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Author Topic: The Purpose of Charity  (Read 4964 times)

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Offline TorterrableTopic starter

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #200 on: February 01, 2014, 09:10:24 AM »
DreamingWriter, while I believe I understand your point of view, I disagree with it. This, again, all comes down to how self-interest is defined; it appears that we do not have an argument on what what motivates charity, but to what extent can we consider a charitable deed done in self-interest.

As Oniya above so aptly put, charity done with the intentions only of furthering one's personal goals is not really charity at all. That is one extreme. There are a plethora of shades of meaning in between, and then there is the other extreme. Jumping on a grenade, for example, seems completely selfless. I would like to propose a visual, Maslow's hierarchy of needs.



Let us assume that all self-interest must stem from those needs; I am using a definition of self interest that requires it be fuelled by something that one "needs". While the kind of charity that would be considered in self-interest would be on the fourth level, self-esteem, or the third level, family and belonging, it seems that the ultimate sacrifice (and sacrifices less ultimate) would not fit on the pyramid, especially if they are aimed towards people one does not know and one may not ever meet.

Again, allow me to emphasize to what extent do we consider the acts of charity falling under "self-interest". I tutor kids because I want to make friends with them, and because I derive pleasure from it. I would consider this fuelled by my need to belong. However, I also do it because I want them to grow, to be better, to make it past high school and into college. I do not know these kids very well, and once the year is up, I may never see them again. I do this because I want them to go out and make the world a better place, at least for themselves. My benefit derived from that is the improvement of humanity, but is the improvement of humanity really a benefit purely for myself? Is it really self-interest if I want everyone to prosper?

Online Mithlomwen

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #201 on: February 01, 2014, 09:21:29 AM »
Stepping in to try and clarify, DreamingWriter. These boards are open to debate, with facts to back up ones side of an issue. Opinions, are not 'debate'. Please familiarize yourself with our Forum Stickies before joining the discussions.

DreamingWriter, I'm not sure how debates on other forums go, but you need to read our rules here.  You are entitled to your opinion, just as everyone else is, but as other members (and a staff member) have pointed out to you several times, your personal opinion cannot be used as fact.  If you have information to support your opinion that is fine, but please take a moment to listen to the other members and stop trying to use your beliefs and opinions as fact. 

As Oreo posted before me, I'm not sure if you missed her message, so I need for  you to acknowledge that you have read and understand what we are pointing out to you.

Offline Oniya

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #202 on: February 01, 2014, 11:34:53 AM »
I think one sticking point of 'defining' any particular act of charity as 'self' serving comes down to set theory.

We'd all agree that something that benefits a group benefits each member of the group to some extent, right?  Something that benefits your family benefits you in some way (even if that 'something' is you working killer shifts to get more money so the house doesn't get foreclosed.)  Something that benefits your community benefits you in some way (even if that 'something' is you spending a chunk of time helping to feed people so that they don't resort to crime to survive.)  In the words of Ruth Roberts, 'I live in a house in a town in a county in a state in a country of the world, you see.  What goes on in the world is really up to me.'  (Anyone who recognizes that can join me on the porch to shake our canes at the young-uns.)

Gee, Oniya - isn't that pushing the definition of 'self serving' just a tad?  Yup.  To the very limit of elasticity. 

Offline Iniquitous

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #203 on: February 01, 2014, 12:03:17 PM »
Ahh, but what about my case? My charitable donations are done in a different community than the one I live in (the particular city/town I am does not have shelters - the closest one is forty five minutes to an hour away, the closest food bank is thirty minutes away in the opposite direction). So any community benefits would not affect me personally.

The time I take to help take care of my grandmother (going out to cook meals, clean her house, help her with day to day needs) doesn’t benefit me personally. It benefits my grandmother (obviously), my mother and my aunts (because it gives them a break) but it doesn’t have a benefit for me.

I still say you cannot say that all charitable acts are based in self interest. Yes, it is possible that some people do them for their own self interest, but to try and say ALL are done for self interest is erroneous.

Offline Oniya

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #204 on: February 01, 2014, 12:05:10 PM »
As I said - stretched to the very limit of elasticity.

Offline consortium11

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #205 on: February 01, 2014, 12:53:08 PM »
What a lot of discussion...

