Philanthropy and Human Rights – The Genealogy of the Idea from Antiquity to Global Society


Philanthropy has been well known in all of the history of western society and has in long periods played an essential role. From the middle ages the church played an essential role by sustaining social security. Later, from the 18th century, the rise of capitalism led to increased poverty in the growing big cities. Again, private donors were needed to sustain social life. The classical example is in England with the growth of unsupportable workings conditions and slum habitation for the working class population. The church was still in charge of philanthropic efforts but many other private donors played an essential role as well. With the rise of welfare society in Western Europe after the Second World War, private philanthropy began to lose its essential role. The new welfare society took over many of the tasks that formerly had been managed by private donations. From the perspective of welfare state, philanthropy was regarded as something belonging to the past when well-intentioned bourgeoises wanted to show their charity to the poor.


However, the world is no longer what it was before. The power of the welfare state is declining and attitudes are changing in the entire Western world. The personal engagement to do well has become a public value. This is the case for individuals and also institutions. Therefore, in the last couple of decades, philanthropy has become a concern which is taken seriously in the Western world. Normal people give donations and volunteer on a large scale within the institutions of civil society. This is the case for business corporations as well, who now have to act with a form of personal responsibility. Such a responsibility is institutionalized in the big global CSR movement, which has now been integrated in the UN Global Compact.


At the same time, the richest people in the world are establishing foundations with the aim of doing philanthropic work, on a national and an international scale. They engage in welfare projects, democratic development and health care all over the world – especially in Africa. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Georges Soros and many others have started foundations and organizations with a size and power that can compete with even the biggest national and international welfare programs in the world. This form of philanthropy has earned the name of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ (Bishop 2008)


Philanthropy has many dimensions; these include ethical, juridical, political, economic and cultural dimensions. In the last years, a lot has been written about philanthropy from a political, sociological, anthropological and managerial perspective. However, an essential question remains: what does philanthropy mean?


In a Greek context, philanthropy is connected to a friendly act towards one’s owns close connections such as family or fellow citizens, and normally utilized to promote one’s own prestige in the city-state. In Roman context, universal humanism, humanitas, was invented. This universal perspective was also supported by Christianity. It is this universal concept of philanthropy which is the foundation for the different philanthropic traditions in Germany, England, France and USA. In each tradition is developed special features of the concept of philanthropy. The four traditions are summarized in the UN universal human rights, which has become the common normative reference for global philanthropy.


In this way philanthropy has become, in a modern sense, a charitable act with the aim to promote human happiness independent of gender, class, race, etc. This is the genealogy of the modern understanding of philanthropy, which will be developed further in the following presentation.



The Antique Tradition

The Origin of Philanthropy in Greek Tradition

The concept of philanthropy has, as with many other philosophical concepts, its origin in Greek antiquity. Philanthropy comes from the Greek word philanthropia, which is a combination of the word philein, which has to do with friendship, and anthropos, a human being. Philanthropi can literally be translated and understood as showing friendship for a human being. However, the meaning is much more differentiated. This will be made clear in the following sections.

Three things can characterize the Greek understanding of philanthropy. First, it is normally reserved for the powerful and wealthy, such as gods, kings and high ranked citizens (Laqueur 1930: 14 ff.; Constantelos 1962: 351 ff.). The second is that it does not include all people, but, on the contrary, only certain social groups such as citizens in one’s town or members of one’s language and cultural community (Ferguson 1958: 107 f.). Third, it is not imagined as something stemming from unselfishness or altruism. The antique philanthropist expects that his human friendship will bring him advantages.


In the Greek understanding, philanthropy is connected with the cultivation of the human being. Diogenes Laertius (300 AD) cites Aristippus of Cyrene (435 – 356 BC), when saying that it is better to be a beggar than an uncultivated person because the first is short of money while the other is short of humanity (anthropismos) (Laertius 1966: II, 70). According to Laertius, the human friendly action is characterizes in contrast to the barbarians first of all the Greeks. They are characterized by language, formation and culture. However, this should always be seen in the mentioned limited sense. For example, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) mentions philanthropy, but it is always meant to be about specific friendship and not a universal equality between all human beings (Aristotle 1982: VIII, 1155 a 1 ff.; Ferguson 1958: 63 ff.).


