Dignity through losing, or how democracy rests on philanthropy

What Matters

Do great concentrations of wealth and their influence in the public square need to be scrutinized for their impact on democracy? Do mutual aid societies and giving circles represent more democratic versions of philanthropy? Are there ongoing innovations in ways to include those who benefit from philanthropy in making decisions about how it is deployed? Yes, to all these and other ways in which democracy and philanthropy are intertwined.

But consider another simple way that democracy and philanthropy are connected. They are both devoted to losers—the dignity of losing, its advantages, and the symbiotic relationship of giving and taking. It seems that losing is not the profanity it has been made out to be, but rather is inherent in a  social contract that allows us all to benefit from moments when we lose.

Unlike hierarchical models of order and systems that assign levels of worth and dignity to humans in different ranks of society, democracy and philanthropy reach across rank, status, and wealth to bring winner and loser together. At least they do so in the spirit of their concepts, even if they rarely succeed entirely in their execution.

Even the use of the word “loser” is jarring, reflecting the cruelest dismissal or disparagement of someone’s intrinsic personhood. But why should this be so? Why must I demonstrate to others through “winning” the inherent personal dignity that we all share by virtue of being human?

No one wants to be a loser, much less to be perceived as one, and this is profoundly reinforced by everyone who wants to sell us something to make us feel like winners. And yet, where would all our winners be if we also did not have losers?

Many faith traditions have created particular positions for those who renounce worldly competition. We often revere them and believe that they find peace and wisdom in their condition of material deprivation as they reveal something essential to us about the human condition. I would guess that most of us can point to moments in life where we lost as teaching moments far more than those in which we won.

We elevate the winners of elections and the decisions that triumphantly emerge from the deliberations of democratic bodies. We tell the story of how these moments link together over time as a succession of democratic triumphs where one side wins. But in all these moments of majoritarian triumph, there were losers who accepted the outcome, perhaps changing their minds once they see the winning policy implemented and then creating proposals to improve or fix the situation as they seek to become winners in the next cycle.

Clearly, the process would not work if losers did not accept the outcome. We have just seen in the recent U.S. presidential election what happens when the loser refuses to accept the result.

A fair defeat in a democratic competition does not bring about the end of times or imperil the basis of a polity. One’s opponent’s generosity makes it acceptable to lose. Losing in a democracy is not forever, fatal, or final. Competitive vying for advantage creates a circulation of opportunities, generating policies and outcomes from which we can learn and continue to improve, ultimately benefiting all.

But let me be clear: when the same winners and losers become entrenched over generations, this system breaks. If winners find the position of a loser too distant and odious, or if losers find the status of being a winner out of reach for themselves and their grandchildren, we are no longer in a healthy democracy. The pandemic has made even more obvious that we have built-in barriers to the circulation of winners and losers that constitute what Isabel Wilkerson has described as a system of caste.

One of the leading political philosophers in recent history, John Rawls, grounded his theory of justice by arguing that inequalities in a democracy are permissible to the extent that they benefit the least advantaged in society. Through his “veil of ignorance,” he imagines shaping a social order without knowing our position in it.

If we might end up as losers, we are unlikely to make losing a horrible or dispiriting outcome. Rawls suggests that you and I would design a society where each one of us would agree to be placed in any position, including that of a loser.

And this is more than a speculative exercise since it also helps guide our judgment in everyday situations. Professor Max Bazerman extends this principle to daily decision making based on his survey of evidence that shows how we tend to overlook wrongdoing when it benefits our favored group or ourselves.

If we don’t know which end of the stick we will end up with, we will likely make less biased decisions. We need to make sure that the losing person preserves her capacity to participate in full dignity. If we can’t remove ourselves from the decision, it helps to imagine ourselves as the “loser” in any decision we make.

So, there is a philanthropic impulse at the beginning of the democratic process, shaping how we view our opponent. Is there space for generosity toward our adversary, or is she an enemy? Philanthropy should also be present during the course of democracy’s deliberative process; do we negotiate and argue with generosity and good faith? And when outcomes emerge, do we accept these with generosity, regardless of the position that results for us?

After the outcomes of the official public process of democracy are delivered, we typically see much of the fundraising, grantmaking, and programming work that we normally think of as philanthropy to help each other and change society for the better.

Some are pleased that there is this vibrant independent sector to supplement and complement government and market outcomes. Others have different ideas about its appropriate size and role but continue to work through civil society to address the limitations of the other sectors.

Democracy is about sharing power, allowing others to make decisions that affect us, and ceding our power to others, at least conditionally, in pursuit of a larger public good. It seems like democracy and philanthropy are both united in a vital but inadequately acknowledged veneration of losing as essential to what makes us human.

Best regards,

Dean Amir Pasic

Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

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