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.

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