Plutarch (45 – 125 AD) uses the word philanthropy more than any other classical author, and in many different ways. Plutarch uses the word to signify many different meanings, including politeness, grandiosity and charity. The word philanthropy is connected to the political imagination of democracy. The Athenians are seen as philanthropic by virtue of their citizen friendly democratic constitution (philanthropos politeia) (Plutarch 1968b: 8, 1), their human friendly laws (nomoi philanthropoi) (Plutarch 1968a: 1, 4) and their human friendly relation to other citizens. This arraignment is in contradiction to the oligarch and the oligarchic constitution. Democracy constitutes the foundation for a way that many people can live together in a civilized way (Plutarch 1969a: 31, 82 D ff.).


Humanitas in Roman Empire

It was Marcus Cicero (106 – 43 BC) that transferred the Greek word philanthropia to the Latin Roman world with the word humanitas, the human. Cicero mentions the term in his letter to Quintus, who was promagistrate of the Province of Asia 61 – 59 BC. Cicero writes to Quintus that if he had been sent to govern wild and barbaric tribes in Africa, Spain and Gaul he would, as a civilized man, have been bound to think of their interests (… tamen esset humanitatis tuae consulare …) and devote himself to their needs and welfare. However, Quintus and the Romans are, according to Cicero, governing the nation that itself represents humanism (ei generi hominum prasimus). In fact, it is the nation from which civilization is believed to have passed to others, and therefore Cicero thinks that the Romans should give benefits above all to those from whom the Romans have received humanism (.. sed etian a quo ad alios pervenisse putetur humanitas..) (Cicero 2002a: I, 1, 27). According to Cicero, the Romans owe a special duty to these people, which is above their common obligation to mankind. This helps to demonstrate that the Romans understood Greek humanism and the Greek culture (Cicero 2002a: I, 1, 28).


It is this form of philanthropy that Cicero brings to a Latin concept as humanism, which becomes the basic for later European humanism (Ferguson 1958: 116 f.). The essential thing in humanism is that humanitas, the human, is not bound to a limited social unity or a determined political community, etc., but is universal. According to Cicero, the Romans should also demonstrate their humanism in relation to the wild and barbarian tribes, although he himself absolutely prefers the cultivated Greeks. In our time, when we attempt to understand what is meant by philanthropy, it is best to use the word humanism, because it is a concept that is inherent in our recent culture and something we can immediately understand.


Universality in Stoicism and Christianity

It is the same concept of humanism we find in the Stoics, who claimed the natural relatedness between all human beings. For Seneca (41 BC – 65 AD) human beings are by nature united with each other (hominem homini natura conciliat) (Seneca 1967: 9, 17; Chaumartin 1984: 351 ff.).


It is similar thoughts that were formulated anew in Christianity, not least in the East Roman Church in the 5th century, when the theologians regarded philanthropy, philanthropia, and the Christian concept agape to be synonymous (Downey 1955: 199 ff.). Originally, the Greek word agape means to treat other people with respect. Agape is a central concept in the New Testament, where it means Gods love or to take care of the human beings. It is also understood as the challenge to Christians to take care of their neighbor and of all other people as if they were their neighbor (Nygren 1953: 41 ff.). Agape is different from the Greek word philos, which refers to a specific personal relation to the friend, and eros, which refers to an erotic or sexual form of relation.


In Vulgata, the Latin translation of the New Testament, agape is translated with charitas (NT 1963: 1 John 4, 12), which in English is translated to ‘charity’ (OED – charity).


There is an inner philosophical and theological relation between the determination of all humans equal dignity, right, etc. in humanism, and agape in Christianity, which is universal as well. However, the Christian concept of agape goes beyond the humanistic perspective. Christianity contains a personal challenge that should be realized as a command to take care of one’s enemies.



Agape in the Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire began to break down in the 5th century, it was, in practice, the Christian concept of love, agape, that was to carry on the humanistic concept that all human beings are of equal value, right, etc. Philanthropy incurred the same significance as agape in theology and political practice in the Byzantine Empire – the eastern part of the Roman Empire (Constantelos 1962: 351 ff.). After the break down of the Western part of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church took over as the central institution that sustained and developed theology and humanism as well. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1275) is the great example. He developed the concept of natural right in Summa Theologica (Aquinas 1988). The Christian notion of agape was continuously developed in a form of unity between theology and philosophy in the Middle Ages, and can be considered as the culmination of Christianity.


