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May 27, 2008


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Michael Moody


Thanks for the post on our book and the thoughtful (as always) ruminations. Interesting to see where the reading took you. I particularly like the idea of moral imagination as deriving from both inspiration and outrage. That's a useful distinction. As we say in the book, philanthropy exists because a) things often go wrong, and b) things could always be better. Some might even say that philanthropy as the work of the moral imagination is more often sparked by visions of what is wrong, than by visions of what would be right.

Thanks again for the interest!


Also, maybe moral imagination and empathy or compassion (another key theme in the book) are allied. Maybe it is our ability to see ourselves in others that is the essence of caritas?

The emphasis in the book on "meliorism," or gradual change, is maybe something to be flagged. Traditional philanthropy does indeed work around the edges. But social change philanthropy might seek deeper changes in the underlying systems.

I got the impression that Payton was coming at this from his history as an insider and high level person not only in education and foundation work but also in public service.

Meliorism says, "Easy does it; make things better; but don't rock the boat." That is a good message among those at the top, and would play well today at Council on Foundations or The Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society at Hudson Institute, but would not satisfy those who call for social justice, or for democracy 2.0.


In that sense melioristic philanthropy is like the oil in a high speed engine that keeps it from seizing up.

Is that a critique to which you might respond? Are there elements in the book that suggest that philanthropy might in some cases be the vanguard for a new punctuated equilibrium, the driver of our system to a whole other level? Or would that be a bad thing for those who are pretty well happy with things as they are, their station in it, and their role as slight improvers of a basically fine situation?

I did not see much moral outrage in the book. The tone was Horation, balanced, reasonable. The stance was that of the moderator, or expert, not an advocate, except for moral action and moral tradtions. There was little sense of immoral counter-action, or of highly placed players on the scene who might profit from and defend immoral systems.

Philanthropy as described seems to exist in a world without Halliburton, Blackwater, Carlyle Group, Military Commissions Act, Patriot Act, Homeland Security, Torture Cells, propaganda, a black budget, think tanks funded by wealthy people seeking tax and regulatory breaks. There was no sense in the book of interlocking elites at the top of a society, using philanthropy as one of many levers to preserve their position and power.

It was an upbeat, but somewhat sanitized, or "for public consumption," kind of report.

What I found encouraging was the learning in the humanties. Once you open the door to literature, philosophy, sociology, political theory, etc. there is no telling whether meliorism will carry the day or not. You get clowns in literature, rogues, knaves, machiavels. You get all kinds of styles, not all balanced and Horation, not all supportive of business as usual.

In the old days the liberal arts training was the hallmark of good breeding was a waspy elite. Today it is a throwback to a world before postmodernism and and world before identity politics and before the MBA became king of credentials.

I hope the liberal arts come back in from the bottom up if not the top down, not to restore a prior elite, with its meliorism, but to democratize the process and to "turn the world upside down" to cite a famous 18th century trope.

The meliorists of Paytons time were overthrown. To get their own back they may have to be a bit more radical.

Anyway, it is a fine book, Michael, and my head is still buzzing with it. Thank you for your comments. I hope we can somehow keep the conversation going and bring the book to wider public attention. It certainly deserves a wide readership in the philanthropic community and among anyone concerned with the arts of good citizenship.

Michael Moody


My apologies for a delay in responding. I fear this means our exchange is now buried in your prolific blog—you and I know it’s here, so that’s two of us, eh? But you raise an important and incisive (in the sense of cutting, but still welcome) set of critiques in your last comment here, and I want to provide at least my response, to avoid a misconception of what we’re arguing in the book. (My co-author might respond differently, as he comes from a different generation and professional background, as you say.)

And I also hope I can change your mind that the book is proposing a sanitized, traditional, business-as-usual form of philanthropy that is moral in a Sunday-afternoon-conversation-among-good-hearted-elites-who-tithe-in-church kind of way. I hope I can clarify that we argue for an understanding of philanthropy as the means by which society defines and advances its moral agenda, including the means by which we fight our way out of the unacceptable and unjust situations that we constantly find ourselves falling into in this troubled world.

Philanthropy, for us, is a mechanism for social change. It is not the grease for gradual tinkering on the engine of whatever doomed current ship we live on, until something else creates a tidal wave of change—to extend the metaphor, philanthropy as we define it certainly does “rock the boat” at times. As we say throughout the book, things inevitably go wrong in our world, and philanthropy is how we band together voluntarily (in foundations or in movements, both) to make them better. Sometimes we do so in small ways, but sometimes the world is so wrong that to make it better requires big change.

