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Friday, August 23, 2013

Indirect Charity

The word “charity” has two meanings.

In Christian circles “charity” is a synonym for “love.” “Faith, hope, and charity” are Paul’s triad, and they are sometimes translated “faith, hope, and love.”

But the word “charity” has the meaning of “gift-giving that is demeaning to the receiver.” People say, “I don’t want charity.”

Nevertheless, I want to use the word “charity” here, and hopefully rescue it from its negative connotation.

Charity or love is “passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement” of one person with another person. In that sense, charity is the center of human life, and indeed of the universe--but I won’t get into the universe here. I want to talk about love or charity in relation to some of the most important challenges we face as a human race on this earth. The challenges are environmental, but they are caused by patterns of living that are economic and political.

I am inspired to write about this because of the recent Time magazine cover story on bees, and their disappearance. Frogs are disappearing, and I recently reflected that is has been years since I have seen a monarch butterfly.

It is easy to say that all human beings should be involved with each other respectfully etc., but that will not realistically deal with the problem. The problem is with our capitalist economy, and the way we structure the rules of its game.

Capitalism, its defenders say, is the greatest thing that has happened to the human race since the beginning of time. I agree that capitalism has solved some of humanity’s worst historical problems. It has almost eliminated famine, it has led to greater health and well-being for most of us, and it has contributed to human freedom by empowering women. One of its its opposites, “socialism,” has been a failure wherever it has been tried on a large scale. So I don’t want to eliminate capitalism. I want to make capitalism compatible with environmental survival. If we destroy our environment, capitalism will have turned from humanity’s greatest gift to humanity’s greatest evil. We are not doing capitalism well.

We need to extend our charity, our respectful involvement, to the rules of the capitalist game. Some of us have treated the capitalist model as an open invitation to selfishness

—“if we are all are as selfish as possible, we will all be better off.” That simplification ignores the reality that something as complex as a capitalist economy is a game structured by many rules. The rules are not set in stone. They can be changed, but if we operate on the principle that anything that threatens my self-interest is harmful, the people ahead in the game at the moment end up opposing any change in the rules of the game.

Indirect charity is the willingness to change the rules of the game to make the game compatible with human well-being, and indeed, of human survival. In that sense, indirect charity is no different from direct charity. It is simply our involvement with each other in vulnerable and faithful ways, but in ways that allow the changing of the rules of the game.

Why can’t we get a particular environmental problem under control? Because some of us are making money from a particular process--for example, the manufacturing of pesticides. Even if science leans toward saying that a product is environmentally harmful, some of us push ahead manufacturing it. After all, manufacturing provides jobs, and everybody favors creating jobs.

All of us need to be involved with the rest of us respectfully enough to consider changing the rules of the capitalist game even when changing the rules will diminish our profit margin. That willingness is what I mean by “indirect charity.” It is indirect because we will never see the people who benefit from the change, and so the term “involvement” does not apply in the same way that it does in face-to-face encounters. But the involvement is very real. It has costs and benefits. It might cost me and benefit someone else.

I mentioned that “science” can lean toward saying that a product is harmful. Here lies another problem with the way we are doing capitalism. If I operate on the principle that anything that diminishes my profit is harmful, I destroy the value of science.

Science can be the engine that drives capitalism, but if we play by the rule that we should ignore any scientific finding that we do not like, we kill the value of science. Science is never absolutely certain about anything. We can never prove a statement right--we can only prove statements wrong. A billion events that confirm a scientific idea will not confirm it absolutely, but one event that disconfirms the idea is enough to destroy the idea. Because we can never be certain about a scientific statement, it is always possible to find scientific studies that go against the general consensus. Look how long it took our country to accept the idea that smoking is harmful. Tobacco companies always found scientific studies that proved it is not harmful.

Global warming is a hoax, they say. There are scientific studies to prove it.

What capitalism needs is the willingness on the part of its practitioners to accept changing the rules when science seems to show a need to change those rules. That willingness is indirect charity.

A long time ago a political scientist named Karl Deutsch said that human organizations need faith. Faith, for an organization, is making decisions even when you are not absolutely sure about the benefit of the decision. Organizations need humility, in the sense that they need to question their own assumptions. I am arguing that they also need charity, in the sense that they need to be willing to accept some loss if the welfare of the larger human community is at stake.

Capitalism needs indirect charity.