Extended Order

In this final section I want briefly to consider a potential objection that classical liberals might advance to the account of philanthropy outlined above, namely that the type of (other-regarding) motivation which (it has been suggested) underpins philanthropy is relevant only in those cases where a small number of people, who are well known to one another, are pursuing an agreed-upon goal (Hayek 1988). In particular, Hayek posits that as soon as we move from the realm of such face-to-face interactions to the impersonal exchanges that characterize the extended order of the Great Society, altruistic impulses of the sort considered above can no longer be relied on, not least because of the difficulty of acquiring the information required to dispense one’s largesse efficiently, and must be replaced by an emphasis on the pursuit of narrowly defined self-interest.

The point I want to make here is that despite the account of the shortcomings of altruism found in Hayek’s explicit remarks on philanthropy, his own account of how the extended order of the Great Society is possible reveals a more balanced position, in which other-regarding forms of motivation do have a significant role to play. Significantly, Hayek does not contend that the pursuit of self-interest should be given free reign, even in the trades between anonymous others that characterize decentralized market economies. On the contrary, and in keeping with Sen’s (2005, 7; 2007, 347-52) point that in living in society individuals come to recognize that there are other people who are trying to pursue their own goals and that they should be given a fair opportunity to do so, a desideratum that requires one to refrain from the exclusive pursuit of one’s own (self-)goals, Hayek acknowledges that the generation of an orderly allocation of resources in decentralized market economies requires that people’s pursuit of their goals be tempered by their willingness to abide by—one might even say, feel a commitment to—certain abstract norms and rules (moral norms such as promise-keeping and truth-telling; generalized norms of reciprocity; and the laws of property, tort, and contract) (Hayek 1960, 62-63; 1976, 14, 16-17; also see McCann 2002, 11-19; and Lewis and Chamlee-Wright 2008, 110-112).

Indeed, as Paul Seabright (2004, 56-58) has argued, no economy can function by relying on self-interest alone, simply because the successful implementation of trades ultimately depends on someone, somewhere—whether it be the trading parties themselves or officers of the legal system—feeling under a moral obligation to honor and/or enforce the terms of the contract. As Kenneth Arrow has put it, “there has to be some kind of commercial morality for contracts to be executed[;] … a theory which depends merely on reputation is not enough because there will always be circumstances when it pays to violate the rule.… So the economic system—the self-seeking, laissez faire system—would not work without the presence of these non-laissez faire, non-self-seeking norms” (1990, 139; also see Dobuzinskis 2009,132-133).2

Moreover, Hayek appears to conceptualize the way in which rules influence people’s actions in a way similar to that used by Sen. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, for example, Hayek elaborates on his comment that “Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one” by quoting the following passage from the philosopher R. S. Peters:

Man is a rule-following animal. His actions are not simply directed towards ends; they also conform to social standards and conventions, and unlike a calculating machine he acts because of his knowledge of rules and objectives. For instance, we ascribe to people traits of character like honesty, punctuality, considerateness and meanness. Such terms do not, like ambition, or hunger, or social desire, indicate the sort of goals that a man tends to pursue; rather they indicate the type of regulations that he imposes on his conduct whatever his goals may be (1973, 11, 147-48 n. 7; emphasis added).

 For Hayek, then, social rules and norms are not goals that people pursue, but rather regulations that people impose upon themselves in order to restrain the ardor with which they pursue their own goals:

The rules of morals are instrumental in the sense that they assist mainly in the achievement of other human values; however, since we only rarely can know what depends on their being followed in the particular instance, to observe them must be regarded as a value in itself, a sort of intermediate end which we must pursue without questioning its justification in the particular case (1960, 67, emphasis added; also see 1976, 16-17). 

Such passages suggest, therefore, that it is not wholly unreasonable to view the social rules and norms that Hayek mentions in his discussion of the extended order as examples of the type of self-imposed commitment to rules and norms discussed by Sen, a commitment that involves a violation of the assumption of self-goal choice.

It is also worth noting in this regard that, according to Sen, a person can follow social rules and norms that require him to curtail the vigor with which he pursues his own goals, thereby making it easier for others to pursue their goals without that first individual taking the goals of those other people as his own. On the contrary, according to Sen,

One can take note of other people’s goals and priorities and decide to constrain the unifocal pursuit of one’s own goals with behavioral constraints and other restrictions, without that self-restraint being interpreted as the pursuit of the goals of others.… Rather, you are just following a norm of good behavior you happen to approve of (to wit, “let others be”), which is a self-imposed restraint you end up accepting in your choice of what to do (2007, 347-49).

