The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity

I am reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion chapter by chapter and blogging about it as I go. In the book he is trying to collect insights from religions that might inform the lives of convinced atheists. There are several points of contention I have about his analysis of community in chapter 2. He starts the chapter by characterizing modern people as especially alienated from each other; particularly strangers. In a key passage, he attributes our supposed disconnection from each other to an unintended side effect of state mediated charity (Kindle Locations 168-179):

In the past, we got to know others because we had no option but to ask them for help – and were ourselves asked for help in turn. Charity was an integral part of premodern life. It was impossible to avoid moments when we would have to request money from a near-stranger or to hand it out to a vagabond beggar in a world without a health-care system, unemployment insurance, public housing or consumer banking. The approach on the street of a sick, frail, confused or homeless person did not immediately inspire passers-by to look away and assume that a government agency would take care of the problem.

We are from a purely financial point of view greatly more generous than our ancestors ever were, surrendering up to half of our income for the communal good. But we do this almost without realizing it, through the anonymous agency of the taxation system; and if we think about it at all, it is likely to be with resentment that our money is being used to support unnecessary bureaucracies or to buy missiles. We seldom feel a connection to those less fortunate members of the polity for whom our taxes also buy clean sheets, soup, shelter or a daily dose of insulin. Neither recipient nor donor feels the need to say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’. Our donations are never framed – as they were in the Christian era – as the lifeblood of an intricate tangle of mutually interdependent relationships, with practical benefits for the recipient and spiritual ones for the donor.

I do not share his nostalgia for interpersonal charity. The efficiency of formal mechanisms of charity is far preferable to the greater uncertainty for the poor if they have to depend on personal efforts of generosity for which they have to actively and repeatedly plead. I wrote on this previously as part of a longer piece pushing back against conservative and libertarian political preferences for private charity over public:

I would rather pay more in taxes than have to give a dime to charity out of my own pocket. This is not because I want to be uncharitable. I’ll pay the taxes willingly and even vote for them willingly. But I want an efficiently just country, not one where people are left to the wolves so that I have to do the painful, inefficient, and time consuming task of taking care of them when the wolves are done with them…

I want to say that it is not inherently more virtuous to have a system designed to function on market whims as a matter of principle. If the freest market leads to the biggest tide which naturally lifts all boats as a pragmatic consequence, then it is justifiable. But if the lesson of Denmark is that a more robust welfare state accompanied by much higher taxes on those who can afford them leads to diminished income disparity and diminished social ills, then this would be clearly the morally best option.

This is because the consequence of increased overall flourishing is a far better moral good in itself than that individuals get more opportunities to privately pity and take care of their fellow man when this is less efficient and runs all sorts of risks of subjecting the vulnerable to people’s private exploitation or manipulation of their souls. In this way, I share a good deal of Nietzsche’s desire to avoid pitying and dehumanizing personal dynamics with others in which they have to beg of me and be dependent on me and in which my pleasure at helping comes at their expense in needing help.

I am happy to give time and love to those I love as an equal or those whose excellence I am helping to develop. But I would rather the humiliation of need be met in ways which did not force people to beg of me at their most destitute. I would rather a system which kept them out of destitution in the first place as much as possible, which gave genuine opportunities in education, well funded hospitals for all the mentally ill who now live on the street, guarantees of medical attention for the sick, etc.

I would rather pay for that and run the risk that if I ever become a multi-millionaire I have to pay a lot for it. I do not see the loss of the personal virtue of generosity in this. There are many other, more ennobling and more efficient contexts in which to be generous one on one. And, more importantly, greater generosity seeks greater net efficiency, like the kind Rees cites in Denmark by contrast with the USA, rather than more opportunities to feel personally efficacious or more opportunities to sit as the judge of who deserves and who does not.

I think I can just as charitably vote as donate when my vote is for higher taxes for a more just society.

Read the whole argument here. Just to add a few points to this: I would rather always meet people in contexts in which we can be mutually ennobling to each other. I would rather help those I already loved and cared about for their own sake, who came to me for help out of an established relationship of mutual support and appreciation, rather than as a desperate stranger. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in The Gay Science, Nietzsche expresses a preference that the poor simply steal from his trees rather than debase themselves in front of him by begging. The beggar relationship is not the source of deep human connection de Botton imagines it to be. It is an ugly power dynamic that opens up all sorts of potential for moralistic abuse of the vulnerable by the self-righteous who love to lord power over the desperate.

To be fair to him, it seems de Botton does not want to abolish the effective state-mediated reallocation of resources but somehow instead regain human connection alongside it. I get that. But what I don’t share is the view that the prior condition was a healthy model of ideal interpersonal connection between the haves and the have-nots worth missing. The wealthy were no generally better to the poor when they got to have the possibility of warm fuzzy feelings from direct charity than they are today when they miserly groan with bitterness over their tax bill and lobby government aggressively for every legal advantage they can greedily get over the poor.

Your Thoughts?

  • Sheesh

    Love it! (And hate the idea that beggars waiting on the largesse of the church or some “Libertarian” equivalent of private charity are the more effective, noble, and liberating alternative. Grrr. We have the welfare state as a response to the failure of the charity ‘industry’! Why is this denied?!)