Humanism and civil duty in Renaissance and Reformation

During the Renaissance period, the unity between philosophy and theology broke apart. Humanism gained new ground (Burckhardt 1989: 201 ff.) during the 15th century in the north of Italy and later in the 16th century in northern Europe in combination with the protestant reformations. An example can be found in the Italian Renaissance, with the increased interest in Plutarch (Pade 2007, I, 14 ff.). An example of northern European humanism is the discussion about the free will between Erasmus of Rotterdam (Erasmus 1959: 74 ff.) and Martin Luther (Luther 1962: 76 ff.) in 1524. However, this example can be used as well to show that there was still in Northern Europe a relatively close relationship between humanism, philosophy and theology – in so far as Erasmus as a leader of a humanist movement at the same time was grounded in theology, Christianity and the Catholic Church. In this period it is not possible to draw a clear distinction between humanism and Christian theology.


The result of this historical development is a very broad understanding of philanthropy and the humanism, which is on one hand based in a universal recognition of all human being’s equal value, and on the other hand stems from the Christian challenge to do the good. This broad spectrum is historically created in a pluralism of historical trends. As a method for organizing the different historical trends, I will briefly reconstruct four traditions, in which the notion of philanthropy has been developed in different ways. This is, respectively, the German, the British, the French and the American tradition. It is evident that such a structuring principle is a construction and that historically there is a close relation between these different traditions. On the other hand, this method allows one the possibility to clearly present the central themes and perspectives of the different traditions.


German Tradition: Humanism, Duty, Reasonable Love

In German context, the close relationship to and at the same time difference between the humanistic oriented philanthropy and the protestant notion of charity, agape, is transferred into German idealism. This is developed from the middle of the 18th century as a new form of humanism. On the spontaneous level, there is not a fundamental distinction between the humanistic and the Christian tradition. Human friendly love, philanthropy, is understood as identical to the Christian challenge of love. However, there are two meanings to humanism. The first is the anthropological character as a definition of the human being as such. The other refers to human love as a duty towards the other person. This is the same distinction made during the Reformation in the 16th century between humanism with a relative distance to Christianity, and on the other hand, the Christian notion of love as a challenge and a duty. Christian Thomasius (1655 – 1728) states that the distinction must be made between reasonable and unreasonable forms of love (Thomasius 1968a: 156 ff.). The reasonable form of love consists of showing charity to all people without distinction (Thomasius 1968b: 133). The unreasonable form of love is in contrast a reference to the decline of the reasonable love. It can consist of a form of love to oneself (such as regarding oneself to be better than other human beings); it can be an exhibition of unrestrained carnal desires; or it can consist of setting oneself above the community and to deposit one’s total desire and joy in earning money and to acquire what is connected herewith (Thomasius 1968b: 133). The reasonable love should consider all humans as equal, and therefore one should not force their will on another, but, on the contrary, respect others’ free will (Thomasius 1968a: 161). All virtues are considered as a consequence of reasonable love. In accordance with the classical Lutheran Protestantism, these include patience, mildness, charity, generosity, etc. (Thomasius 1968b: 139). At the same time there is a difference in comparison to classical Protestantism. This form of what could be labeled as “Protestantism of enlightenment” puts a high importance on reason and the rational argument for an action – something that was not the case for Luther.


Human love is determined as a fundamental principle in natural right in Enlightenment Protestantism. Christian Wolf (1679 – 1754) argues that love contributes to the creation of welfare for all humans in society (Wolff 1976: 545 ff.). Christian Crusius (1715 – 1775) says explicitly that human love is the highest duty in natural law (Crusius 1969: 444 ff.).


Finally, Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744 – 1803) summarizes the human and the protestant theological perspective on the notion of human love and human friendship (philanthropy). Humanity has its origin in human beings’ own sentiment, disposition and nature, while at the same time it is a fulfillment of the Christian commandment to love thy neighbor (Herder 1968: 402 ff.).


The following summarizes the unity of sentiment, reason, natural right, philosophy, theology and religion, which forms the basis for the development of the German idealism and humanism in the end of 17th and the beginning of 18th century.


