Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Justice and Charity

I continue to puzzle about the nature of charity as concept and practice, the relation of the two aspects, and the relation of both to the concept and virtue of justice.  Here are some still preliminary thoughts.

Justice and Charity
          Charity was from the Church’s beginnings both the central virtue of the faith and an organized ministry to the poor and downtrodden, one involving both material and spiritual assistance. 
          One of the challenges to charity as an organized activity of the Church comes from those, especially Marxists and Rawlsian liberals, who object to charity precisely as the gratuitous self-giving for the benefit of another who is in need of help.  Works of charity or almsgiving are seen as intrinsically arbitrary, being the free gifts to which the recipient has no specific or legal claim. 
          Among Christian writers, there is a range of approaches to the question.  Wolterstorff (2006) offers a strong biblical argument for an emphasis on justice – and hence, he concludes, on individual rights as claims on the state - precisely at the expense of charity as Christians have traditionally understood it.  His work increasingly takes on the whole Christian tradition of the virtues in the name of rights and justice (Wolterstorff, 2010, 2011).  He thus provides a scholarly and biblical defense of a social-democratic theory of rights and social welfare.
Both NASW and CSWE define the enhancing of human well-being as the central purpose of social work (Adams, 2009).  Wolterstorff (2006), however, draws a strong contrast between enhancing well-being, which he associates with charity, and justice that is about rights and claims on the state.  He sees charity as “justice-blind” and, in curious contrast to traditional Christian teaching, as unable to focus of the worth of the other.  “All too often,” he says, “such love or charity comes across as smothering, not infrequently as oppressive and demeaning” (p. 135).
Wolterstorff (2006), like Marxism, also criticizes charity for its focus, as a virtue, on the giver rather than the receiver.
…if I see myself as treating you with love, charity, benevolence, rather than with justice, it is not unlikely that I will also think of myself as morally superior, and will expect gratitude for my generosity.  It happens all the time (p. 135).
From this “justice, not charity” perspective, charity is intrinsically demeaning.  The need to which charity responds, at the same time, exists because society is unjustly ordered.  The social work task, then, is one of justice, not charity.  It is to work for a justly ordered society that ensures that all citizens, especially the most vulnerable, are entitled to adequate shelter, clothing, food, and income as a matter of right, not charity.  Something like this, indeed, characterizes most definitions of the twentieth century welfare state.  Wilensky and Lebeaux (1958), for example, famously defined the welfare state in these terms. [When I finish unpacking, I’ll find the quote.]
This approach treats justice and charity as mutually exclusive.  In the tradition of Christian ethics, on the other hand, both are virtues and as such mutually reinforcing if not necessary to each other.  They are virtues of the individual or community – habits of the heart - and both find expression in social activities and arrangements.  Justice is the virtue or habit of giving all their due.  As such it involves judgments about what is due and what social arrangements can best secure it. 
          Wakefield’s concern is not to reject charity in favor of justice, but to defend clinical practice (the direct practice with individuals and families that evolved from organized charity’s “friendly visiting”), as a proper part of a social work oriented to justice.  He includes provision of clinical services in the “minimal distributive justice” to which the poor and downtrodden are entitled.  He elaborated this approach in a series of articles on the conceptual foundations of social work, using Rawls's theory of justice as a framework.  It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that Wakefield rehabilitates charity - the scientific charity of the friendly visitors as it evolved through social diagnosis to a psychoanalytically informed clinical practice – as a form or aspect of justice.
          Others see charity as a sub-virtue of justice, since the virtue of justice involves giving all their due (Mattison, 2008).  Both individual acts of almsgiving and social programs to assist those who are poor or oppressed can thus be understood as acts of justice, of rendering to all their due.
Charity as the voluntary assistance of the poor and downtrodden came under fire in the nineteenth century both in its sentimental and its scientific forms. 
The Charity Organization Societies (COS) emerged out of a critique of charity in its disorganized, “sentimental” forms – a critique similar in some respects to that of Wolterstorff (2006), though its proffered alternative was different.  The various existing societies for giving aid to the poor were uncoordinated, readily abused, and lacked ongoing help based on a real understanding of the specific needs of the poor families involved.  It was disorganized charity.  Among the COS responses were individualized assistance to the poor “client” (Mary Richmond’s term), with clinical assessment or social diagnosis, case conferencing, intervention in the form of “friendly visiting” (later professionalized as social casework), research, and coordination of charitable giving in the community.
The COS movement, however, aimed not only to replace “sentimental” with scientific, organized charity; it also sought to bring personal concern and friendship to the relation of giver and receiver in charity.  In a world where charity had become either a formal, impersonal, and demoralizing system of public poor relief supported by taxation or else casual and random handouts, they aimed to bring the ordered love that Christian charity entails.
One result was the professionalization of charity in the form of social work – a profession that aims to improve human well-being with particular attention to the individual and community needs of the poor and oppressed.  The process involved required such attributes of a profession as a specific body of knowledge, skills, and values, a code of ethics, and the quest for licensure by the state.  All of this required a distancing from the very word charity, whether as poor relief, sentimental giving, or even organized charity.
At the same time charity’s reputation suffered precisely from the attempt to organize it and make it more scientific.  As the poet John Boyle O’Reilly put it,
The organized charity, scrimp’d and iced,
In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.
Charity thus came under fire from all sides, from socialists for promoting an alternative to their own class struggle for a different order (the settlement houses as competitors with the Socialist Party in Chicago and elsewhere, social casework as, in the words of the London COS, the “true antidote to Bolshevism”); from “sentimental charity” for going cold and scientific; from social workers for being unprofessional. 
Of particular interest here, because it challenges professional social work as well as charity, is the critique that charity, whether as casual almsgiving, tax-supported poor relief, or proto-social-work, was itself uncharitable.  This oxymoronic paradox is captured in the phrase of Karl Jaspers (cited by Pieper, 1997; Mattison, 2008), “charity without love.”  The phrase points to a recognizable reality and problem, yet such charity clearly is not charity in the sense of the Christian theological virtue.  Nor is it just in the sense of the cardinal virtue of justice.
So how do we resolve this paradox, this contradiction in terms that points to a contradiction in reality?  In my next post on this theme, I will take up Pope Benedict’s discussion of this theme, above all in his extraordinary first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est – God is Love.

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