To pick up on a couple of points (and I apologize if I'm mis-stating anyone's position)

I understand where DreamingWriter's view on the motivation of actions comes from and how "self-interest" factors in. The issue I see here is that using this definition the term "self interest" becomes redundant. If I'm understanding the theory correctly then self-interest isn't merely a motivator for actions, it's a necessary requirement for an action to take place; the reason an action takes place is because the agent who does it believes (consciously or subconsciously) believes it is in there self-interest; because if it wasn't they wouldn't do it. It is in essence a very wide theory of psychological egoism.

My issue with the above is two-fold:

1) It doesn't actually define self-interest. It tells us it's a necessary component of an action but doesn't tell us what it is.

2) As it's a necessary condition for an action, the term itself becomes meaningless. If there has to be self-interest for an action to occur then to say an action is motivated by self-interest is redundant; if there wasn't self-interest the action wouldn't have occurred.



That said, I don't think some of the objections to DreamingWriter's position (despite the shaky foundations) perhaps aren't as strong as first supposed.

One point raised has been how charitable acts often seemingly don't benefit the agent who does them. The examples given are that it takes time and costs money. In fact, acting in a charitable manner can actually be to the detriment of the agent in question as by giving time and money they are unable to spend either of the two doing things more obviously in the self-interest. If someone chooses to spend their money on something for someone else rather than on themselves then on the face of it it is hard not to see that as being detrimental to the agents self-interest.

My question here is why we are entirely focusing on the material/tangible side of actions and not on the psychological? A large part of the generic "charity is selfish" argument is that while spending time and/or money on charity can be (or possibly even by definition is) detrimental to someone's material self-interest (and I should be clear I'm not talking about tax writeoffs or other such situations) the agent benefits from some measure of psychological pleasure/benefit from doing so. In some ways the converse may also apply; if someone views charity as somewhat of a duty or has a long history of doing so then by not giving to charity (be that time or money) aren't they at risk of, putting it crudely, feeling "bad" about themselves? And so while acting in a charitable manner may not give them any psychological benefit in and of itself, it prevents the psychological harm done by not acting in such a manner.

One point touched on above which I think is somewhat important to the conversation is where charity fits in the moral spectrum and how this impacts on its purpose. One theory generally separates out morality into a two-tier structure; moral values and moral duties, with the first relating to goodness, ideals and virtues while the latter refers to what ought to be done, to duties and obligations, to justice and rights. In essence think of the difference between what would be morally "good" to do and what we morally "ought" to do. Using this approach, traditionally morality was broken into three sorts of actions:

1) Actions that are good to do and bad not to do
2) Actions that are neither good to do nor bad not to do
3) Actions that are bad to do and good not to do

Charity generally doesn't fall into any of those categories; it's not generally seen as morally "bad" not to be charitable but it certainly is morally "good" to be charitable (again, not referring to tax write-offs or the like). Instead charity likely falls into a new category:

4) Actions that are good to do but not bad not to do

Someone may be praised for being charitable but they are unlikely to be criticised for not being charitable. I could go on for considerable detail about weaknesses and strengths of viewing charity this way but I'd be getting caught up in the details and I think that moral theory of charity is practical enough. It is this (which plays up the distinction between moral values and moral duties) that make charity seemingly of merit morally; it's not something that someone has to do, but they do anyway.

The second theory however doesn't include the distinction between moral values and moral duties. It holds a somewhat simpler and stricter view; if something is a moral good it therefore becomes a moral duty. Both Kantians and utilitarians generally fall into this area; for a utilitarian if promoting the overall good in the world is the fundamental principle of action, there can be no (non-utilitarian) exemption from the duty to do so and for a Kantian cannot accept something that is optional and personal on the one hand and not motivated by the subjection to the moral law on the other. Under such a theory it is hard to argue that charity has any moral merit; it is merely someone doing their duty and is simply doing what is expected of someone worthy of merit?

The two different approaches give us pretty radically different positions on the purpose of charity in terms of morality. In the latter case charity is simply acting in accordance with a moral duty; it is what people ought to do (and thus is not of any particular moral merit). In the former however, morality is going beyond what is expected or demanded and thus the purpose of it is not to fulfill a general moral duty.

Offline Kythia

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #206 on: February 01, 2014, 01:01:30 PM »
I think the issue with viewing charity from a strictly Kantian/Utilitarian view (perhaps particularly Kantian) is that it leads us through a slippery scale of efficiency, as I discussed before.

