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“Charity” and “philanthropy” are not equivalent ways of helping your neighbor. One—a Christian virtue—flows from love. The other—sterile and secular—is born out of duty.

Christians frequently point out that there is a difference between “philanthropy” and Christian “charity.” Philanthropia, love of man, is abstract and impersonal. Philanthropy emphasizes our duty to give to our fellow man. The primary motivator for philanthropy is our responsibility to humanity: as someone with more, we ought to help lift up those with less.


This philosophy can be carried out with great enthusiasm and compassion, but there remains something cold and transactional in it. A duty is something required, binding like a contract. Philanthropy can be spontaneous, but it is moved more by ideas about people in need than by the people in need themselves. Who, after all, is “humanity”?

Charity, by contrast, is always tied to concrete persons. Acts of charity are carried out towards Peter, who lost his job … or the homeless guy around the corner from the office … or the single father with several children. Moreover, charity calls us to provide those whom we serve with something more than a boost in their balance sheet. For all that someone’s life might be improved through greater material comfort, at the end of the day, even the wealthiest person has nothing if they do not have meaningful, loving relationships. Charity goes beyond any discrete action to establish bonds of love.

More pointed critics of philanthropy take the point further, arguing that while Christian charity looks to effect love in the world (however “ineffective”), philanthropy has brutalist characteristics, seeking to change communities and people, often against their will. Charity rests content with the act of love, however small. Even while the world remains imperfect, “all will be well”—and the love with which we give has a better impact than the attempted “structural change” driven by philanthropic programs.


But even this contrast between loving charity and impersonal philanthropy has the potential to obscure the important “selfish” nature of Christian charity. Loving those around us without seeking anything in return is important. But ultimately, we love because we desire something for ourselves.

Kantian morality, which has so influenced our modern world, has clouded the proper understanding of selfishness and selflessness. Duty is about doing what we ought, not what makes us happy, and it is selfish—so we often think—to seek to be happy when the requirements of justice call us to sacrifice!

The classical philosophical tradition stands in contrast, insisting that the fruit of acting rightly is happiness. This philosophical contrast is at the heart of the difference between charity and philanthropy. What we seek in acts of charity is “selfish”: we seek to draw nearer to God, to become happier. It is true that sometimes doing good things requires sacrifice, and causes us discomfort, pain, and momentary unhappiness. But sacrificing for others achieves, ultimately, an enduring happiness.


The Desert Fathers of Late Antiquity provide an example of this selfish selflessness in their “erotic” and ardent desire for God. In the Life of St. Anthony we read that St. Anthony heard the Gospel injunction to “Sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me” and took it seriously. He immediately offloaded his possessions and went to the desert to seek God, deciding that the search for such a great treasure could not be deferred another day. The “selfless” sacrifice of one’s comfort, possessions, and worldly attachments for the sake of God and the “selfish” desire to possess God for oneself are in harmony.

If charity harmonizes selfishness and selflessness, philanthropy drives a wedge between them. For the “philanthropist,” there is a right thing to do, and a duty to do it, and the only object of concern is that duty to act—not the actual persons who need help. The happiness of those in need is irrelevant, because what matters is the moral imperative. The main impulse, then, is abstract thought about how to “reform society,” how to exhibit moral duty—again, not the concrete circumstances of those being helped.

It is here that we find the root of philanthropy’s tendency towards impersonality and violence. If we operate on universal and absolutist terms about “what must be done,” prioritizing uniform programs of social change that transform society along the lines of the “right thing,” then those persons whose lives are “improved” through social engineering take a back seat to the “duty” to effect change. And so “duties” take precedence over persons.


We live in a period that focuses on political goals and structural reform of society: laws must be passed, injustice protested, demonstrations organized, and new educational curricula promulgated. We must constantly be selfless for the sake of the cause—it is our sleepless duty. Under such circumstances, it becomes obvious that joining the fray and being merely another voice calling for reform is a futile and depressing undertaking.

Perhaps it is time to start acting more selfishly. Perhaps we should forget the duty to fix ever-elusive structural injustice and start seeking happiness in concrete acts of love. Perhaps now is the time for charity.

1 thought on “What is charity?”

  1. John Coffey says:

    Thanks for writing this, Eduardo. I take with your point that philanthropy has a general sense to it whereas charity thrust us into the particular and that is the kind of giving that feeds souls, both the giver and receiver. I’m curious, however, as to how you arrived at the idea that philanthropy is cold, transactional and duty-bound? Just because it is geared at man (anthropos) in a general way, doesn’t make it duty-bound or contractual as far as I can see. After all the root (philia) is the same kind of love used for friendship, which is certainly not cold, transactional, or duty bound. One still must make a choice to love his fellow men. I think most would agree it is much easier to be a misanthrope than a philanthropist. Still, I appreciate the point of your article on the whole, that our philanthropy cannot become detached from the particular needs and suffering of real individuals, lest it become merely a tax break. Thanks for writing and if you could walk me through your etymological conclusion about “philanthropy” I would appreciate it.

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