When we think of ‘good people,’ we often think of those who help others in need without hesitation. It may seem obvious, then, that charity is a quality that makes someone good, and hence, it is a virtue. If we are content to think that virtues are simply qualities that we praise, we might leave the matter there. Then again, we might want a deeper account: is our praise for charity merely the result of historical contingency, or are there genuine reasons for deeming charity to be a good trait?
One way of assessing whether a quality of a person is a virtue has roots in the Aristotle: virtues are qualities that “make a human being good and which makes him carry out his characteristic activity well.” Is charity necessary to make a human being good, and to allow one to act well? Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy is deeply and pervasively shaped by Aristotle, departed from him significantly in identifying charity as a virtue and, indeed, the greatest virtue. This departure stems from the fact that his conception of this virtue is grounded in his Christian faith: charity is a theological virtue, infused into us by God. On Aquinas’ view, charity is friendship with God. For Aquinas, a charitable person loves God in the way that, for Aristotle, a friend loves his friend: in reciprocal good will, each for the sake of the other. This love of God puts us directly on the path to our highest end, which is the enjoyment of God. This central role of charity in effecting our highest end explains the central role that charity plays in the virtuous life for Aquinas; it makes the virtues fully good because it is through charity that any other virtue we have is caused to exist for its highest purpose. Without charity, our lives cannot be directed to their most complete and perfect end, in the beatific vision, and so “no true virtue is possible without charity.”
So far, there might appear to be little connection with what we ordinarily think of as ‘charity,’ but the connection comes through the fact that in friendship with God we love those whom God loves. In principle, this would extend to all of creation, but there is a special sort of love that is possible toward those that are, like us, capable of the beatific vision. We might say: with fellow human beings, love can play a distinctive role in that there is a common purpose we have, our shared aim of happiness in God. For Aquinas, charity includes responding to evils that beset fellow members of the community through acts of mercy, as well benefitting others who are not beset through acts of kindness. It is in acts of mercy that we see in Aquinas’ account something most like our contemporary notion of charity. For there we find that we have obligations to help others who encounter evil, either in their material condition or spiritually, through sinning. Mercy, on Aquinas’ view is a subordinate virtue to charity, and through it we are commanded to acts of almsgiving including feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming prisoners, and burying the dead (2a2ae, 32, 2). We also are under obligations to others in regard to their spiritual well-being: instructing the ignorant, giving advice to those in doubt, consoling the sorrowful, reproving sinners, forgiving offenses, putting up with people who are burdensome, and praying for all. It is worth emphasizing that all of these acts are part of realizing our highest end for Aquinas; they are sacred duties, rather than mundane parts of our moral life.
For Aquinas then, charity is a matter of loving rightly: we love God for himself and others with regard to their achievement of their highest end. In the next installment I want to consider whether there might be a non-theistic analogue for this idea: a virtue of loving rightly that does not depend on belief in God, and one that brings us to those acts of helping others in plight that are central to our everyday understanding of charity.
John Hacker-Wright is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, and Editor in Chief of The Journal of Value Inquiry.