If charity is a moral duty then the question of effectiveness really does come to the fore.  The lawyer who gives up an hour of his time rather than the proceeds of an hour of time is no longer, really, performing an act of charity at all.  By which I mean his performance of his obligation is so sub par that you're forced to question whether he's doing his duty at all.  Ditto for my hypothetical donation to an inefficient charity as opposed to the alternative that uses a greater proportion of the money on causes and less on overheads (for the same net result, etc etc etc).

But that's not the way people feel.  People aren't criticised for making less than optimal charitable donations - there have been several examples in this thread of such that have passed unremarked.

So while, and I accept this is very far from a shiny new critic of Kant, viewing it in those terms may well provide a framework it doesn't provide a workable and intuitive framework.  And if the purpose of thinking about this is to be useful, a framework that sits at odds to how most of the world view the matter is unlikely to be helpful.

Offline consortium11

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #207 on: February 01, 2014, 01:17:20 PM »
I think the issue with viewing charity from a strictly Kantian/Utilitarian view (perhaps particularly Kantian) is that it leads us through a slippery scale of efficiency, as I discussed before.

If charity is a moral duty then the question of effectiveness really does come to the fore.  The lawyer who gives up an hour of his time rather than the proceeds of an hour of time is no longer, really, performing an act of charity at all.  By which I mean his performance of his obligation is so sub par that you're forced to question whether he's doing his duty at all.  Ditto for my hypothetical donation to an inefficient charity as opposed to the alternative that uses a greater proportion of the money on causes and less on overheads (for the same net result, etc etc etc).

But that's not the way people feel.  People aren't criticised for making less than optimal charitable donations - there have been several examples in this thread of such that have passed unremarked.

So while, and I accept this is very far from a shiny new critic of Kant, viewing it in those terms may well provide a framework it doesn't provide a workable and intuitive framework.  And if the purpose of thinking about this is to be useful, a framework that sits at odds to how most of the world view the matter is unlikely to be helpful.

With regards the bolded part, surely not for a Kantian?

One of the most central bases for Kantian ethics is the idea that all that matters (or at least by far the most significant part) of the moral worth of an action comes from the agents intention, not the result. If, in line with a moral duty, someone gives to charity under a Kantian perspective then their action is undisputed good (albeit not worthy of merit as it is simply an agent doing their duty) regardless of the consequences.

Offline Kythia

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #208 on: February 01, 2014, 01:26:41 PM »
Well, I did actually mean utilitarian in my original parenthetical comment, yes, - not sure what happened there - but I think it applies to a Kantian view as well.

Imagine three acts I could do to help a given charity:

1) Act one provides no benefit to the charity - this is the bag of used underwear IO talked about earlier, don't know if you were here for that.
2) Provides a positive, definite benefit to the charity.  The lawyer on the soup line
3) Uses exactly the same resources as (2) but provides an unarguably larger one.  The lawyer donating that money.

I, being an omniscient Kantian, am aware of which category my action will fall in to.

Clearly (1) is straight out, I'm not doing my duty there.  However, I would argue that a Kantian viewpoint is that (2) is out as well.  The obligation is to help the charity and if there is a set of actions I could take which help the charity more, particularly ones using time and resources I have already made clear I am willing to devote to that cause, then the obligation on me is to take those actions.

Offline consortium11

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #209 on: February 01, 2014, 02:05:58 PM »
How would you universalise (3)?

There is a moral duty not just to offer aid but to offer aid in the most beneficial form one can at a given time?

How do you get around the problem that such a duty would require one to give everything they have to charity if that was universalised... and then in turn those who had just received the benefit would have to immediately return it?

Offline Kythia

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #210 on: February 01, 2014, 02:10:18 PM »
How would you universalise (3)?

There is a moral duty not just to offer aid but to offer aid in the most beneficial form one can at a given time?

How do you get around the problem that such a duty would require one to give everything they have to charity if that was universalised... and then in turn those who had just received the benefit would have to immediately return it?

Well, as discussed I personally wouldn't actually universalise it because I don't think a Kantian viewpoint is useful.  But within the boundaries of the conversation:

There is a moral duty not just to offer aid but to make sure the aid one offers is deployed in the most efficient way possible.

