Is Charity a Virtue? part 2

Photo by Tim Green.

As I explained in the previous installment, Aquinas holds charity to be a virtue that is crucial to the attainment of our final end as human beings in the enjoyment of God. In coming to love God for what he is, we come to love his creation for what it is, and this involves a special sort of love for our fellow human beings as those who are ordered to the enjoyment of God. Aquinas’ view of charity is deeply wedded to his faith, but can something of the structure and content of Aquinas’ thought about charity be adapted to a defense of charity towards our fellow human beings (at least) that does not depend on Aquinas’ faith?


Although in the absence of those specific commitments, we may not share a vision of our final end that is as focused as Aquinas’ conception – the enjoyment of God – we undoubtedly have an idea of what it is for a human life to go well or badly. Indeed, such an idea is behind the conception of loss or deprivation in human life that allows us to register misfortunes. The contemporary neo-Aristotelian philosopher Philippa Foot argues that charity is a “prime candidate for a virtue” because “love and other forms of kindness are needed by every one of us when misfortune strikes.” On her view, then, when faced with misfortune, we stand in need of love and kindness from others. But what is meant here? Why do we stand in need of love and kindness from others? Foot does not explain herself, but I would suggest that we need others to register the significance of the evil that has befallen us, which is what a loving response to suffering does. We need our suffering to matter to others, and this goes beyond receiving material aid that might well be delivered with indifference to our suffering, perhaps out of expectation for reciprocity.


Is this need merely a contingent psychological need? Perhaps some people don’t have it, or perhaps with some effort we might overcome it. But I would argue that the need is tied to desires and feelings that are not optional for a human agent: we must desire our own well-being and the preservation of our ability to pursue our ends; affectively, this is registered as self-love. While self-love can play a troubling role in moral life, causing us to fail to register important goods beyond ourselves, proper self-love plays a crucial role in a good human life. Conditions such as depression and sloth or acedia can mute appetites that normally sustain self-love, and leave the sufferer of these conditions in a condition of apathy or hostility towards themselves. These conditions by degrees paralyze our agency or even turn it against itself. If this is correct, then self-love as a proper response to our value is essential and central to the human good, as it sustains our ability to act toward valued ends.


Self-love can ground a need for recognition of our suffering by others. One who loves himself properly sees the value in his undertakings such that when misfortune strikes, only someone who recognizes the damage to those valued pursuits can be said to genuinely grasp the misfortune. Hence, I need from others recognition of the significance of loss; this recognition gives rise to the good of concord in recognizing our value in mutual love. Concord is an Aristotelian notion: a defining feature of friendship that consists in living together, sharing taste, and sharing joys and sorrows; but that form of concord is stronger than the sense I have in mind here, which is formed strictly on the basis of finding value in human agency. Valuing another’s agency involves a sharing in the sorrows and joys of another, at least in a general way. That is, I need not value everyone’s undertakings, but even without doing so, without even knowing what someone’s specific aims in life are, I can register the tragedy of a stranger’s loss of a close friend or family member, and such understanding moves the charitable person to action. This concord holds us together as a kind in an affective and practical sense, and gives our humanity an important moral sense: we recognize in other human beings distinctive capacities for loss and joy that brings out a distinctive, and distinctively valuable sort of love from us, and this love is an analogue, I believe, to Aquinas’ charity.


On this view then, lacking the quality of responding to the suffering of others with kindness is a defect in a human being: in its absence, we cannot enjoy this great good which consists of concord concerning our value as human beings. Conversely, possessing this quality makes us good qua human, and this argument gives us reason to think that charity, so understood, is indeed a virtue.

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.