Thinking about Philanthropy - and Justice

I have been reading Michael Sandel’s book Justice, which stems from his popular course of the same name at Harvard.  In between chapters over the weekend, I have been reading proposals from nonprofit organizations seeking funding from Dodge in the new year.

In both cases, the predominant question on my mind has been Sandel’s subtitle: What’s The Right Thing To Do?

The book, by the way, would be a great holiday present for anyone you know who appreciates having his or her assumptions challenged.  Just when you think you know what “the right thing to do” is, Sandel asks you to look at it another way.

He begins with some fascinating questions of judgment and, inevitably, politics, using real life situations.  Should there be laws against price gouging in the wake of natural disasters?  Should Purple Hearts be awarded for psychological injuries?  Should the CEO’s and top executives of banks bailed out with taxpayer money get bonuses?

And he uses hypothetical situations.  If you were the engineer on a runaway train, with five people working on the track in front of you, and you could turn onto a side track where one person was working, would you?  Most people say yes.  If you were watching the runaway train from a bridge and could push one person onto the tracks to save the five people working further down them, would you?  Most people say no.  In each case, there is a choice: either one person will die or five people will die. Yet we make different judgments.  It is not just about numbers and outcomes.

Sandel’s theme is that there are three main ways to think about justice: maximizing welfare, respecting freedom, and promoting virtue.

I began to cast the proposals to Dodge in these terms and realize our social investments of limited resources require us to reflect on these matters.  How shall we compare a local arts group with a local soup kitchen, for example? Do we support the educational organization that brings freedom of choice and opportunity to a small number of underserved students in a dramatic, transformational way?  Or do we back efforts to incrementally improve an educational system that affects thousands of students?

Sandel unpacks that last idea: the utilitarian idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number” – both its strengths and its weaknesses. That chapter helps me understand why at some gatherings of foundations, there are strong pleas for the whole field to drop everything except a focus on mitigating climate change.

At Dodge, we use the themes Creativity and Sustainability as if they were virtues.  But I imagine Sandel countering: “Do you value the creativity it takes to create a new weapon?  Is everything worth sustaining?”

Clearly not.  I appreciate how Sandel frames the process of responsible moral judgment as “a dialectic between our judgments about particular situations and the principals we affirm on reflection.”  It reminds me again of the importance of “Quadrant II” time in organizations – that precious time we set aside and protect for important matters that are not urgent.  It is our time to reflect on lessons learned from action and guiding principles for future decisions.

It is both disconcerting and liberating to understand anew through reading Justice that the right thing to do is not always clear to a single individual, let alone a group, no matter how much thoughtful attention you pay to a given situation or choice.  But as he writes, “Thinking about justice seems inescapably to engage us in thinking about the best way to live,” and for us at Dodge, that takes us to the heart of our mission of fostering a more livable world.

We will never, in Sandel’s words, “resolve (our) disagreements once and for all.”  But these discussions “can give shape to the arguments we have, and bring moral clarity to the alternatives we confront.”

Another cycle of grantmaking is underway.