The Virtue of Charity

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 12, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

charity for starving kids

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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Desire Utilitarianism (aka Desirism) seems to suggest that charity is a virtue.

A person in need of charity is somebody who risks the loss of some very strong and stable desires. These include basic desires such as a desire for a warm place to sleep on a cold winter’s night, a desire for food and clean water to drink, a desire for health, and, in some cases, a desire to go on living.

When a person has a desire to help fulfill the particularly strong desires of others, then an act of charity fulfills not only the desires of those to whom he gives, but his own desires as well.

Some people state that part of the value of giving to charity is the pleasure that it provides to those who do the giving. However, this pleasure is contingent. This is a learned desire – a desire brought about by the use of social tools such as praise (of those who are charitable) and condemnation (of those who are selfish).

People in general have many and strong reasons to praise those who are charitable, and to condemn those who are selfish. Any one of us could end up in a situation where some of our strongest and most stable desires are at risk – where we are without a home or suffer some severe threat to our health and long life.

Where we are lucky enough to avoid such a fate, those we care about may not be so lucky. The only way to avoid the risk of somebody we care about suffering some need for charity is to care about nobody. That, in itself, comes with some very high costs and is not something that people in general have any reason to encourage.

In fact, another quality that people in general have many and strong reasons to promote is an overall concern for the well-being of others, even strangers half-way around the globe. We have reason to promote such desires in strangers half-way around the globe, and they have reason to promote such desires in us.

This general concern, where it is successfully implemented, provides people with yet another reason to act so as to bring about a desire for charity and an aversion to selfishness.

How do we promote a desire to be charitable and an aversion to selfishness?

As with all traits, it is easier to teach such a virtue to children in the hopes that they will carry it into adulthood, than it is to teach an old dog a new trick. The praise of charitable adults and the condemnation of selfish adults would be one useful tool for teaching children the virtue of charity and the vice of selfishness.

Some evidence seems to suggest that a good way to teach charity is to dress the kid up on a Sunday morning and drag him kicking and screaming to a social event where the virtue of charity is not only praised but practiced. This appears to be one thing that churches have done well – bringing members of the community together in a common location where a part of the emphasis of that meeting is to get help to those who are in the most need.

A young and impoverished family gets a place to stay, food, and clothing, while somebody who is alone and bed-ridden gets somebody to deliver groceries and even cook a meal. The community is organized to clean a park or to contribute to the construction of a youth center. These appear to be some of the outcomes of physically assembling the members of the community in one place to visit and to listen to lectures on, among other things, the virtue of charity.

In this context, it is of little surprise that the church is where people traditionally have gone when they get married and are first starting out in life, when they get a child that will need to be cared for, and when they die where the survivors not only have reason to grieve, but may be put into some hardship as a result. The church is where people have traditionally gone when natural disasters struck – even those disasters that have taken the church building itself – so that they can help each other survive, and then start to rebuild.

This is an example of a society using social tools such as praise and condemnation to shape malleable desires – promoting those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting those desires that tend to thwart other desires. And of a society that obtains the benefits of these types of practices.

Atheists, secularists, and even antipatheists who forego any church attendance can honestly be said to be missing out on a certain sense of community – and some of the benefits that go with it – by being on the outside of these types of gatherings.

It would be a mistake to argue that everything done in association with religion is evil and that we must be done with all of it. There have been countless religions in human history. The ones we contend with today represent the survival of the fittest. They certainly have qualities that allow them to persist in all sorts of environments.

Perhaps its use of social tools to promote certain desires such as charity, and to inhibit certain desires such as selfishness, and bringing a community together where those who can help come into contact with those who need help, is one of those qualities – and one that could well be worth copying.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur January 12, 2010 at 8:39 am

It’s not so terribly hard to build up religious ceremonies (or religious-replacement ceremonies or whatever you want to call them) for atheists. You can even make them popular. Some 17 percent of Norwegian teenagers undergo a humanist confirmation ceremony instead of a Christian one.