Kant (1724 – 1804) and Hegel (1770 – 1831) take the two most important positions. Kant argues that that human love (philanthropy) should be understood in ethical terms as a moral duty that should be realized in practice in relation to other humans (Kant 1966b: § 25-26). Kant, thinking universally, creates a concept of humanity that encompasses all human beings. By extension, Kant, develops a notion of a universal human right. Kant has only one single human right, which is concerned with the determination of freedom. It is according to Kant the fundamental meaning of human right:

Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity” (Kant 1966a: 43).


In opposition to Kant, Hegel claims that Kant’s understanding of philanthropy is too limited because it is entirely abstract, and therefore empty and not bound to anything concrete (Hegel 1969: 271). Therefore Hegel claims that philanthropy or the moral should be incorporated as a form of Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit) in the institutions of society and the state; it cannot stand alone, as he describes it in a chapter on morality in Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955: § 129 ff.). Hegel operates with a developed concept of civil society. He had read Adam Smith’s (1723 – 1790) Wealth of Nations (Smith 1981), when he wrote his Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955), which came out in 1821. One of Smith’s biggest merits is his creation of a social theory in which civil society formed the center of society in contrast to the state. Although Hegel had integrated Smith’s perspective in his Philosophy of Right – one of the reasons that it is so fascinating – Hegel elevates the family and civil society into the state as the real basis for these. A consequence is that although Hegel regards private philanthropic donations, almsgiving, etc., as a good and necessary “subjective help”, private philanthropy is, according to Hegel, accidental. Therefore, he regards it as necessary that the state sustains general public organizations like public poorhouses and hospitals. (Hegel 1955: § 242). However, general, public organizations would be overloaded if they were required to take care of all things. Therefore, Hegel emphasizes the right and duty of the corporation, under the supervision of the public authority, to take care of its own members and protect them against “particular contingencies:” in that sense to be a “second family” for its members (Hegel 1955: § 252). The family is the first ethical root of state, and the corporation is the second, and it is based in civil society (Hegel 1955: § 255). However, both family and civil society are limited in their scope, and therefore they must both be elevated into the state (Hegel 1955: § 256).


Hegel’s praise of the state in Philosophy of Right is a peak in the German tradition, but it should not be forgotten that this tradition goes back to the Reformation when Luther handed the Church over to the state. This is in a radical difference to the British tradition which will be considered in the following section.



British Tradition: Charity in Civil Society

In the British tradition, philanthropy should be seen in the light of liberalism and utilitarianism. It is difficult to point to a particular founder of British liberalism, but it might be obvious to point to John Locke (1632 – 1704) and his Two Treatises of Government. In the introduction to the second treatise, he mentions the famous natural right dictum that all men are born free and are equal in rights (Locke 1988: § 4). This is the basis for the constitution of society, which has the aim to preserve life, liberty and property (Locke 1988: § 123).


After Locke, it is essential to point at Adam Smith, because he is starting up as a moral philosopher, and later on he begins to work with economy. For Smith, there is a connection between these two subjects. There is a unity in his work.


Smith’s first major work is The Theory of Moral Sentiments from 1759 (Smith 1984), which is concerned with ‘the moral sentiment’ as the authority, through which we relate to other persons. We are able to have sympathy for other people and this sympathy can motivate us to do good deeds for other people. As an expression of ‘philanthropy’, Smith speaks about ‘benevolence’ and ‘beneficence’. In the British tradition, Francis Hutscheson (1684 – 1746), Joseph Butler (1692 – 1752) and David Hume (1711 – 1776) had already developed these concepts that Smith takes up in his moral philosophy (Roberts 1973: 1 ff.).


Benevolence means the sentiment that a person has who would like to do good towards another person (OED – benevolence; Smith 1984: 245 f.). Beneficence means to do the good – motivated by the sentiment of benevolence (Smith 1984: 122 ff., 239 ff.; OED – beneficence). In this way, philanthropy can be defined as a beneficent action that is motivated by a benevolent sentiment. We use this in the context of the word ‘sympathy’, which comes of the Greek word sympatein, meaning to feel or suffer with another person.