Put another way, yes, philanthropy can be the punctuation to the equilibrium. It often has been. The Abolitionist movement is just one such philanthropic (at least in our conception of philanthropy) movement that we describe in the book. We talk in the history and democracy chapters about these sorts of social movements as key parts of the philanthropic tradition. We include advocacy and protest activities in our broad conception of philanthropy. And in our list of the roles of philanthropy in any society, we include a “vanguard” role, harkening back to Kramer’s classic identification of that as a role for nonprofits.

Maybe our broad definition of philanthropy is TOO broad for some (I know it is, actually, as this is a critique we’ve gotten from others), but we prefer this approach (uniting not dividing, lumping not splitting) when trying to make sense of what we see as a richly diverse field of voluntary activity for the public good. The diversity of “voluntary action for the public good” (our definition of philanthropy) is an asset, not a challenge to be tackled by creating mutually exclusive categories—like “new” and “old” philanthropy, traditional vs. social change philanthropy, 1.0 vs. 2.0, or whatever-that can be distinguished in form from one another and kept in separate conceptual silos. We find it more useful to see those as trends in an core, continuing social practice, variations on the same basic tune of seeking to make the world a better place through voluntary action.

We certainly don’t want to first make the hard distinction between a) the circulating elites who fund the arts and build Harvard’s endowment from huge to huger, and b) the radicalized movements led by MLK or Cindy Sheehan or whomever inspires us to fight the powers that be (and then, c) whatever is in the middle there)—and then to declare one of these “philanthropy” and one not. Such distinctions are of course useful for some purposes, but labeling only one as philanthropic is not useful for our purpose (which is understanding and promoting the diverse world of philanthropy).

Your other point here, that meliorism deserves to be highlighted, is also a welcome suggestion. But I want to clarify the definition of meliorism, which you say means “gradual change.” Not always.

Meliorism, according to Eliot and James, is “the doctrine that the world can be made better by rightly directed human effort.” They came up with meliorism to identify the midway alternative between the poles of optimism and pessimism—the alternative of hopeful realism. So meliorism is not the philosophy of philanthropic elites providing palliative relief, or avoiding fundamental change in order to perpetuate elite interests. Meliorism is not the midway between the poles of status quo conservatism (change nothing) and revolution (change everything).

Meliorism is always about change—it is a doctrine that “the world can be made better” after all. But it is about being pragmatic about change, about how to “rightly direct” that change in the world we find ourselves in. Again, we are talking about hopeful realism.

What this means in practice, as we say in the book, is that meliorism is “usually on the side of moderation and compromise, but not always. Meliorism sees the world being made better gradually and incrementally, in most cases, but more quickly and dramatically if possible.” If the world presents an opportunity for more dramatic change for the public good, or if the world is flawed in a way (as it sometimes is) that demands people take to the streets and insist on immediate change, then the meliorist pragmatically takes that opportunity. But the meliorist philanthropist will also take the foundation job to fund incremental innovations in education reform, or will give money to the United Way to help make sure basic human services continue to be provided in their community. The meliorist sees both as (pragmatic, realistic, hopeful, change-seeking) philanthropy.

Thanks again, my friend, for the interest, and for the chance to clarify what we say (in admittedly flawed, sometimes abbreviated ways) in the book.


Your first and most important move in the book is to define philanthropy as a species of moral action. That is very fine. In fact, bene faction means doing good deeds, I believe. To see giving as one of many kinds of good deeds puts it in the right company. (To see it as strategic action, or as investment, in my deeply prejudiced view, put giving in the wrong company, one devoid of a moral/political valence.)

The meliorism point keeps resonating in my mind with an old grad school course on the Victorians. The professor (Jonathan Culler's father) taught us that in G. Elliott's time there were "Gradualists" and "Castrophists" when it came to history and evolution. One group saw smooth progress, the other so a series of revolutions and discontinuous breaks. One saw progress as peaceful, incremental, gradual. The other saw it in extinctions and floods, wars, and earthquakes. The meliorists were of the gradualist camp. Now, I am reaching back to mostly forgotten seminars, and I may have this all wrong, but I wonder if you did the research if you might not find that meliorism was aligned with gradualism.

Taking giving as you do as a species of moral action for the public good makes it much easier to bring giving into conjunction with prayer, voting, protest, and even the arts (since they exercise our moral imagination.)

By the way, I believe G. Elliott also made profound use of that concept, of moral imagination, seeing it as central to the novelist's work. A novel like Middlemarch is indeed a work of the moral imagination, showing us a society gradually and incrementally changing over time, and changing its moral traditions, beliefs, and common "types" of people formed therin.

I hope in my "ruminations" what comes through is my engagement with your work and how it "got to me." I was talking to myself about it, trying to assimilate its insights. The book is a hugely refreshing change from the recent works tha see giving as a)strategic or machiavellian or businesslike action b) as double dealing half self serving or double bottom line c) as an investment in some kind of social capital market. Givin as moral action and as civic action (political in the most honorable sese of being oriented to the good of the polis)strikes me as an insight we forget as our own cost.

