Selfish Charity

In Judaism, an act of giving charity is known as tzedakah. As there are many ways to give charity, the Hebrew standard makes a point in establishing tiers between each act. For instance, one of the most noble types of giving is when neither the giver nor the receiver know anything about each other; lesser forms include when the exchange is public, or the giver does so after being asked. Acts of charity that are motivated by the least potential of external reward (e.g., recognition) are therefore the greatest.

One hazy NYC night, a man stumbles into a $1 pizza place. Standing in the doorway is a young homeless man with hopeful hands extended to the sidewalk. As the man enters the shop, the young man asks for some change. The man first ignores him, but while he stands in line, he begins to feel guilty. How much would it cost to get the guy a slice of pizza, really? For a dollar more, he decides to double his order, and on the way out, hands the slice to the young man and smiles a well-meaning smile.

The beauty of the man’s action is that he walks away feeling like he did the right thing. Yet as he lies awake later that night, wondering why he was so quick to brush the guy off, he asks himself why he felt guilty. If he really cared about the other’s well-being, wouldn’t he have sprung at the opportunity to help him? Instead, he pulled away, as if the homeless man’s condition were contagious. It had been like a reflex. He imagines the event from someone else’s point of view, and he begins to wonder: did he really care about the young man, or did he simply want to think of himself as the kind of person who did?

Charity sometimes poses the question of motivation. Imagine a Hollywood socialite (let’s call him Michael) who went into acting with dreams of being seen on the stage, and who found his spotlight in blockbuster movies. Today, he spends most of his free time engaging in charitable causes. Michael can be seen at all the biggest events, proudly championing the latest crisis. We might note, smugly, that he always comes dressed in the latest fashions, probably wearing a golden watch, and snark that Michael only gives for himself.

Now consider a Catholic minister (we’ll call him Father John) who has dedicated his life to the worship and service of God. As a good Catholic, he believes devoutly in Heaven and Hell, and is renowned for the quality of sermon he gives on the weekend. Father John is considered exemplary  by those in his congregation, and inspires the community to emulate his actions in their own Catholic lives. Yet although he preaches love and acceptance toward his fellow man, beneath the rhetoric, he is only concerned with securing his place in the afterlife.

In Michael and Father John, we see the extremes of those who give to improve their public image, and those who give for reasons that are internal but self-serving. If these reasons tarnish their charities, we must ask, what does this mean of their goodness? We cannot evaluate motivation and impact simultaneously, but while both types of charity have their vanities, they also have their benefits, and benefits are always a good thing.

From the outside, it is especially hard to establish why a man does what he does. Internally, it can be even more difficult. We imagine that Michael doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize that he cares more about the idea of being conceived as a good person than he does about actually being one. And so, the pessimist argues that all altruism is motivated by self-interest; the sociologist, economist, and evolutionist will say that society itself depends on good faith, but that when we champion the nobility of justice, it is only in the selfish hope that when things are bad for ME that the benevolent nature of the universe will prevail.

Then there are those actions that arise from true personal sacrifice. All charities require involvement, fewer commitment, but only the most dedicated demand a person’s entire soul. A friend donates a kidney to somebody on a transplant list; a parent works two jobs so that the kids can have a better life.  Why would someone act like that? Any benevolence can be stripped down to something base: the doctor wants to cure so that she can think of herself as worthwhile; the parent wants their children’s success to validate their own. Our challenge is not to see the world in this way, but to enable empathy to flourish.

Charity that arise from Love, from understanding that the other is also a human being, is the truest form of charity. It doesn’t matter who it’s for, or where it’s going, but that it is given knowing that it will help someone who needs help, and that in embracing their humanity, we embrace the human race. If we give with the belief that there is no division between oneself and one’s world, we forfeit the idea of self, and so the idea of selfish charity becomes ridiculous.

The entirety of the universe is contained in the breathe we share with each other.