However, it is Smith’s general moral philosophical opinion that the sentiment of sympathy is insufficient to sustain a society. In the end, human beings are fundamentally selfish. Therefore, according to Smith, we need to have laws that can mediate human selfishness. This is the point of departure for Smith’s formulation of his ground-breaking economic theory in his principal work, Wealth of Nations (Smith 1981), in which he founds modern, liberal economic theory. However, it should be noticed that Wealth of Nations is not only an economic theory but also a theory of society that includes the conditions for action in society.


Civil society is in the center of Adam Smith’s societal theory. The state has only a subordinated role, which consists of taking care of the defense of civil society against enemies from outside and inside, securing the rule of law, and creating the necessary infrastructure and primary school system. This should all be kept on a minimal scale and only serve the sustainment of civil society.


Smith places self-interest at the center of his societal theory. In civil society, the essential thing is to optimize one’s own possibilities and happiness. Smith has the famous dictum that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Therefore, we should never talk to them out of our own ‘necessities’ but only of their ‘advantages’ in their business (Smith 1981, I, 25 f.).


According to Smith, no one except the beggar chooses to depend on others’ benevolence (Smith 1981, I, 73). But even the beggar must act rationally and strategically in the same way as all others to fulfill his immediate needs. The beggar must, according to Smith, like everybody else, make arrangements with other people, exchange basic requirements of life and do his best to attain the objects of his desires.


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) develops Smith’s general moral theory for utilitarianism. In his main work on utilitarianism, Utilitarianism (1985a), Mill determines his philosophy in relation to Kant. Mill criticizes Kant for not formulating a first principle for the substantial content of the principle of moral duty that Kant had formulated in his Metaphysics of Ethics: “So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings” (Mill 1985a: 261). Therefore, according to Mill, Kant’s ethics is formal, abstract and empty. It is interesting to remark that there are similarities between Hegel’s and Mill’s critique of Kant. They are both pointing at the same problem, but their solutions are very different. Hegel proposes that the personal morality should be elevated into the Sittlichkeit, into Ethical Life in the institutions. In contrast, Mill maintains the sovereignty of personal morality and formulates the moral principle of “utility or the greatest happiness principle”, which is explained as an action that is correct in proportion as it tends to promote happiness and wrong in proportion that it tends to produce the reverse of happiness. Mill defines happiness as intended pleasure and absence of pain (Mill 1985a: 262).


It is also this concept that Mill makes the basis for his moral theory about philanthropy or beneficence (Mill 1985a: 292). Mill distinguishes between absolute perfect moral duties, which we should always obey, and the imperfect duties, which we should evaluate ourselves. The last ones are the duties where it is up to ourselves to judge when we want to fulfill the duty and how we would like to act towards other people. According to Mill, this is the case with charity and beneficence, which are duties we have to exercise, but where we can decide ourselves when and towards whom we would like to act charitable (Mill 1985a: 292). Therefore, according to Mill, there is no one who has the right to claim our charity. It is a free moral relation; it is a virtue. This has similarities with Kant, who in his moral theory of virtues determines charity as a virtue. However, by Kant is the claim stronger than by Mill, because it is as mentioned connected with a duty to show charity (Kant 1966b: § 25-26).


The conclusion is that that both in the German Kantian tradition and in the British utilitarian tradition there is a demand to exercise philanthropy, human love and charity. The two traditions are different but they should not necessarily be seen as contradictions, which is how they are often interpreted. They can be seen as complementary as well. It is possible to move from the deontology to the utility in the sense that the act of duty should have a utility as well, or it should bring a form of happiness. As mentioned, Hegel was occupied with the same problem when he regarded the Kantian pure duty to be totally abstract and empty as regards content (Hegel 1955: § 135). The duty should according to Hegel be mediated, although in another way as by Stuart Mill. On the other hand, according to the German philosopher Otfried Höffe (b. 1943), it is not possible to move from utility ethics to deontological ethics because it is not possible to move from the relative calculation of happiness to the unconditional ethical duty (Höffe 1992: 49-51). Therefore, according to Höffe, it is only with a departure in the deontological ethics that it should be possible to reconcile the two forms of ethics.



French Tradition: Human Rights and Altruism

The French tradition is significant in the determination of philanthropy because of the French Revolution, where, for the first time, human rights received a formalized status. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789 is a preamble to the new constitution for France. In this way, human rights were declared as the fundamental principle for the legal system in the new republic.


