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.


2 Responses to “Charity”

  1. December 16, 2009 at 11:34 am

    The expression “charity begins at home” can be an excuse for selfishness. However, it’s also a bit hubristic to think that one’s community is perfect, and that the only thing that needs to be done is to give to outsiders. This column by Tom Flynn discusses nonreligious elders who may lack appropriate support


    On the other hand, it may be difficult to identify humanists in need precisely because our community is not organized. Since many people have an urge to give of their time and resources, their is no point in waiting until we get organized. In the meantime, perhaps we should channel our charity and service to traditional outlets, but in the long run, we should also be able to effectively help those of our own community in need.

  2. 2 David Kimball
    December 22, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    I am fortunate to work in a job that allows me to be generous. I volunteer a great amount of time such as the week I just went to the United Nations Center in Vienna for a week of training. (My own vacation time from my regular job and my own money.) I would rather help those people in my first degree of separation (Humanist or not) than people six degrees removed. However I find that many people I know are reluctant to allow me to help them.

    I find that charity needs to be based on more than sympathy. Sympathy is a feeling where we feel the same as another person. Charity needs to be based on empathy which is an understanding of what and why a person thinks and feels the way(s) that they do. If we really understand another, we will know what is the right way to help that person. The problems arise when we try to help someone without taking the time to understand.

    With the great New Year’s tsunami of about four years ago, there was an organization in the US which wanted to help. So they sent several pallets of soup to the devastated land – only to later find out that these people there didn’t know what a can opener was. An act of love can be from me to thee. But empathy is from thee to me. And charity without empathy is risky.

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