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Few people, it seems, give much thought to the differences between “philanthropy” and “charity,” or why it is that the former is now much the preferred term over the latter, especially among those who wish to sound serious and sophisticated. But as it turns out, historically and conceptually philanthropy and charity refer to different things—or more precisely, to different logics.

This difference is concisely demonstrated in a recent article on the Fast Company website headlined “This Homelessness Organization Says You Should Stop Donating to the Homeless.” This piece manages to tick the boxes of virtually all of the arguments by which philanthropy’s advocates have been making their case—and denigrating “mere” charity—for nearly two centuries now.

Donors, we are told by the Weingart Center’s representatives, are essentially perpetuating the problem of homelessness by caring for people on the streets. They are making a “phenomenally bad investment of tax dollars.” They are not acting rationally in their own self-interest. They are too guided by emotion rather than hard financial calculations. They are not getting at the root causes of homelessness.

I’m exaggerating a little, but this is the thrust of the article. And if it seems to you like you have heard this sort of thing before, that’s because the proponents of philanthropy have been making precisely these arguments against the alleged wastefulness of traditional charity for years—in fact, ever since the word philanthropy first came into general use in America in the decades just before the Civil War.

From the beginning, the new philanthropists contrasted their approach to that of the old purveyors of charity. They were rational investors and social engineers. The charity providers—the folks running soup kitchens and handing out clothes to the needy and succoring the sick and caring for orphans and giving food to the hobo at the door—were muddle-headed weaklings who just made things worse for everyone.

What the advocates of the new philanthropy did not and still don’t understand is that charity operates according to a different logic than philanthropy. Unlike philanthropy, charity does not understand itself as a technology for bringing about social change or solving social problems. Charity is a matter, primarily, of witness—to the dignity of the human person, to the bonds that tie together the human family, and, historically speaking at least, to the love of God. Charity is therefore inescapably personal. It is never a matter of simply making a sound “social investment.”

This is the story I tell in The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity. I point out that charity in the West is deeply rooted in the theology and practices of Judaism and Christianity. Philanthropy’s proponents in the 1800s and 1900s understood that, and so they happily attacked traditional Judeo-Christian charity. Sometimes, in a more constructive mode, they preferred to recommend that the concept be revised to better align with modern thinking. And among the most enthusiastic of the revisionists were the secular foundations and progressive pastors and rabbis who championed the eugenics movement, as William Schambra and Christine Rosen have amply shown.

Whoa. Eugenics? Is it really fair to bring that up? I think it is. For eugenics demonstrates with great clarity the problems with following strictly philanthropic logic to its natural conclusion. It is not surprising that the philosopher Peter Singer, one of the more visible advocates for “after-birth abortion,” is a leading figure in today’s utilitarian effective altruism movement. There is a powerful logical consistency in these positions.

Yet the desire to mobilize private resources to root out social problems—to “end homelessness”—often conflicts with our intuition that every person matters, that we are called to share others’ suffering as much as we are to eradicate it, that in fact that sharing others’ suffering is what really elevates human beings and reveals the meaning of our common humanity, perhaps even the cosmos. The pure philanthropists and effective altruists think that the conflict between philanthropy and charity ought to be resolved by overcoming such superstitious notions. Yet these intuitions, and the charitable practices to which they give rise, stubbornly persist. That is good news for those who believe that sustaining, or even reviving, traditional charity is necessary for the maintenance of human dignity in the twenty-first century. Even if it means wasting a few tax dollars along the way.


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