Why bother with charity?

If you think as I do that the act of giving to those in need is a moral duty, that we give and volunteer our time for its own sake, I wonder if you feel a similar pang of discontent when people use terms like self-satisfaction and career advancement to justify and extol the charitable conscience?

While I’m certain these alleged benefits do accrue to those who are charitable and who volunteer their time for others, this increasingly prevalent view is one that needs to be challenged. It isn’t difficult to come across either. Not only do we hear it all the time but even a quick internet search will bring up numerous websites and blogs singing its praises as the “sine qua non” of being a charitable person.

Most of what I encountered in my brief internet search went something like this: by giving to charity and volunteering our time we improve our physical and mental well-being. When we focus on others, it not only reduces our overall level of stress but increases our overall sense of optimism and joy. Moreover, when we feel this yearning to help others, to give back to the community, it encourages self-esteem and the development of empathy.

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The second argument I would run across was that by being charitable and by volunteering our time for good causes we advance our career opportunities. It’s the charitable person who looks more attractive on the market. Whether it’s a little bit or a lot, compared to the person who doesn’t volunteer or give to charity, it says to potential employers that they are more likely to go that extra mile for the company. They will give a little bit more of their time than others probably will but more importantly, they have those character traits for which employers are looking for.

While these arguments are not wrong or ill-conceived what troubles me is that they are the ones we hear and read most often. It degrades the idea that charity and volunteering ought to be done for its own sake. What do I mean by this? I mean that a spirit of volunteerism, or an act of charity, is an act of humanism in and of itself. We shouldn’t require self-serving justifications in order to help and alleviate the suffering of others, our fellow human beings.

But this is the embarrassing state of morality we seem to have fallen into; one in which charity and volunteerism are seen as a kind of resume builder and self-help activity, not as a moral and ethical duty of conscience, of human solidarity.

It is the feeling that if it doesn’t do something for me, if it doesn’t advance my prospects or give me any self-satisfaction, what reasons do I really have for committing myself in the first place?

I don’t want to sound like a communitarian who’s gone completely off the rails, but this attitude that charity is or ought to be dependent upon a set of self-serving justifications seems to delegitimize the very idea of charity to begin with.

Perhaps you take the view that charity itself is problematic. You wouldn’t be alone in this feeling. In an essay titled The Soul of Man under Socialism, written in 1891, Oscar Wilde argued that charity is little more than the wealthy brushing the crumbs of their tables in order to keep the poor happy and content. It was an act of sentimentalism that only aggravates the problem of poverty because it fails to actually address the problem of poverty itself.

Wilde’s conclusion was that the very existence of poverty demanded a socialist revolution. Although the enthusiasm for a new man and a new society has largely died out, that Wildean vein of protest still pulses in the hearts of many people today, from both the left and the right.

Perhaps the argument we hear most often comes from neoliberals. Charity, they argue, does not actually alleviate the impoverished or reduce poverty, it actually makes it worse. It encourages dependency and stifles an entrepreneurial culture. As Dambisa Moyo put it, “sometimes the most generous thing you can do is to just say no”.

These criticisms compel us to think critically on the issue but whether you come from the right or the left the nagging problem remains as it always has: that our world is complicated. It is full of perplexities, contradictions, difficult problems and scarce solutions. It is a world that is still very much beset by suffering, conflict, disease, scarcity, overcrowding, filth and impoverishment.

In this harsh reality human solidarity is absolutely necessary. It does not require personal, political or self-serving justifications. It merely looks at the world as it is and insists that we have a moral duty to improve the lives of our fellow human beings.

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