Smile Politely

Charity vs. Justice

Last year, a friend and I were arguing about health care. I was arguing that everyone was entitled to health care, and he was arguing that no one was entitled to health care. In an attempt to expose what he believed to be liberal hypocrisy, he told me that I should pay for his health insurance, since at the time he could not afford health insurance himself. This type of argument often happens when liberals and conservatives debate. 

“If you love poor people so much, why don’t you give all your money to them?” says the conservative.

“If you hate government so much, why don’t you stop driving on public roads and using public parks,” responds the liberal.

This continues until the lunch room or family room is entirely cleared of sensible people.  It’s not unlike media punditry in that way.

However, our exchange highlighted something that I think many people miss — there is a huge difference between charity and justice.  My friend thinks that because I believe in justice (enacting social policy that is fair and equally applied to everyone) that I should be willing to take on any case of charity (a one-way act of benevolence).

There’s a simple reason I don’t give all my money to poor people: one person giving away all their money doesn’t really help to reduce poverty all that much. It will temporarily help a few poor people, which is good. But without structural changes in how resources are distributed, its main effect will be to make the person who gave away all their money less able to influence society in ways that would help everyone.

More importantly, it is charity, not justice. Charity is a good thing a lot of the time, but it is not an unmitigated good. Too often, it is demeaning to the receiver and provides the giver unwarranted feelings of superiority. Charity depends on the whims of those who have money, and on other people’s access to them, which is not a very effective way to provide justice in the world. Charity merely allows those with power to grant favors to those without power, without really challenging the basic inequity of power.

As St. Augustine said 1500 years ago, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” In fact, it often gets in the way of justice, because it allows those in power to wipe their hands from larger problems, pointing out that, after all, they gave money to a friend of theirs. Justice is taking the decision out of the hands of the powerful, and guaranteeing that everyone be provided basic protections, rights, and material well-being. Justice needs a social policy that will require all people to abide by their social responsibilities. It does not depend on random and sporadic charity.

This is a good thing, because you don’t want justice to depend on charity being doled out by someone like me. I’m too biased. For example, if I decided to offer my benevolence to someone, like my friend for his health-care, it would be according to my own criteria. The problem for my friend here is that I have a bias against giving my money to those who advocate for the most powerful in society against the least powerful. My biases matter when it is “my” money.

I believe a great and civilized nation should provide basic, universal health care for its citizens. But such a policy should not be subject to my own personal bias, because tax dollars come from everyone. So, public policy should dictate that you can’t discriminate against anyone based on political beliefs, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, personality defects, or even against those who don’t agree that they should be getting health care from tax dollars.

Of course, some good can be accomplished when individuals act for causes out of conviction and compassion. It extends even beyond charity. For example, it feels good to reduce your carbon footprint. It’s admirable for a responsible business owner to pay living wages to his or her employees. It’s great to provide immediate shelter to a homeless person. I pat myself on the back when I’m responsible and enjoy feeling morally righteous for a little while. 

But most individual acts of kindness don’t help solve the underlying problem. Social justice ensures the common good in a way that charity does not. Only a social policy that dictates that everyone do their part does justice have some teeth. There will always be a need for charity, as there will always be people who fall through the cracks. But if we truly care about the common good, we need to reflect it with social policy.




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