    • Dalillama

      Because to them, charity it a private moral action that you individually choose to do so that you can feel meritorious and for the religious, so that you can bring yourself closer to god. The person receiving the charity is irrelevant to the calculus except to the extent that they grovel and kiss ass to make the giver feel generous. Since charity is a private moral good and a lack is a private moral failing, government takes your morality away when a welfare state is enacted. It also takes away the incentive for the poor to not be poor, since their poverty is a result of their moral failings, so the government is taking making poor people immoral and making rich people less moral by taking over the charity industry. For those of us who are of a humanist and rationalist bent of course this seems evil and possibly insane, but there it is.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      I’ve had arguments with libertarians about welfare and charity. I always mention that the reason why governments got into the welfare business is that private charities couldn’t handle the load. In the Great Depression starvation was a real threat to many Americans and Europeans but private charities couldn’t feed everyone who needed to be fed. So governments stepped in and few if any people actually starved. Incidentally, during World War II thousands of men in the US, Britain and Canada failed their military induction physicals because of the effects of years of malnutrition. While few starved, a whole bunch of folks didn’t eat well.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      In the Great Depression starvation was a real threat to many Americans and Europeans but private charities couldn’t feed everyone who needed to be fed. So governments stepped in and few if any people actually starved. Incidentally, during World War II thousands of men in the US, Britain and Canada failed their military induction physicals because of the effects of years of malnutrition. While few starved, a whole bunch of folks didn’t eat well.

  • http://thorgolucky.com/ thorgolucky

    Agreed. (and my brothers and parents are Danish and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting that relatively advanced society.)

  • julian

    As someone who’s family was on welfare during his pre-teen years, I will say that personal charity is among the most humiliating crap I had to endure and I’m sure my family would agree. Food lines and the like seemed to be all about making the people handing out food feel good about themselves instead of us.

    The small amount of money (actual money) mom was given every fifteen days (even if we got less food with it) was infinitely better.

  • Pen

    I couldn’t agree more. The other downside about charity is that obtaining help becomes a kind of popularity contest. The state is supposed to issue support on the basis of need, not likeability or needs as perceived by the giver. Private givers have no such demands placed on them.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    Alain needs to get out more. I am regularly approached by the homeless or needy on my way to and from work or shopping downtown. And it is painful and embarrassing for both of us, esp. since I don’t have much money to give even at the best of times, being in the bottom quintile myself.

    If de Botton is feeling isolated and cut off from his fellow humans, that’s his own fault not due to technology or social progress (such as it is). Ipods and Xboxes haven’t stopped anyone in my very working-class neighborhood from sitting on their porches and shooting the breeze for hours on end too, weather permitting.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      You’re saying they have some sort of religion that meets on porches then?

    • Sgaile-beairt

      Uh, I guess–with shared Sam Adams as the communion for some, others preferring the sacred smoke of hemp, and the LLEO taking a mostly DADT attitude.

      It’s kind of amazing how people manage to carry on face-to-face conversations simultaneous with texting AND use that technology to summon even MORE friends to the ceremony (since shouting down the street doesn’t work as well plus it irritates other congregations.)

      At least, de Botton would find it amazing, maybe…

    • Pierce R. Butler

      Daniel Fincke @ # 5.1: You’re saying they have some sort of religion that meets on porches then?

      Stoicism has contributed enough to various religions that perhaps we could classify it as one.

  • John Morales

    The People of the Abyss is freely available online.

  • smrnda

    Another problem with charity is that the motives of many religious-based charities are to catch people when they are needy and to use it as an opportunity to get a captive audience for their spiritual views.

    It’s obvious from the example of nations with robust welfare states that government agencies and policies do a better job at promoting a reasonably high standard of living for all than relying on private charities.

    There is room for private charities, but if a problem is big and pervasive enough, it needs a public solution.

    Some libertarians just oppose such things out of principle. I only see value to ‘principles’ that have some pragmatic value, so I don’t find it to be a hard view to refute, but I find many libertarians simply see the right to private property as an absolute and that government should be limited, and could care less about what sort of society that creates.

    • Dalillama

      Libertarians are mostly moral essentialists, IME. Like theists, they tend to consider moral rules to be a form of natural law, which you have to follow regardless of the outcome.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    You describe Alain’s utopia as “the prior condition”.

    Uh, I hate to be the one who brings this up, but, erhh… mayhap both you and de Botton should get out and about a bit more.

    My personal field research indicates that societies with higher proportions of beggars also reduce the impacts of institutionalization in their cultures by giving children unlimited opportunities for interpersonal skill development in the panhandling industry. Their future’s so bright, they’re raising money for sunglasses…

    Surely dB would joyfully applaud such social optimization, if he would only make his enlightened way to ______________ [fill in yr choice of 3rd-world slum or US homeless camp].

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, I don’t accept de Botton’s utopia as the prior condition. I accept de Botton’s characterization that it used to be that charity had to be done face to face more often as the prior condition. I specifically disputed his characterization of the prior condition when in the next sentence I wrote

      The wealthy were no generally better to the poor when they got to have the possibility of warm fuzzy feelings from direct charity than they are today

      So, you and I agree. *High Five*

      (Look at that! A social connection in our alienated modern world. I could almost weep!)

    • Sheesh

      Dan and Pierce: I lolled :)

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    Also, it really shows that he’s white here. People are more alienated from strangers now? These days, being an outgroup member will usually just result in strangers averting their eyes. Try being in the wrong outgroup 100 years ago, though.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs Alan Cooper

    De Botton complains that in a state with an effective social safety net “Neither recipient nor donor feels the need to say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’”. Presumably he thinks it was better when at least one party to the transaction felt the need for self-abasement – but it hardly ever applied to both!

    If he wants to feel gratitude without experiencing poverty himself, then perhaps he should just consider when he pays his taxes how the state is relieving him of at least a part of what would (or should) otherwise have been his burden of guilt.