A good friend of mine who is kind enough to read my blogs when he isn’t chasing whales and seals around the world has recently challenged me to write about the generosity that is exhibited by significant numbers of people — who stand in sharp contrast to the people like the Koch brothers who get all the attention and all the well-deserved criticism for being grasping and selfish. He’s right, of course, and I will attempt to rise to the challenge as set forth in these comments:
Now I want to hear your thoughts on the merits, joys, and feelings of worth experienced by practicing philanthropy. I am very impressed how many people give from their heart to accomplish so many varied, worthwhile and often important activities. Your piece today emphasizes that the miser never considers what might be done with his amassed resources. In my view, real joy comes as a result of hard work and then what folks do with their subsequent financial success. . . . [W]e have all seen folks of modest means practice a culture of sharing.
I like to think Dante was right to put those who love only money deep in Hell at the edge of a pit of fire with bags of gold hanging around their necks. While experiencing intense heat from the flames they are forced to stare at the bags through eternity, transfixed forever on what they have loved all their lives but which has little real importance. But I also agree that there are a great many people who get real joy from giving to others, as my friend suggests. Indeed, it has been shown that Americans are extremely generous when it comes to helping those in need — especially after natural disasters. But even during tranquil times, such as last year, such charities as “Feeding America” collected $1,510,622,608 to help feed many of those who go to bed hungry each night in this country. An astonishing figure! While we might be able to attribute the motives of the miser to a hardening of his heart to those in need, there are a great many more whose heart goes out immediately to those same people. Generosity is even more common than miserliness, though it is less spectacular and therefore ignored by smart-ass critics such as myself. In the end, I suspect, charitable giving comes down to a natural feeling of sympathy that can be found in most, if not all, human beings.
While some might insist that charity cannot be found in our secular age, one thinker who would disagree is professor Charles Taylor. His position is supported by figures like those noted above in the case of “Feeding America.” He has analyzed in great detail our age in an attempt to understand it better and is convinced that the roots of our charity toward others stems from the remnants of religion that can be found even among those who reject the very notion of religion and appear to be the most self-involved. As he put it in his book The Secular Age:
People still seek those moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday, and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves. We see this in pilgrimages, mass assemblies like World Youth Days, in one-off gatherings of people moved by some highly resonating event, like the funeral of Princess Diana, as well as in rock concerts, raves, and the like. What has all this to do with religion? The relationship is complex. On the one hand, some of these events are unquestionably “religious,” in the [strict] sense that it is oriented to something putatively transcendent (a pilgrimage to Medjugorje or a World Youth Day). And what has perhaps not been sufficiently remarked is the way in which this dimension of religion, which goes back to its earliest forms, is still alive and well today, in spite of all attempts at Reforming élites over many centuries to render our religious and/or moral lives more personal and inward, to disenchant the universe and downplay the collective.
One of the great minds to address this situation was David Hume who, in the eighteenth century, takes another tack entirely: he analyzed the “virtues” that were much talked about in his day — though we hesitate to even use the word any more. Most of the virtues, according to Hume, come down to utility, or their benefit to society as a whole — such things as justice, veracity, and honor. He argued in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that these virtues are valued entirely for their utility while there are others, such as benevolence, friendship, and charity that are partially valued for their utility but also for the feelings of sympathy they give rise to in the recipient or the virtuous persons themselves.
But a third class can be noted, according to Hume, and those virtues are entirely due to the fact that they express in themselves the natural sympathy that humans feel toward one another (though it can be stifled when other feelings become paramount, such as the love of money and power). Those virtues, due entirely to what we might call fellow-feeling, are such things as cheerfulness, modesty, and courtesy. These things have no utility whatever, according to Hume, but we admire them and approve of them when we witness them. And, he insists, we hope to bring up our children in such a way that they will exhibit these virtues along with the others that may be wholly or partially of benefit to society in general.
Thus, whether we take the approach of Hume and argue that humans generally feel a natural sympathy toward one another or we agree with Taylor that there remain the remnants of religion that teaches us to love one another, we can agree that there are sound reasons why a great many people still care about one another enough to help them when they are in need and we know that, when acted upon, such fellow-feeling does indeed make the giver feel a genuine sense of joy. Despite people like the Koch brothers and their ilk, ours remains to a large degree a “culture of sharing.”