Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Traditions of Philanthropic Order

Christine Dunn Henderson

Through a discussion of French thinkers Marcel Mauss and Serge-Christophe Kolm, Laurent Dobuzinskis’ thoughtful paper investigates what he calls the “philanthropic order,” a self-organizing order which originates in individuals’ gift-giving initiatives and creates complex webs of interdependence, obligation, and connectedness among people. Perhaps more familiarly known as the nonprofit sector or civil society, the spontaneously arising philanthropic order exists, as Dobuzinskis notes, “more or less precariously between the commercial sphere and the state” (2009, 116). Dobuzinskis defines the philanthropic order broadly, including not merely the activities of donors and foundations but also “a whole range of processes that allocate material and symbolic resources through nonmarket mechanisms fuelled by more or less explicitly altruistic motivations” (115). Although aware of possible tensions and conflict, Dobuzinskis nevertheless seems to understand the philanthropic order as an essential complement to the market order, insofar as it produces and reinforces the social capital upon which the market depends, by enabling individuals to interact with other individuals (friends, neighbors, and even strangers) in a manner independent of yet broadly beneficial to the economic order and perhaps to the political one as well.

A desire to explore more completely the nature and place of the philanthropic order in modern society leads Dobuzinskis to Mauss and Kolm. Dobuzinskis’ discussion of Mauss’s seminal work, The Gift, highlights the triple obligations—to give, to receive, and to reciprocate—behind gift-giving in older (“archaic”) societies. By emphasizing the obligations at the heart of what is often considered a purely voluntary act, Dobuzinskis reminds us that historically what we now call philanthropic acts have sprung from complex mixtures of selfishness and selflessness, and that self-interestedness does not “contaminate” the philanthropic act itself, as seems often thought today. In Mauss’s words, the world of the gift is one in which “obligation and liberty intermingle” (Mauss 2000, 65), in that the apparently free act of gift-giving springs from a range of motives, including senses of obligation. The urges giving rise to the philanthropic order are not simply disinterested or altruistic, nor are those impelling the commercial order merely selfish in any simple manner. Mauss’s study also reminds us that customs of gift-through-exchange create “the framework for a whole series of other exchanges, extremely diverse in scope, ranging from bargaining to remuneration, from solicitation to pure politeness, from out-and-out hospitality to reticence and reserve” (27). Gift exchanges frame other exchanges, and the divide, then, between civil society and commercial society is not as sharp as some claim.

Because Mauss’s work emphasizes reciprocal gift-giving in premodern societies, one (even Mauss, indeed!) might conclude that the gift economy has largely been replaced by the commercial economy in modern society. Has the age of the gift passed, and do nonmarket exchanges today play only a marginal role in the allocation of goods and services? Dobuzinskis is perhaps most interested in correcting what he believes is an oversimplification of Mauss on this point. His corrective approach to this oversimplification begins by citing statistical indicators of current philanthropic activity as signals of the continued or perhaps renewed importance of gift-giving in modern society. Next, Dobuzinskis offers a very interesting discussion of the status of the philanthropic order in a digital age. The discussion’s focus on the importance and benefits of sharing in the world of information technology points to a robust role for philanthropic communities in this arena. Dobuzinskis’ treatment of Open Access sharing invites us to think more about the role of technology in the philanthropic order and about technology’s ability to make communities out of strangers. What are the possibilities and limits of virtual community? Are these communities as strong as traditional communities? Stronger? And how might the philanthropic order best harness their strength?

Perhaps with some of these questions about virtual community in the background, Dobuzinskis wonders whether the philanthropic impulse has been stilled by the modern age, thus returning us to earlier speculations about the nature of that impulse and turning him from Mauss to Serge-Christophe Kolm. Applying the analytic tools of contemporary social scientists and economists in an effort to understand the interrelations between the spontaneous orders of market and philanthropy, Kolm’s work delves into the roots of the altruistic or “gifting” disposition, emphasizing the importance of the giver’s happiness and enlightened self-interest. Not only does Kolm bring out the range of calculation and spontaneity involved in gift-giving, but his research also reveals how even nakedly self-interested acts can generate interactions which yield “disinterested” and socially beneficial results. Moreover, Kolm reminds us of the manner in which actions—even those initially performed out of simple self-interest—can become habitual and largely divorced from their original motives. As Dobuzinskis notes, “even gifts offered for self-centered reasons can generate a sequence of reciprocal actions that evolve into deeper interpersonal or social relationships. Trust is usually built in that way, for example” (2009, 131).