The French declaration of human rights is inscribed in religious tradition (Scrubla 2004). In the introduction it is written that the rights of men and citizens are declared “in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being” (Morange 1988: 118). However, it is not clarified what is meant by this statement. It is a formulation that was integrated in the editing of the declaration in the last moment. The religious reference should be seen as a guarantee for the natural right argument, which was regarded as the essential basis for the declaration. As mentioned, this argument is based in the British tradition from John Locke (Locke 1988) and in the German tradition from Wolff, Herder and Kant.


In the declaration, the natural right argument is presented in the first paragraph: “Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights” (Morange 1988: 118). It is a pure natural right argument – that all men are born free. According to Kant, freedom is the only natural right (Kant 1966a: 43). Secondly it is said in § 1, that all men are equal in rights. This is in accordance with Kant’s understanding of the mutual recognition of freedom, which means that the one’s freedom can be coordinated with another’s freedom (Kant 1966a: 43). It is in this sentence in § 1, that all the philosophical basis for the French declaration can be found.


It is evident that the declaration of human rights poses a new agenda for the understanding of philanthropy as well. With the declaration, the individual is recognized as having a status as a universal human being, who can demand rights. These rights are fundamentally formulated in the declaration from 1789. Later on, they are transferred in a differentiated way to the new French civil law, Code Civile des Français, which was given by Napoleon in 1804 (Code Civile 1804). With the French Revolution, philanthropy is related to the individual as a legal person (Code Civile 1804: § 7-8), and not only to the person as a human being in theological and philosophical context. This legal usage was first introduced in France and afterward spread out into the rest of Europe through the Napoleonic wars in the first decade of the 19th century. Later, it is brought out to the rest of the world. This will be further elaborated on in the section on the United Nation’s declaration of human rights.



American Tradition: Democratic and Capitalist Philanthropy

USA is a country where most of the mentioned traditions are found together in a big melting pot. However, the American tradition also has had a definite significance in the creation of a modern understanding of philanthropy. The first emigrants were protestant dissidents from England, Holland and Germany. They brought Protestantism, especially Calvinism, with them to America in 1600. This had a big significance in the development of modern thought about philanthropy and humanism. The emigrants formed communities where they had their own religion, self-government and their own system of law (Nash & Jeffrey 2001: 55 ff.).


Formed with the constitution in 1776, the United States was one of the first modern republics and the first democratic state. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence states that: “we hold it to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Nash & Jeffrey 2001: A-1). This formulation was inspired by John Locke’s formulation in Second Treatise of Government (Locke 1988: § 123). Locke writes that the constitution should preserve life, liberty and property. The difference is that the American declaration emphasizes the pursuit of happiness, where Locke emphasizes property. The American declaration was a determinate inspiration for the formulation of the French declaration, which thereafter had a determinate influence on all later constitutions in Europe and other countries in the world.


American democracy is especially important in the development of the philanthropic and humanistic moral theory and practice. The reason is that in the American democracy there has developed a strong and autonomous civil society which is founded in self-organization and where it becomes a democratic virtue to contribute to the sustainment of the institutions in civil society. This has in detail been documented by Tocqueville in Democracy in America (Tocqueville 2003: Part 3, 649 ff.).



Global Society: UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights in 1948

After the end of the Second World War, there began a global period where it became necessary to formulate a global normative foundation that could find acceptance among the nations of the world. As we have seen, the concept of philanthropy has a history that includes many different traditions, especially of philosophical and theological character. In 1948, all these traditions were integrated in a condensed form in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


There is no single document more than the UN Declaration that unequivocally enforces a basis for a modern philanthropy in a global world. The first article states that: ”All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”


It is fundamentally the same formulation in the French declaration from 1789: all human beings are born free and equal in rights. The UN declaration adds “equal in dignity”, but it is not evident why this determination should be included here in the fundamental determination of the first paragraph. The following part of the paragraph concerns a moral duty to act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood. This paragraph could be a definition of the moral duty to philanthropy, which herewith becomes a prominent place in the UN declaration.


