The Challenge of Charity

Charity is a core concept in modern morality; it is one of the unquestioned virtues which demand utter adherence in all circumstances.

When examining moral concepts, there are only two real questions which need to be asked. The first is: is it universal? The second – inevitably – is: if not, who does it benefit?

Charity is defined as (a) generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also : aid given to those in need (b) an institution engaged in relief of the poor (c) public provision for the relief of the needy. As a moral commandment, it is not at all universal. It is a top-down directive, wherein goods or services are transferred from one person to another. The person who is ‘needy’ or ‘suffering’ receives the goods of the person who is less needy, or not suffering. Thus the sufferer gains a benefit at the expense of the donor.

How does the sufferer convince the donor to give him goods or services? Mostly, by completely avoiding the issue of responsibility. In other words, charity is virtuous regardless of the morality of the recipient. If an abusive man has become homeless because his wife has taken out a restraining order against him, he must be helped. If an old woman who beat her children lives in poverty because they want nothing to do with her, she must be helped. People who suffer as a result of their own evil actions must be helped as surely as those who suffer from no fault of their own.

How is this rather obvious problem avoided? First, the argument is made that evil people are not responsible for their actions. The murderer had a bad childhood, for instance. This may be true, but it still creates an insoluble contradiction. People argue for the virtue of charity because they believe in free will, conscience and responsibility – because any moral argument requires belief in these things. Thus they must believe that good people are responsible for their own actions, and can swayed through reason. But if good people have free will and reason, why don’t bad people have them? If bad people don’t possess free will, then some physical difference must be found to explain the difference. This is essential: if I say that some people have no skin pigmentation, I must find at least one albino to justify my belief. What would it mean for me to say that albino’s exist, but they are exactly the same colour as everyone else? Wouldn’t that be just an imaginary difference? If I claim that some people have free will, and some people don’t, but I cannot find any physical differences between them, then my distinction is pure imagination, and pure nonsense. I might as well say that some people have incorporeal hats on their heads, and some don’t.

Finally, if evil people are not responsible for their own actions, then they are more like pets than people. We don’t believe that animals have free will, but merely instinct. We do not allow dogs to vote, or hold jobs, or roam the streets alone. We round them up, try to find them homes, and destroy them if they are dangerous or unwanted. If a man claims that he has no free will, no problem – we simply take him at his word and treat him as an animal. It is likely that he will quickly rediscover his essential humanity.

Evil people have free will. They have chosen their paths – and those paths usually lead to suffering and want. How does that fact affect our charitable impulses?

Let us say that a man becomes desperately sick because he smokes, drinks, refuses to exercise and eats poorly. Furthermore, he becomes so sick that he will never become well again. Also, the moment his health improves, we know that he will return to his self-destructive habits. Would you give him a kidney? Of course not – it would be futile. He would destroy his new kidney as relentlessly as he destroyed his old one. In fact, you would now be part of his circle of self-destruction, since by his actions he would have roped your health into his downward plunge.

The medical metaphor only goes so far, however, since we are all subject to illness, regardless of our ethics. However, life failures as significant as homelessness, chronic joblessness or poverty, substance abuse and so on are almost always the result of moral failings, or of historical decisions so poor that they have effectively destroyed opportunity. A boy who regularly takes Ecstasy usually ends up with permanent brain damage. If this renders him unable to make a lot of money, he may want others to subsidize his income, but why? He was the one who voluntarily decided to trade in his earning potential for an exciting nightlife. I for one have no particular issue with his choice. There are times I would have loved to blow off studying and go party with mind-altering drugs. He made his choice, I made mine. I don’t really care about his choice. I mean, I disagree with it, but so what? I can’t go back in time and change his choice for him, so what does my opinion matter? He made it, got his benefits, and lives with the consequences – just as I have. I might as well disagree with Napoleon’s choice of hair style.

All choices have consequences, and poverty, excess children, ill health or mental derangement are just some results of some choices. All those negatives were preceded by positives – which is why they were chosen. A man may choose to be violent rather than examine his abusive childhood, but that is still a positive, in that he avoids the pain of examining his past. We may choose to avoid the discomfort of going to the dentist, but we cannot then rationally complain of toothache.

Since all choices have consequences, but not all choices are equally healthy, we certainly would prefer that better choices have more positive consequences. This is the great danger of charity, and its terrible capacity to corrupt and destroy rationality, morality and happiness. Charity is one of the most dangerous drugs that humanity possesses. Nineteen times out of twenty, charity blunts morality, numbs cause and effect, and rewards evil. It is a weapon wielded by horrible people to escape the consequences of their own corruption – and to destroy the empathy and judgment of those who give.

To take an current example, let’s look at the problem of the tsunami victims. The capitalist world has generated many billions of dollars in aid, which will go to the governments of the stricken countries. Will the money go to the victims? Of course not! If these governments had any concern for their citizens, they would not be corrupt and brutal dictatorships to begin with! Giving money to Stalin to help with the Ukrainian famine was equally mad – if he cared about the Ukrainians to begin with, he wouldn’t subject them to such tyranny that they couldn’t farm properly! What the general public does not seem to understand is that the reason so many people died in the tsunami disaster was because they were poor, and they were poor because they were enslaved.

Imagine this: a group of slave-owners lock their slaves in a barn every night. One evening, a fire breaks out and kills a number of slaves. Would we then give money to the slave owners? What if we gave money to the slaves? Would that be any better? Of course not – the slave owners would just confiscate it!

If we really wanted to help the slaves, we would focus on the real issue, which was not that people who were slaves died, but that they were slaves at all! By giving money to the slave owners, are we not implicitly approving slavery? Are we not legitimizing the corrupt and vicious state governments of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and others? We would be better off arming the slaves than giving money to the slave owners.

But of course, most of us can’t see that metaphor with any real clarity, since we are slaves as well, and our slave masters are simply giving our money to other slave masters – whom they are, for obvious reasons, unlikely to condemn.

This is the grave challenge of charity. Charity must begin with a moral foundation, which is that people are responsible for their own actions. Transferring resources from moral people to immoral people punishes the good and rewards the evil. Given that any rational morality must be concerned with increasing good behaviour and decreasing bad behaviour, providing resources to evil people is a purely immoral action. Charity, then, can only be morally provided to those whose ill fortune is not the result of their own actions.

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (, the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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June 2024

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