Unfortunately, some of the most vocal atheist evangelists are explicitly anti-ceremony. Hitchens says:

“Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects”

Ceremonies are abhorrent? Huh? And Hitchens isn’t even the worst. Don’t let the anti-social nerds convince you that just because you’re atheists you shouldn’t participate in religious activities (or the equivalent). There are plenty of religions that don’t require belief in gods and nothing stopping you from creating more.

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Angela January 12, 2010 at 10:21 pm

That’s actually one of the things I miss about religion – and it’s fairly obvious how many other atheists/ agnostics/ secular humanits agree by the number of online communities formed strictly around non-believers. Humans, for the most part, are social animals, and we all just want an excuse to spend time with other like-minded people. I’ll be the first to admit I crave acceptance and company! Churches offer that for those willing to accept their ideology.

As for charity, religion can certainly help promote that, but I’ve found that the loss of religious involvement has encouraged more charitable growth for me. It was that community feeling I missed that encouraged me to break out of my shell and volunteer with Planned Parenthood. Now I have the social interaction of like-minded women (incredible women at that!) and the assuaged conscience of helping out on an issue that matters most to me.

I do think it’s unfair when anti-theologists (like myself)insist NO good has ever come from religion (I almost typed no “god” how funny ^_^). I can certainly agree that not enough good has happened to outweight the bad, but there are people who have bettered themselves because of religion, even if often at a loss to their independent thought, there are selfless, charitable movements that have grown because of religion, and just think of the loss of the artistic advancements from the renaissance! If it weren’t for the complete intentional destruction of medical and scientific advancements… it would almost be worth it ;)

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe January 13, 2010 at 12:28 am

Angela: That’s actually one of the things I miss about religion – and it’s fairly obvious how many other atheists/ agnostics/ secular humanits agree by the number of online communities formed strictly around non-believers. Humans, for the most part, are social animals, and we all just want an excuse to spend time with other like-minded people. I’ll be the first to admit I crave acceptance and company! Churches offer that for those willing to accept their ideology.   

I’m involved in MLM (multi-level marketing) and we get regular gatherings (seminars, meetings) and they tend to remind me of the warm and fuzzy feelings that churches incite in so many people I’ve met. So I’ll suggest to any atheist who misses that part of church to go join one of those organisations. Be warry though, the may be too many who claim god-did-it (EG during recognitions of achievements, as in when one reaches a certain level in the business).

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Chris January 15, 2010 at 9:27 am

“Some people state that part of the value of giving to charity is the pleasure that it provides to those who do the giving. However, this pleasure is contingent. This is a learned desire – a desire brought about by the use of social tools such as praise (of those who are charitable) and condemnation (of those who are selfish).”

I’m not so sure about this. Praise is probably a big part of that feel-good feeling you get when you give. But it may run deeper than that. If compassion evolved, wouldn’t the pleasure of giving be hardwired in the brain, somewhat? The idea that it is totally socially conditioned seems too much like a “blank slate” theory, that environment determines character and biology plays a minimal role. Just a though- I’m not well-read enough on the subject to really defend it thouroughly. I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” though, which is about that kind of stuff. I recommend it.

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cls December 19, 2010 at 3:10 am

If charity is a virtue then it a virtue that can’t be practiced by the kids in the photo above. If virtues are part of morality then it would imply that the recipients of charity are immoral and the givers are morally superior. That seems rather uncharitable to me.

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Vichy January 19, 2012 at 10:28 pm

It’s bullshit like this that proves to me that ‘Secular Humanism’ is just left-wing Christianity without a Gawd. It promotes the same (anti-human, anti-reality) bullshit Christianity does, because it seeks to legitimize itself by the slave-morality of the Christianized masses. It’s pathetic.

Charity, like faith and hope, is a vice. Real virtues are things like fortitude, ambition, cleverness and objectivity. And people who attack selfishness are truly diseased minds.

Doug Casey is a real Atheist, who has abandoned your religion along with all the others. His article is not only much better, it has the virtue of making sense and being true.

http://whiskeyandgunpowder.com/charity-and-the-real-root-of-poverty/

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