Christ on the Cross was a philanthropist, or was at least profounly charitable. Faith, and charity and the greatest of these is charity. (Charity = caritas = brotherly love.)

We cannot all be soldiers who die for our country, or martyrs to a cause, or prisoners of conscience, or great phlianthropists, but we can all pass on and live out the moral traditions of care embodied in our literature, civic traditions, religious congregations, political traditions as Americans, and our moral codes. We can do by teaching too, or by working in the liberal arts. At least that is how it feels to me. You and Robert Payton are gifted and gave back or paid forward what you have been given and are now the stewards of. I hope in some way that you feel how deeply I honor that.

Michael Moody

What a thoughtful and insightful reply... and so speedy that you put my previous long delay in replying to shame.

The connection of meliorism to the gradualist vs. catastrophist debate in evolution is interesting (and, as you know, provides the context for the idea you mentioned before of punctuated equilibrium, which later evolutionary theory brought into this mix). I would guess that, if we pressed the Victorians of Eliot's time who called themselves meliorists (probably the only ones to adopt the label??), they would be more aligned with the gradualism side of this debate, yes.

But I'd want to make a distinction between gradualism as a descriptive theory, and meliorism as a prescriptive doctrine. Meliorism is not so much about trying to explain how change happens (or has happened), as it is a philosophy of how one will/should approach change.

Meliorism is a pragmatic counterview to how optimists and pessimists approach change. Optimists believe everything should change (gradually OR all at once) to fit our loftiest ideal. Pessimists believe everything will fail miserably (gradually or all at once) so why should we even work for change. Meliorists are hopeful but realistic about change, and say we should focus on making the changes happen, (usually) gradually or (occasionally) all at once.

Of course, there are many different meanings of meliorism out there, so I can only really say that this is what we mean by the term in the book. Even when the idea was in vogue in Eliot's time, there were lots of different definitions. The great early sociologist Lester Ward (alas we don't study him anymore in soc grad school!) wrote about it in relation to the science of social improvement--he called meliorism "humanitarianism minus all sentiment" and "the science of the improvement or amelioration of the human or social state." And William James, as we quote in the book, talks about it in relation to attitudes toward salvation.

But you are probably right, again, to say that MOST meliorists would be proponents also of gradual change. Meliorists are pragmatists, after all, and in a constrained world pragmatists usually opt for the change they can get today, and then look forward to living to fight another day.

Having said all that, it is most important, as you say, to refocus on the core message of the book, which is to argue for the benefit of seeing philanthropy as moral action. And you describe that message beautifully. So thanks for that, and thanks again for engaging so deeply and thoughtfully with us. I can say I've learned a lot about what I really think in the course of this exchange. Here's hoping we sell enough copies to do a 2nd edition, so we can incorporate some of this deeper insight!


There is a strategy in politics and also in rhetoric that could be called "triangulation." In it the writer or politician first finds two opposing sides. The politician or writer then assumes a position equidistant from whatever those extremes might be (red/blue, radical/reactionay, progressive/conservative, humane/scientific, romantic/classical, modern/postmodern, pessimistic/optimistic, gradual/abrupt. Then, as some say, "the moderator always wins." The moderator comes across a quite reasonable, either extreme comes across as marginal, or dangerous, or half true. Horace perfected this strategy and it is often used by those who write in the Horation plain sytle of the honest man, the plain dealer, the writer in conversation with friends. Horace sat at the right hand of Caesar. The prep school plain style of the moderate moderator plays well into an elite whose position is unassailable, moderating the ires of those whom might buck the people in charge. That was Payton's era and his lot in life. Yours, mine, and that of your students is no longer at the right hand of Augustus. We who are trained in the liberal arts are now marginalized, with the place of honor reserved for the MBA/CEO. We can be scholars, or Fools, and can effect the style of the moderate, courtier, insider, but alas while we can read the Book of the Courtier and teach it, we are Dumpster Dwellers one and all. The moderate plain style of Strunk and White, which you and Payton write very well, fails to register this loss, fails to protest it much, for protest would be unseemly, unbefitting the well bred gentleman, now down on his luck. That, I think, is a trap, not only for the liberal arts grad, but for our tradition and our society. Hence, for me anyway, the greater interest is in the tradition descending from Menippus, a tradition that Horace in his satires refined and made more mannered, but did not let die. The satirical element in the Strunk and White style received today dwindles to irony, a mere ghost of what was once a vital tradition to provoke moral improvement in the powerful people who need it most, but who may have put themselves beyond the reach of the law.

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