Private means for public ends?

Andrew Milner

We’ve given contributors to this special feature of Alliance a particularly difficult task. We’ve asked them to bring together the notion of the common good with the principle and practice of philanthropy and to discern what the relationship is between the two.

For me, three questions arise immediately from that task:

To what extent is philanthropy pursuing the common good?

What role can and should philanthropy – essentially a private concern – play in either securing or pursuing something which is public?

And the thorniest of all:

How can we begin to define a relationship with something whose own definition varies according to who you ask?

All of our contributors have had to grapple with some or all of these questions. I can only say I’m glad it wasn’t me. The first and second look deceptively easy. In terms of the second, many countries, after all, have a public benefit test for institutional philanthropy at least, so intervening in the public sphere should present no contradiction. The catch is that, while public benefit in such cases is legally defined, the common good isn’t. There is room for manoeuvre between the two. In answer to the first question, examples can be pointed to without necessarily embarking on a definition of the elusive notion itself. But question three looms large in the background. What is the common good and can it be defined in a way that is uniformly satisfactory?

I’m not going to wade into the debate. Others have already done so and shone their own light on the matter. I only want to note two things that strike me. The first is that, as one of the articles points out, precise definition may be secondary. What’s more important is that, however people define it, the common good has resonance as something worth striving for.

The second is that there seem to be two elements to it: natural common goods which need to be preserved and social common goods, which may need to be attained in the first place. The distinction is a crude one, but it might serve my purpose. Until relatively recently, it is the second category that has attracted most notice. The elements of the common good have been seen as the adjuncts of a satisfactorily functioning society – security of person, provision of education, clean water, public amenities generally. It’s only in the last few decades that natural common goods – habitable environments, breathable air, sufficiency of animal and plant life, etc – have forced themselves on our attention. It seems indisputable that, whatever our view of the common good, a planet preserved from catastrophic failures must be part of it. The climate crisis presents us all, philanthropists or not, with the sternest test of our ability to secure it.

Andrew Milner, Features editor

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