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Does philanthropy have transcendent meaning?

Most people realize that philanthropy and charity can elevate us above our private, quotidian concerns and connect us with transcendent goods. Yet we don’t often discuss publicly the ability of philanthropy to connect us to transcendent goods because mention of “transcendent goods” sounds like religion -- and thus violates our American commitment to public discourse that is secular rather than sectarian.

Leon Kass argues that our reticence to discuss the transcendent goods associated with philanthropy is unnecessary. While religious traditions do provide us with an account of how philanthropy and charity connect us to transcendent goods, a secular account may be offered of why philanthropy has a transcendent meaning.

Kass, who is Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and currently Madden-Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, has thought deeply on these issues. Last week, he offered his secular account of why philanthropy, along with family, friendship, work, and learning, have a transcendent meaning at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner where Kass was awarded AEI’s Irving Kristol Award (the video and transcript are available here). Kass thinks we can make space for talk of the transcendent in secular public discourse -- and, indeed, that we must do so if we are to acknowledge the full human import of activities like philanthropy in American political society.

According to Kass, philanthropy -- in its various forms, including volunteer work, care for neighbors, and formal public service -- lifts us out of our absorption with our private concerns to an ever-wider community, from neighborhood to nation:

concrete and meaningful expressions of interest and concern . . . lead neighbor actively to care and work for neighbor, Chicagoan for Chicagoan, Texan for Texan, and American for American.

In this ever-wider community, we find ourselves situated so that our single self is elevated into a network of meaningful relationships, thus attaining a significance that transcends that of our own individual life.

And yet, the wider community in which we find meaning cannot be extended indefinitely without losing our parochial sense that is “our community” and that we have a particular, rather than abstract, connection to it:

 life as actually lived is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a web of human relations, institutions, cultures, and mores that define us and . . . give shape, character, and meaning to our lives. One’s feeling for global humanity, however sincere, is based on an abstraction.

For Kass, “parochial” does not imply a narrow-minded insularity but a boundedness that, given our limited capacities as individuals, makes it possible to be fully engaged only with a limited, bounded community.

Our engagement with our American community attaches us to it as patriots. Just as we love more deeply our children the more we care for them, we become greater patriots the more we actively care for our neighbors and fellow Americans.

And while citizens anywhere may be more attached to their country the more they serve it, this is especially so of America, which welcomes as citizens those of all races, ethnicities, and religions:

We [Americans] are a parochial nation with a universal calling and a most remarkable history in answering it. . . . [Our] history is replete with efforts to bring our practices more fully in line with our ideals . . . to belong to such a nation is not only a special blessing but a special calling: to preserve freedom, dignity, and self-government at home and to encourage their share abroad . . . [and so] American patriotism and national service can and do provide a life of transcendent meaning.

Kass’s lecture is filled with hope -- not certainty, but hope -- that many Americans continue to pursue lives of transcendent meaning, including lives enriched by philanthropic activities; in this period when so many have found their material lot diminished, let us share his hope for continued spiritual enrichment.


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