The inner moral dialogue that accompanies charitable giving evokes a curious phenomenon, a kind of guilt-laden altruism that plagues the comfortable pockets of the West. It is no secret that good deeds make you feel good. An inescapable warmth seemingly emanates from philanthropy like some unavoidable moral hangover.
Yet a quick Internet search underscores the self-aggrandising process that is connected to giving, with titles of articles such as: ‘Charity is Selfish’ and ‘The Selfish Reasons Behind Why We Give.’ These articles clamour for a departure from the contented rut of donating generously and feeling gratified because of it. The only problem is that this is not some post-modern anxiety that has etched its way into the sophisticated digital-age psyche. Alas, once again history reminds us that there is nothing truly new under the sun.
The notion of selfish charity, the idea that helping those less fortunate can benefit the donor, has been highlighted throughout British history. The Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th Century and the Liberal Reforms at the dawn of the 20th Century are pertinent examples. The late medieval abuses of Catholic indulgences allowed for good deeds, including charitable donations, to be used as remuneration for punishment due to sin. The marketing of generous donations by the Catholic Church became increasingly aggressive; in 1517 Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who contributed to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Johnathon Tetzel, a Roman Catholic friar and preacher, promoted the now infamous verse, ‘As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.’ These abuses are what influenced Martin Luther to condemn the Catholic Church in his Ninety-Five Thesis, denouncing what he saw as the sale and purchase of salvation. The Catholic Church, with all its power and influence, definitively reinforced the idea that charity was predominantly related to, and held consequences for, the giver just as much as the receiver.
Four centuries later, the Liberal welfare reforms (1906-1914) ignited the issue of charity versus self-help in Victorian consciousness. Social investigations by both Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree challenged the Victorian maxim of ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps’ by discovering the true severity of poverty in England. As a result of these changing perceptions, clashes between the state and the church were aggravated. Christian individuals and charities believed it was their duty before God to help the needy and thus constituted a significant affirmation towards being accepted into the kingdom of heaven. As has been argued by historians, in assuming these duties, the state was essentially undermining the self-interested desire of Christians to fulfil their obligations.
These cases all call into question the motives behind giving. Should selfishly motivated charity be considered charity at all? Does feeling contented devalue the selfless nature of giving? Does donating anonymously circumvent the problem? Though perhaps the easy way out, the utilitarian approach of simply saying ‘so what?’ holds a certain appeal. So what if people are motivated on a personal level to give to charity? After all, a philosophical case can be made for personal motivations stimulating every decision made by humans. At the end of the day it is a win-win situation. Help others, feel good, donate when you can and ignore the naysayers, because only in absence of ego can you not reap rewards of charitable giving.