Since ancient times, people, whether pagans, Jews, Christians, or of other faiths, have undertaken the provide aid to society’s most vulnerable members. Through history, however, changing social and economic circumstances have changed the ways in which people have fulfilled their desires and duties to assist their fellow men. By the 19th century, it was widely argued that only “social justice” administered by the modern welfare state could effectively meet the needs of the poor.
Against this backdrop, classical liberal thinkers have begun to work out an alternative framework for modern philanthropy rooted in comparative historical and institutional analysis. This lecture will explore the changing institutional terrain of charity in Western culture and introduce the key questions that begin to shape a classical liberal “ethic of beneficence.” Using Adam Smith’s discussion of justice and beneficence in his Theory of Moral Sentiments as a starting place, we will explore the problems with the modern quest for "social justice" and introduce a preliminary framework for a robust "ethic of beneficence" that will improve our understanding and practice of philanthropy and social entrepreneurship in a free society.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (selections attached below)