Defining charity through the ages: changing worlds and conflicting ideals

Mar 18, 2016

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Asheem Singh, Director of Public Policy at ACEVO, explores the central debates surrounding charitable ideals and how they have changed over the centuries.

Disagreement in the charity sector is nothing new. Philanthropists and practitioners have fought their battles throughout the ages, often with each other. There has been ebb and flow, dialogue and debate between the two component parts of charity – those who make the gift and those who make the change – for centuries.

Today, those culture wars have found their expression in challenges with which we’re increasingly familiar. Should charities campaign? Should charities work with government? Aren’t big charities increasingly becoming like an extension of big business? And what is the relevance of this charity thing in the 21st century anyway?

What connects earlier debates to these questions is a singular schism at the heart of charity. Caritas, as any pub bore will tell you, is the Christian word for love, which gave us the word charity. Charity was therefore a kind of love or, in the philosophical term, virtue.

But whose virtue? Often charity has been interpreted as the virtue of the giver and the giver alone. Aristotle’s concept of Eudaimonia (happiness), as a middle way between two extremes wherein virtue lies, established the virtuous human as neither she who gives away everything and then has to beg others, nor she who gives nothing and hoards all to herself.

In the later Christian ideal, givers had license ruin their own lives in pursuit of charity, safe in the knowledge that their reward would come in heaven – Florence Nightingale is a prime example.

The alternative also has its roots in Christian tradition, albeit a more radical variety. The focus here was not on the donor, but on the virtue of the charitable act itself. Take Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, an institution for orphans and the world’s first example of a charitable foundation. Coram’s tireless promotion and other colonial interests made it a magnet for the donations of society’s most virtuous, yet only a third of its unfortunate inhabitants survived to adulthood. Despite this, only recently would Coram’s work have been viewed critically, as the emphasis has shifted from intentions to outcomes.

“Caritas is the Christian word for love, which gave us the word charity. Charity was therefore a kind of love or, in the philosophical term, virtue.”

Asheem Singh

We call this focus on the benefits of charitable action a number of things, but today, it is the competing ground for the charity idea. We are less impressed by well-meaning but essentially harmful enthusiasts than ever before – and with good reason.

Charities have recognised the importance of accountability for years, which is why they know that impact matters. To a public hooked on transparency, it matters far more than adhering to an Aristotelian ideal.

But that is not the end of the debate; if it was, we wouldn’t have the problems we see today. The public would not fret about charity-business partnerships that secure products and money for the charitable mission; or charity lobbying that seeks to improve policy outcomes; or charities working with government to help more people. The contradiction at the heart of charity – at base a contradiction between the giver and the deliverer – is eternal.

This disagreement and debate is the beating heart of charity, but debate on the future of civil society must remain civil. We who commentate on these things we can only urge each side not to seek control, but to play fair.

Charity is both the righteous anger of the populace and the perfecting art of philanthropy. It is both the virtue of the giver and the virtue of giving as a means to create real social change. In matters regarding charity, the divisive must be celebrated as a necessary precondition to the discernment of the good. The only thing that brooks no disagreement is our duty to disagree.

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