For Sen, then, adhering to social rules and norms that enable others to pursue their goals more effectively does not mean that one is taking their goals as one’s own. Instead, “the violation of self-goal choice is arising here from the normative restraint we may voluntarily impose on ourselves on grounds of recognizing other people’s pursuits and goals, without in any substantive sense making them our own goals” (2007, 353-54; also see 2002 [1985], 214). Again, this interpretation seems quite consistent with Hayek’s point that because the codes of conduct that govern people’s behavior in the extended order are abstract in the sense that they do not require people to agree on the (concrete) ends which they are pursuing, they enable people to pursue diverse goals in peace and harmony (1973, 1988). Like Sen, Hayek is arguing that people are more likely to be able to pursue more of their own goals successfully if they voluntarily submit to the restrictions imposed on self-goal choice by certain social norms and rules.

It is perhaps noteworthy in this regard that in his account of the importance of rule-governed behavior Hayek defines rationality in a way that does not reduce it to the instrumental version that characterizes homo economicus: “Rationality … can mean no more than some degree of coherence and consistency in a person’s action, some lasting influence of knowledge or insight which, once acquired, will affect his action at a later date and in different circumstances” (1960, 77). This definition is not so far removed from the one provided in Sen’s account of rationality as involving the discipline of subjecting one’s choices—of goals and values, as well of actions—to reasoned scrutiny. As Sen writes of Adam Smith, “rationality is seen as reasoned reflection on the nature of the processes involved and the consequences generated, in the light of the valuations one has reason to accept, … not a fixed formula with a pre-specified maximand” (Rothschild and Sen 2006, 258).

Hayek’s own account of the possibility of social order in decentralized market economies reveals, then, that the binary opposition he draws, in his explicit comments on altruism and philanthropy, between other-regarded motives (whose role he contends ought to be confined to the micro-cosmos of face-to-face interaction between personal acquaintances) and self-interest (the pursuit of which ought to be people’s sole concern in the extended order) is in fact overdrawn. This opposition needs to be qualified because, as we have seen, Hayek’s own account of the extended order arguably allows—indeed, requires—that there be constraints on the pursuit of self-interest similar to those involved in philanthropic activity. And if other-regarding motivations do indeed have a role to play in a Hayekian account of the generation of social order in decentralized market economies, then the view—which Hayek at times advances—that the commercial (for-profit) and philanthropic (not-for-profit) spheres are mutually exclusive is surely overdrawn (cf. Garnett 2009, 4-7).3



Whether at any given moment in time a person’s behavior is influenced more by their (deontologically rational) commitment to prevailing social norms and rules or by their (instrumentally rational) desire to satisfy their own preferences, cannot be established a prioribut instead must be established ex posteriori according to the context in which people are acting (Anderson 2001, 30-31; Sen 2002a, 25-26, 47; 2006, 22-23; Godbout 1998, x). But by providing conceptual space for a broader notion of the self—one that is permeable to external influences and because of that is able to reason about the propriety of their goals and values—Sen allows for the possibility of disinterested behavior of the kind that can be argued to underpin philanthropy. The key question that remains concerns identifying the institutional context that is most conducive to such behavior both in the sense that it enables and encourages people to act upon their altruistic impulses and that it provides the information required for people to do so in an informed way. But that is a question for another time.



¹As Sen notes (1997, 760), his distinction between sympathy and commitment parallels that drawn by Adam Smith (1975 [1790], 191) between sympathy (understood as ultimately self-interested benevolence) and “generosity,” where doing things for others may involve us “sacrific[ing] some great and important interest of our own.”

²Kenneth Boulding (1973, 28) makes a similar point when he contends that “without the kind of commitment or identity which emerges from sacrifice [in the sense of being willing to enforce or abide by a social norm even if it is not in one’s interests to do so], it may well be that no communities, not even the family, would really stay together.”

³For more on the possibility of feedback mechanisms that might help to inform and so guide philanthropic activity, see Chamlee-Wright and Myers (2008).




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