The central difference in relation to the French declaration is that the UN declaration is a normative statement of intent for all nations, but it does not confer legal rights. This is only the case when it has been integrated in a country’s legal code. However, in relation to philanthropy, the essential is that there is a universal moral reason that justifies philanthropy.  This justification is integrated in the first paragraph of the UN universal declaration.



Philanthropy and Economy

From the perspective of the history of ideas, there has always been a close connection between philanthropy and economy, but this connection has taken many different forms throughout history. From a sociological perspective, there can, in a Max Weber sense, be a distinction between four different ideal types; namely, the Maecenas, the foundation or in German ‘die Stiftung’, philanthropic capitalism and democratic philanthropy.


The Maecenas is the ideal type, where a king or a rich man donates his fortune for certain purposes. He has the exclusive right to determine the criteria for what or to whom he will donate, mostly with the aim to promote his own social status or interest. The word Maecenas has its origin in the name of Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (68 – 8 f. v. t.) who was a wealthy Roman man that supported poetry and art. Maecenas are known in different variations throughout all history.


The foundation, or in German ‘die Stiftung’, is an autonomous institution, which is founded through a gift or a testament, for a specific purpose. The foundation is separated from the giver’s private fortune and the foundation is recognized as an autonomous private subject of law. In this way, the founder has given up the right to dispose of the fortune that he has given away to the foundation. Eventually, he can become chairman of the board of the foundation. In this function he has to act in accordance with the charter of the foundation.


The foundation or die Stiftung was invented by the church in the Middle Ages in order to create a subject of law that could be passed from generation to generation. With its many institutions, the Catholic Church can be seen as composed of foundations or Stiftungen. These Stiftungen were normally exempt from taxes or they paid only minor taxes. The foundation is bound to its regulations and cannot sell its property. Most of the activities in the Catholic Church and in other church communities, apart from the strict religious activities, can be characterized as philanthropic. However, because these church societies were so dominant in European history, they are normally not characterized as philanthropic organizations.


Later on, Die Stiftung became the model for a broader organization of institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, social security, etc. in civil society. This emerged in the late Middle Ages, and developed drastically in the 16th century with the development of civil society and forms of capitalism. Many of these institutions have also a philanthropic perspective.


In the era of capitalism die Stiftung became a model for the foundation as an organization of enterprise that made it possible to contain the capital undivided in contrast to a split between the heirs.


However, all the enterprise can also be transmitted to a Stiftung with an instrument of foundation, and with the aim of serving the common good. In this way, the capitalist foundation can have similarities with the medieval foundation.


Especially in USA, we see a union of philanthropy and capitalism as a political goal directed at changing society. In the US it was customary from the beginning of the 20th century to establish big foundations like the Carnegie Foundation (founded in1905, the foundation promotes education), the Rockefeller foundation (founded in 1909 and promotes health care, research and education) (Fosdick 1989: 14 ff.), and finally the Ford Foundation (founded in 1936 and promotes science, education, democratic values and the fight against poverty).


Today we talk of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ as a political concept, and something that supports fundamental issues like education, health and democracy (Bishop 2008; Thorup 2012). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works with health at a global scale, is the biggest foundation in the world (Bishop 2008: 158).


Democratic philanthropy is the fourth form of philanthropy. It started in the US and grew out of the community foundations. These are foundations that have their roots in civil society; where many different stakeholders contribute to a foundation with the aim of meeting specific objectives. For example the creation of a health care clinic, a school, leisure facilities for children, etc.


Voluntary work should also be mentioned, as it can be regarded as the most essential and extensive form of philanthropy in a modern democratic society. In this, citizens sustain many different forms of social institutions. Voluntary work is difficult to calculate, as it is not paid work. However, it must be supposed that if voluntary work could be measured in economic terms, it would represent the largest philanthropic effort in most western societies, not least in the US (Bundesen 2001: 356 ff.; Laneth 2011: 38 ff.).



Philanthropy and Human Rights in Global Society

Philanthropy is a concept that as a long and meandering history is connected to all the cultural and social development in Europe and USA. Philanthropy is connected with the development of the fundamental values in these societies. As it should be clear from this presentation, philanthropy can be seen as a moral value, which is inherent in a broad spectrum of personal, societal and cultural values that are bound to specific forms of societal order.


