The Rhetoric of Philanthropy: Scientific Charity as Moral Language

To take at face value the current enthusiasm at the idea of marshaling science to end human social ills such as global poverty, one could easily overlook the fact that one hundred fifty years prior people were making strikingly similar claims as part of a broad movement often referred to as “scientific charity” or “scientific philanthropy”. The goal of this blog is to contribute to our knowledge of the scientific charity movement, through a retrieval of the morally weighted language used by reformers and social scientists to justify the changes they proposed for both public and private provision of poor relief, as found in the Proceedings of the Annual Assembly of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (NCCC). In essence, I am claiming that our understanding of the scientific charity movement is incomplete, and can be improved by an approach that looks at scientific charity as a species of moral language that provided ways to energize the many disparate and seemingly disconnected or even contradictory movements found during the period under study. The changes enacted to late 19th century philanthropic and charitable structures did not occur due to advances in a morally neutral and thus superior science, but were born along by a broad scale use of the language of scientific charity: an equally moral yet competing and eventually more compelling vision of a philanthropic future which held the keys to unlock the mysteries of poverty and solve it once and for all. When viewing scientific charity as something broader than any particular instantiation of it, when pursing it as a set of languages used to promote social science’s role in solving human problems by discrediting prior non-scientific attempts, one can begin to see that the reformist energies of late 19th-century social thinkers did not dissipate, but crystalized into the set of background assumptions still present today.

This post is the abstract from my Ph.D. dissertation entitled: THE RHETORIC OF PHILANTHROPY: SCIENTIFIC CHARITY AS MORAL LANGUAGE.

Stay tuned as each month I will continue to post, bit by bit, the entire dissertation.