Charity, Particularity, and Justice

January 17, 2008 § 7 Comments

One of the interesting dialectical pivot points in recent discussions we’ve had about employment discrimination is charity. At some point our Christian culture degenerated to the point where “charity” started to mean “acts which are nice to do but always optional”. Another thing which seems to have come along for the ride is that charity has become more abstract: the notion seems to be that charity is a marketplace selection of opportunities from which we can arbitrarily choose what we want.

In the discussion on natural obligations employers have toward the men providing for families who work for them, this has manifested in two ways.

The first way has been to treat the contingent obligation an employer has to provide for the basic dignity and needs of employees, and in turn the loyalty and diligence that an employee owes to his employer, as optional: as things not required as a matter of reciprocal justice, but rather as gratuitous and completely optional gifts.

The second way this notion has manifested itself is in the idea that charity (and therefore justice) is fungible: that there is no particular charitable obligation of employer to employee in justice but rather that the employer’s obligation is just to some abstract charity-in-general, an obligation (to the extent it is one at all: see the previous point) which can be discharged by giving to one of any number of charitable opportunities in a marketplace of opportunities.

Contra all this, it seems to me that while some acts of charity – indeed the best kind – are truly gratuitous, charity in general is not optional. In addition, many or perhaps even most obligations in charity arise in particular contexts; and particular obligations cannot be discharged by “giving at the office”. They have to be discharged here, now, in the context and connected to the actual persons with respect to whom they arose.

In short, the notion that charity and justice can be sawed into two utterly distinct realms is a false notion. And it is the height of foolishness to base our moral understandings and public policies on falsity.

(Cross-posted at What’s Wrong with the World)

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§ 7 Responses to Charity, Particularity, and Justice

  • Bob says:

    It might be helpful to know that the meaning of charity has diluted or shifted over time. In Douay-Rheims, “charity” is often used where the word “love” is used in modern translations.Now we’re in a position where the theological meaning of charity is quite different from the ordinary common meaning of the word in daily usage.

  • Tony M says:

    While I agree with the basic point that obligations of charity are still <> obligations <>, rather than purely optional, I do not quite agree with the last point Zippy makes about the separation of justice and charity. Or, at least, he needs to be much clearer. In general, justice can be spoken of, defined, and understood, without reference to the Divine Being (except those specific and particular sub-parts of justice regarding what we owe to our maker, and these are not justice-in-general). In the rough sense, it refers to giving to another what is his due. The habit by which a just man is called just is the deep-seated readiness to give, always and in all ways, to each person what is his due. Now, it so happens that in some cases the single correct action before us is one of charity (modern sense) to our neighbor. If so, then it is an obligation in charity. But that action, precisely because it is in charity and not in justice, is not owed to the neighbor <> as his due, <>, but as something higher than, or better than, his due, and this is mercy. The reason it is our obligation, instead of a mere optional choice, is because we owe it to God as <> His <> due, not our neighbor’s due. The simplest way to understand (or at least distinguish) the difference is to ask what is the proper response from the neighbor in receiving the action. If it is thanksgiving, gratefulness, then the action is not that of justice, because in justice one simply gets back what is your due. It is to mercy that we respond with thanks. If the response is simply acknowledgment as of receiving one’s own back again, then this is justice, not charity. Thus the two virtues are really distinct, though of course related as all virtues are related and must be.

  • zippy says:

    <>If it is thanksgiving, gratefulness, then the action is not that of justice, because in justice one simply gets back what is your due.<>We should not be grateful and thankful when others act justly toward us?The idea isn’t that justice and charity are utterly indistinuishable but rather that they cannot be made utterly distinct and independent of one another. So perhaps any disagreement is merely verbal.

  • Tony M says:

    Just curious: why would you be grateful to receive your due? If Bob borrows your rake, and returns it the next day, you need not thank him for returning it. He has not done you a good turn in any sense. You have done him a good turn, in letting him borrow it. His returning it merely marks the cessation of your doing him a good turn. You don’t thank someone on account of your no longer doing them good. In a world in which proper respect for what is due tends to be lacking, we may be surprised to find it rendered fully and completely, and this surprise may elicit a response nearly identical to gratefulness, since we did not expect the good we received (i.e what was our due). This should not cloud our understanding of when gratefulness is the precisely correct response. I am not speaking of common courtesy: If I tell Bob “thank you” when he returns the rake, this remark would be interchangeable with “excellent!”, or “Job all done now?” or anything else that confirms and acknowledges that I have in fact received back what was my own. “Thanks” is merely one of those phrases which (hopefully) trips off our tongues readily and is therefore is used in all sorts of places where we do not actually harbor gratefulness. I use it a lot when a secretary puts me through to the boss, even though it is the boss who needs my service, and who called me in desperation, and whose call I am returning. That is, there are lots of times when the outward appearance of a favor or a good turn elicits the remark, whereas the actual substance is not one that properly causes us to be grateful. Thus, when Bob returns the rake, the outward form is him giving me something that is good for me, and by convention I can use a phrase like “thank you” to mark the event. But the substance of the act is that Bob ceases to hold my property, and this is not something I need to be thankful for.

  • zippy says:

    <>…why would you be grateful to receive your due?<>Charity (that is, agape), I suppose. Also when I say “thank you” I generally aspire to mean “thank you”, not “you owed me that, but to show how courteous I am I will say ‘thank you'”.We should always be thankful – genuinely thankful – when someone does what is good and right, it seems to me.

  • Tony M says:

    Sure, charity (caritas) can be the motive for being pleased that someone did what is right. But this would imply thankfulness to God, not to Bob. I would be thankful toward Bob when he does me a good I cannot call on him to do out of justice – not when he ceases to be my supplicant. Otherwise, we would need to go around saying thank you to those who are leaving the welfare rolls because they now have paying jobs and no longer need our beneficence. (This reminds me of the passage in which Paul speaks of being a worthless servant – after I have done ALL that I ought, what thanks are owed me? None – for I am an unprofitable servant. All that good which “I” did was done through God’s power, and I added not one iota over and above God’s work. Thus, doing that for another which one is merely obliged to do out of justice does not provide a basis for being thanked.) I am not saying it is wrong to say thank you to Bob, merely pointing out that it is in this case in the nature of a conventional remark regarding the outward appearance of the act rather than substance of the act. Nor is it erroneous to strive to be thankful to God for every good we hold, including those which come into our hands through the offices of our fellow man.

  • zippy says:

    I think saying thank you to Bob when you don’t mean it is a species of lie.

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