Sunday, January 06, 2013

Defrauding the Virtue of Charity

What's wrong with an argument that individuals ought not be coerced into donating charitably? Take Joel J. Miller's latest posting over on Patheos, which takes on the question directly. Joel's answer is that individual right to self-determination requires that charitable giving not be coerced by others. His answer is seasoned with divine sanction, and fortified by the authority of the Apostles and the Fathers. Since charitable donations belong to God's work of salvation, and the human being is invited to freely participate in that work, it ought not be coerced--by anyone, except by oneself, in which case it doesn't count as coercion. One gets the impression that Joel takes a very dim view of the good that can be accomplished by secular governmental authorities. Or it may be that he assumes the role of government in the lives of citizens ought to be small, very small, smaller than small, so small that it its role in domestic policy is almost non-existent. Or a bit of both.

I should qualify my opening remarks by saying that I appreciate how Joel tries remind us that charity is actually a virtue. I sympathize with his underlying point that individuals must be reminded every once and awhile that the exercise of virtue is an exercise in self-discipline. No one else can do it on your behalf. You have to do it for yourself. And that's about as far down the road as I can travel with Joel.

Evangelical America prizes the personal relationship believers have with God. What this might mean will no doubt vary from believer to believer. Non-believers will also look upon this relationship with varying degrees of skepticism. They are, nonetheless, common features that can be described. The language of personal relationship tends to have the effect of telescoping the many possible ways that relationship might be mediated--through texts, ritual practices, contemplation, prayer, teachers, parents, and so forth--into a single immediate relation experienced in a person's heart. It's precisely Kierkegaard's account of the 'individual in absolute relation to the Absolute', baring his or her most intimate thoughts to the Creator, after having stripped lesser external authorities, except without any of his philosophical sophistication. Just me and God, God and me: nothing more needs saying.

Except, when you are writing about the charitable distribution of goods, it can't just be about God and you. The Evangelical mindset tends to squeeze communal associations out of its social calculus. The moral centrality of the nuclear family, to be sure, remains in place. Most civic and voluntary forms of community, however, are seen as unimportant in the economy of salvation.

Intellectual negligence is not without consequences. The simple wisdom that the productivity a group of people increases exponentially, in direct proportionality to the number of people in said group, was not lost on The Teacher in Ecclesiastes. Nor is it lost on governments, schools, charitable organizations, and...baseball teams, come to think of it. Health care, national defense, higher education, the entertainment industry; these all function precisely because they are communal enterprises. It's no different with charities.

Indeed, Joel's pious articulation of the relationship between myself and God masks a profound cynicism towards collective action, and could also perpetuates that most heinous of self-deceptions, that 'I' am a self-made person. The person in immediate need of 'my' charitable assistance becomes the object of my capricious, self-serving intentions. No thought is given to the sorts of inequities that lodge themselves in the relations between human beings. Which is troubling. Because if charity is merely about the individual's decision to donate, it will most likely be nothing more than a few dollars in a begging bowl or a warm meal. Public initiatives like tax credits for charitable donations and industry regulation, as well as job training programs and other forms of social enablement, moving people off charitable assistance, are missing from the discussion.

The question about coercion seems to have gone missing in the mix of things. Though I can't quite be sure, it may be that Joel equates any government involvement with coercion. If not, it is not at all clear what would count as coercive activity.

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