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.

Is Charity a Virtue? part 1

“Charity” Photo by Hugo Cardoso.

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.