Charity is a Good Thing, Just Not a Virtue

I was ruminating about the concept of charity as a primary virtue. And, while I am a strong advocate of charity and have urged my fellow classical liberals and libertarians to be more charitable themselves, I have to agree with Ayn Rand that charity is not a major virtue. I do think compassion and charity are part of the good life, that is, they make your life better and make you a happier person. In that sense, however, charity is rather selfish in the Randian sense of the word.

However, I think people will find the way I came to my conclusion as bit unusual. And that is what I wanted to share with you.

First, I think the major virtues are open to everyone. No matter who you are, you can be virtuous in your own life. Virtue does not depend on your level of intelligence, your occupation, social standing, material wealth, or any of these side issues. If you live as rationally as possible, if you consciously make every effort to respect the rights of others, if you try to avoid inflicting needless pain on others, and take responsibility for your own life and decisions, then I would say you are virtuous. In this sense we can all be equally virtuous.

A great mind is not a virtue. It is beneficial, but not a virtue. Some great minds have been put to very evil purposes. And some very simple people, in the intellectual sense, live virtuous lives. If we were to make intelligence a virtue it would exclude them. And, to a large degree, intelligence is not something you possess due to your own efforts. You may choose to avoid thinking but you can’t choose to have an IQ of 75 or 150. The virtue is not found in the intelligence itself but in the purposes to which intelligence is put. Similarly great mental achievements are not themselves a virtue. They are beneficial to humanity but discovering something of great value does not automatically make the discoverer virtuous.

A beautiful singing voice is a great talent, but it is not a virtue. At least I hope not, given my complete inability to hold a tune.

Virtues are not talents or abilities, but they are part of what you do with your talent and abilities.

Wealth is quite similar to these talents. It is unequally distributed in the world. And, unlike these other talents, wealth is something that one can create. Some people have great wealth, others have moderate wealth and yet others are impoverished and verging on starvation, if not actually starving.

To a large extent charity is something that individuals can indulge in with their surpluses. Steve Forbes , a very nice man in my opinion, has the ability to be extremely charitable. Josephine, who worked for me in Africa, was poor, elderly and lacked any substantial material surplus. When violence forced me to leave I gave her months worth of income in the hope of sustaining her as long as possible. What I gave her was charity. What Forbes donates to worthy causes is charity. But Josephine’s ability to be charitable was small if not non-existent.

We often think of charity as what we to do help people, such as Josephine, who are impoverished. And it is charity. But if that is a virtue as well, then it is a virtue which is denied to the recipients of charity. Josephine, who had so little and no surplus, couldn’t give to others less well-off than herself. Thus she would be denied the ability to be virtuous.

Virtues, I believe, are universals. They are something we all can practice. Josephine might be poor but can take responsibility for her own life — and she did. She worked hard to keep her head above water. She may be on a very different level than Mr. Forbes but she can be equally as virtuous as he.

If virtues are moral values, and charity is a virtue, than it would be a moral requirement to be charitable. If one were not charitable it would mean one is immoral. The poor find it impossible to practice charity much of the time, if not all of the time. This would mean they are immoral because they are poor. I can’t accept that conclusion. If intelligence were a virtue then a lack of intelligence would be immoral, but I can’t see those born with limited brain functions being immoral simply because they lack a capacity. Virtues are not dependent on ability; but charity is intimately linked to ability.

A morality that makes charity a central moral value implies those who lack a surplus, with which to be charitable, are inherently immoral. That is rather odd since so many promote charity as a virtue because they wish to help the poor. But, under that moral code, their help bestows the label “moral” on themselves, while simultaneously labeling the object of their charity as immoral.

Charity I engage in does not make me more moral. Neither does the inability of others to be charitable make them immoral.

There are other aspects to charity that should be considered as well. For instance, the primary virtues are virtues one could practice in isolation. If you were stranded on an island you can still be virtuous. You can still take responsibility for your own life, you can still be honest, albeit with yourself, you can still engage in productive work to sustain yourself. In fact these virtues would be necessary for your survival. But with no objects of charity present you can not be charitable. You might argue that I earlier stated one should not do harm to others or inflict needless pain upon them and that on the island there are no others. But, this is a “negative” obligation, not a positive one. You refrain from harming others and on your deserted island that is quite easy to do. You are still refraining from harming others. But charity as a virtue would be a positive obligation requiring you to act on the behalf of others. With no others present you can not act on their behalf. It would be the one virtue that would be impossible to practice.

One additional point is the primary virtues of life can be practiced in an ideal world. Imagine the utopia we all yearn for: a world where disease, poverty and hunger have been distant memories, a world where all people have the good life. In such a world you could not be charitable as there would be no objects of charity. What a strange virtue charity is. It would be the only “virtue” that requires others to be in pain before you can practice it. The ideal world is not one where everyone is charitable, but one where no one is because it is a world where the need for charity has ceased.

Charity is part of living the good life. It is good for one to be charitable with certain provisos, that are too long to go into here. In a nutshell, I think it is good you try to help others as you are able to do so. I don’t think it a moral obligation, but I do think it a benefit to the giver, as well as the recipient, at least when done rationally. I live in a world that contains many things I find repugnant, things I don’t want to see. By wise charity I can help eradicate those things and create a better world, which would be a world that makes my life a happier one. That is what my charity does for me. What it does for the recipient depends entirely on their circumstances. But rational charity is, to me, a win-win situation.

Virtues are available to everyone but the ability to be charitable is not available to everyone. Virtues can be practiced anywhere at any time, charity can not. Charity would be the only “virtue” requiring others to be in need or pain before it can be practiced. It is dependent on others suffering. To claim charity as a virtue is to claim the poor are unable to be virtuous; that seems a rather uncharitable thing to say.

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