Philanthropy has its origin in the Greek tradition. With the historical dominance of the Roman world, philanthropy was translated to the Latin word humanitas, which is the word mostly used today. At the same time, philanthropy has an origin in Christianity, which would later be developed to a specific North European Protestantism. It is in this tradition that philanthropy is developed to be a personal and social duty. It is in the British and American tradition that the idea of Human Rights is developed, before finally championed in the French tradition. In Kant’s and Hegel’s Northern European societal philosophy, philanthropy comes from a moral philosophical perspective formulated as Ethical Life, Sittlichkeit, in civil society and state. These different perspectives in Philanthropy are further developed in a 19th century American context where the democratic perspective and civil society become determinately significant for the understanding of philanthropy.


The European and the American traditions do not have the same perspective. However, in the many different traditions there develops an extensive common agreement in the claim that the universal should be realized in the concrete. This means that in the Western tradition the idea is developed that in the end there is only one valid criterion for societal morals and societal life – the criterion of universality. This is precisely what is theoretically formulated by Kant in his political philosophy, and is practically demonstrated in the French declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, it is hardly astonishing that it is this perspective that becomes the fundamental perspective in the formulation of the UN declaration of universal human rights in 1948. It is with a formulation in the American declaration of independence of the self-evidence that all men are created equal and that this should be the normative standard for a universal global system of values and rights.


The UN declaration is a triumph of humanism and the universal foundation of philanthropy in a global world. This is the way that the declaration is promoted. The declaration is in a paradoxical way presented as being independent of any Western tradition. One reason is of political character. It would not be acceptable for the rest of the world that the common societal ethics and normativity has its origin in Western tradition. A second argument is of philosophical character. The UN declaration consists fundamentally of some universal principles. It is exactly this universality that characterizes western philosophy and culture in opposition to other religious and cultural traditions in the world. Human rights are not self-evident in the rest of the world as they are in the West. A third argument is of religious- and cultural-sociological character. Human right can be seen as a form of western culture in confrontation with the many different concrete religious and cultural traditions and lifestyles in the rest of the world. The concrete life has a complexity, richness and inertness with a rationality which is totally different compared to abstract principles.


Although these arguments seems to be striking, it is interesting to see that these arguments already are inherent in Hegel’s critique of Kant as they are the arguments from many theologians and religions in the world. Human rights can therefore be seen as a form of idealism. The same is the case for philanthropy and therefore, they can both be criticized. However, there are no critics who are able to present a possible alternative. This is in the end the pragmatic argument for the human rights: There is not a better alternative.


It is remarkable to observe that this is Kant’s perspective as well. Kant has not only an idealistic perspective, but he has a realistic and pragmatic perspective as well. In his essay On the common saying: this may be true in theory but it does not apply in practice (Kant 1964a), Kant emphasises that it is not the traditional community or any other community that forces people to create a common human right. On the contrary, it is, according to Kant, violation, strife and violence between people that forces them to create public laws and national civil constitutions. In the same way, it is the state of war that coerces people to unite, if not in support of a constitution for world citizens, than at least in a form of federation or international law (Kant 1964a: 111).


The UN declaration of the universal human rights can be seen as a preamble to international law in the same way as the French human rights are a preamble to the Napoleonic Code  According to Kant, it is realism that drives the universal norm formation; it is not only the learned idealism. Kant’s conclusion is in On the common saying: “Here then is a clear proof that everything in moral philosophy that is correct for theory must also hold for practice” (Kant 1964a: 113). According to Kant, theory and practice can go together, but with an idealistic and a realistic justification.


In our age, philanthropy as theory and practice should be seen in the same perspective. Philanthropy is carried by idealism, but it is at the same time carried by the necessity and coercion of realism. This is the case in the local, the national and the global context. There are people in the world that, with an idealistic motive, will do the good; but perhaps the same people consider that it is necessary and useful for them as well. There are two different perspectives but they can be united in praxis. This is the practical moral ground for philanthropy in a modern global world.


In conclusion, philanthropy is a social praxis that in our time is carried out by universal norms. Philanthropy is exercised locally, nationally and globally and it can have many practical expressions – from concrete projects in the community to a global economic effort. Philanthropic projects are different, but they can all be understood in relation to the universal normative standard, formulated in human rights, which has become the normative standard of our time.



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