At the late November Humanist Small Group session, we discussed Charity (and Selfishness). We touched on both financial giving and volunteering one’s time and assistance, though some felt that those two types of giving were very different. We talked about both giving to the people in our lives and giving to large organizations.
One recurring theme was that giving and receiving often went together. When we give to others, that act makes us happy, so we are really serving our own interests as well. In another formulation, when we give to others, we are supporting a norm of giving that we expect will also benefit ourselves when others observe the norm. In yet another version, when we volunteer our time to help others, we learn new things, meet interesting people, find fulfillment in the effect that we have on others, experience entertainment, and so forth. I am a strong believer that most charitable impulses function along these lines.
We did touch on how charity may harm others by promoting dependency or denying the recipients their own agency. The dependency issue is certainly acute for charitable endeavors in developing countries, where foreign aid may severely disrupt traditional patterns. The cultural distance between the donor(s) and the recipients in development aid is particularly problematic in this regard, i.e., the donors often have little idea how to help the recipients in a sustainable way.
The issue of denying recipients their own agency is a complicated one. We mentioned both that structuring charity with appropriate restrictions and incentives could be necessary to prevent the recipient from using the resources in a harmful way, and the idea that such restrictions are an affront to the dignity of the recipient.
I tend to favor the paternalistic view. I never give money to panhandlers, but I will give them tokens for transportation or food.
In terms of Humanist community and charity, some felt that service projects for the needy were a first priority, while others emphasized the importance of caring for the members of the community itself before embarking on such endeavors. I tend to favor the latter view.