Offline Kythia

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #211 on: February 01, 2014, 02:29:47 PM »
My issue is, and apologies for the double post, that without the criterion of effectiveness the obligation to help charity is toothless.  The way I help charity is to offer people a hearty slap on the back and a "You go girl" when they tell me that they help it - after all, encouragement is important.  The way someone else does is to give a penny they find in the washing machine.

Offline Oniya

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #212 on: February 01, 2014, 02:32:13 PM »
The washing machine change is my personal charity.  I consider it payment for the service of going through the family's pockets.  (Because finding a used tissue after things go into the dryer defeats the whole purpose of trying to get the clothes clean.)  ;D

Offline Scribbles

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #213 on: February 06, 2014, 05:03:26 AM »
I've only just skimmed this thread, as it's quite long, but I'm curious as to how far self-interest has been stretched regarding charity...

For example, let's say that I give to charity solely because I feel awful for the people living in such squalid conditions and hope that, by contributing, I will somehow improve their lives, even if by a little. Is this defined as self-interest based on the fact that I feel awful and I'm trying to rid myself of this feeling by uplifting those who are dragging me down emotionally?

Offline consortium11

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #214 on: February 06, 2014, 07:36:11 AM »
I've only just skimmed this thread, as it's quite long, but I'm curious as to how far self-interest has been stretched regarding charity...

For example, let's say that I give to charity solely because I feel awful for the people living in such squalid conditions and hope that, by contributing, I will somehow improve their lives, even if by a little. Is this defined as self-interest based on the fact that I feel awful and I'm trying to rid myself of this feeling by uplifting those who are dragging me down emotionally?

The point's been brought up but never seemed to become a central part of the discussion. To me that's unfortunate as it seems to me to be a rather central part of the argument about whether charity is "really" selfless or is actually in the agent's self-interest.

Personally, I'm not sure we can dismiss non-material benefits in this context. If I do something because it makes me feel good... or because it doesn't make me feel bad... isn't that acting in my self interest? And so if I assist a charity for no material benefit (or even at a material cost) but I feel good because of it or because I don't feel as bad as I would if I didn't assist, aren't I acting in my own self interest if I do assist the charity?

Offline Moondazed

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #215 on: February 06, 2014, 10:25:09 AM »
So feeling good about giving counts as self-interest? I don't know, that seems like stretching the definition on order to make it fit the premise.

Offline consortium11

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #216 on: February 06, 2014, 11:13:23 AM »
So feeling good about giving counts as self-interest? I don't know, that seems like stretching the definition on order to make it fit the premise.

I'd suggest it's actually tightening the definition too much to not include it; to use the partial defintion from Miriam-Webster early in the thread:

"your own interest or advantage"

Is feeling good (or not feeling bad) not in your self-interest to do? Do we only ever limit self-interest to material benefits?

Offline Kythia

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Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #217 on: February 06, 2014, 11:19:13 AM »
I'd suggest it's actually tightening the definition too much to not include it; to use the partial defintion from Miriam-Webster early in the thread:

"your own interest or advantage"

Is feeling good (or not feeling bad) not in your self-interest to do? Do we only ever limit self-interest to material benefits?

But that seems to lead to DreamingWriter's "anything you do is in your self interest because otherwise you wouldn't do it"

Offline Scribbles

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #218 on: February 13, 2014, 03:36:16 PM »
Personally, I don't mind if a definition is taken to an extreme, I certainly find it preferable to the opposite where it is subtly twisted to suit an agenda...

My only gripe is in the case of charity and self-interest it is usually used to validate a highly cynical viewpoint. That is to say, there is no good, only self-interest and so forth...

I want to emphasize that I'm not referring to anyone in this thread...

Offline consortium11

Re: The Purpose of Charity
« Reply #219 on: February 13, 2014, 04:35:23 PM »
But that seems to lead to DreamingWriter's "anything you do is in your self interest because otherwise you wouldn't do it"

Sorry, missed this earlier.

DreamingWriter's postion was that self-interest was a sort of necessary condition for any action; it went beyond mere motivation to be the only reason an action can occur.

My view is less fundamentalist. I simply think that when viewing things as being in one's self interest we can't entirely limit that to material benefits. Self-interest simply remains one of many possible motivations for an action.