Dobuzinskis focuses on Kolm’s investigations into the complexities linking the worlds of gift and market, and  also on Kolm’s keen awareness of the subtle mix of motives behind both apparently interested exchanges (such as economic ones) and apparently disinterested ones (such as gifts). Drawing attention to Kolm’s indebtedness to Adam Smith, Dobuzinskis describes Kolm’s general project as an attempt to solve the so-called “Adam Smith problem,” or to “combine and harmonize many of the insights Adam Smith treated separately in The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (129). Surprisingly, however, Dobuzinskis does not emphasize Kolm’s indebtedness to another perceptive analyst of enlightened self-interest, Alexis de Tocqueville. Enlightened love of self, Tocqueville explains, teaches individuals about the manner in which selfish interests can be advanced by serving others. Americans, who Tocqueville believed had perfected this art, “show how the enlightened love of themselves constantly brings them to aid each other and disposes them to willingly sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth for the good of the state” (Tocqueville 2000 [1835], 502). While Americans may do themselves a disservice in overemphasizing the role of self-interest in their altruism, Tocqueville praises enlightened self-interest for creating a multitude of farsighted and moderate citizens, each ready “to sacrifice a part of his interest to save the rest” (503). Insofar as the motive for sacrifice is self-interested, the act may not be strictly virtuous; Tocqueville concedes this, yet he is also aware that even self-interested acts of philanthropy create a habit of gifting which individuals might then practice with less attention to self-interested motives.

Although Dobuzinskis does not explore the Tocquevillean roots of this aspect of Kolm’s work, he rightly notes that both Mauss and Kolm are part of a greater French tradition of liberalism, a tradition sadly neglected in favor of the statist ideologies which have dominated French intellectual life for more than a century. Within that almost forgotten liberal tradition, three figures come to mind as precursors of these discussions of Dobuzinskis’ philanthropic order: Montesquieu, Constant, and Tocqueville. The discussions of “intermediary bodies” in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws stress the need for secondary entities as countervailing forces to centralized power and as guarantors of liberty (1990) [1748]. Montesquieu emphasizes bodies such as the aristocracy and the clergy, but interpreting intermediary bodies more broadly reminds us of the essential role played by private associations—including those constituting the philanthropic order—working outside of political power within a free society. Carrying this further, Benjamin Constant defines the existence of a civil society as the very essence of modern liberty. For Constant, “there is a part of human existence which necessarily remains individual and independent, and by right beyond all political jurisdiction” (2003, 31). Modern man understands freedom chiefly in terms of a private sphere reserved to him, in which he is free to express his opinions, choose his religion and profession, dispose of his property, and associate with others for whatever purposes he desires (Constant, 1988, 311). Constant recognizes that although political liberty is indeed part of modern liberty, civil society—or to return to Dobuzinskis’ language, the philanthropic order—may well be its flowering.

Of the French liberals, however, Tocqueville seems to provide the greatest insight into the philanthropic order. As we have already seen, his perceptive analysis of self-interest rightly understood sheds light on the often complex motives behind philanthropic acts. Beyond this, Tocqueville’s writings on civic associations offer a window into the relationship between the philanthropic order and other orders (market, political) in a free society. Americans, writes Tocqueville, make “constant” and “skilled” use of a vast range of civic associations (2000 [1835], 489). The science of association, he argues, is “the mother science” of a democratic society (492), with citizen self-government being the school of associative life more generally. Political associations give citizens the habit and taste for uniting for a variety of shared purposes, and democratic citizens carry this habit well beyond their political activities. The rich associative life within a robust civil society gives citizens a preference for doing things themselves and for working through associations to solve problems, rather than expecting political leaders to solve those problems for them. By forming associations in order to tackle problems, citizens are also reminded of their own power. Tocqueville argues that this reminder is especially necessary in democratic times, when individuals are more likely to feel overwhelmed and impotent. In this sense, then, civic associations (including philanthropic ones) serve a function akin to Montesquieu’s intermediary bodies, providing essential protection against tyranny. “It is clear,” writes Tocqueville, “that if each citizen … does not learn the art of uniting with those like him to defend it [his liberty], tyranny will necessarily grow with equality” (489).

Mauss’s investigations of the gift economy in premodern societies and Kolm’s studies of altruism do help us better understand the complex motives and movements within the broad entity Dobuzinskis calls the philanthropic order. But how instructive are they concerning the place of that order in a free society? I raise this question because their advocacy of a free society seems qualified at best. As Dobuzinskis reminds us, Mauss and Kolm begin from Hayekian premises, in that they work within the paradigm of a spontaneous—and private—order. In this sense they are heirs of Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and Friedrich von Hayek, as well as of the French liberal tradition which saw some form of private associative life as a counterforce to governmental power and as an essential bulwark of liberty. But Mauss and Kolm draw different conclusions from the classical liberal lines in that they look to legislation rather than spontaneous or voluntary order to achieve their respective ends of restoring the ethics of the gift and redistributing income. Thus Mauss and Kolm can only take us so far, and if the philanthropic order is essential to the flourishing of individuals and of free societies (and I believe it is), our conversation about them should be complemented by a conversation about these earlier French and Scottish traditions.



Constant, Benjamin.  1988.  Political Writings.  Biancamaria Fontana, ed. and trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

_____.  2003.  Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments.  Dennis O’Keeffe, trans. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc.

Dobuzinskis, Laurent.  2009.  “French Perspectives on the Origin and Logic of the “Philanthropic Order”: A Critical Account.” Conversations on Philanthropy VI: 115-139. ©2009 DonorsTrust.

Mauss, Marcel.  2000 [1928].  The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.  W. D. Halls, trans.  New York: W. W. Norton.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de.  1990.  The Spirit of the Laws.  Anne M.  Cohler, Basia C. Miller, Harold Stone, trans.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis de.  2000 [1835].  Democracy in America.  Harvey C.  Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, trans.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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