Philanthropy vs. Charity

Charles Taylor on the sources of the philanthropic self

Editors’ Note: Jeremy Beer continues the site’s ongoing forum on “philanthropy vs. charity” with a discussion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). Leaning on this 2007 work, Beer analyzes whether “the moral sources of modern philanthropy [are] adequate to sustain philanthropy’s ideals of ‘universal human dignity and well-being.'”

In various places throughout his immensely important body of work—including Sources of the Self (1990) and Dilemmas and Connections (2011)—the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor provides a historically informed, sympathetic, yet critical account of the sources, spirit, and limitations of philanthropy. The account provided by Taylor in his celebrated A Secular Age (2007) offers a good example of Taylor’s argument that while the philanthropic turn constitutes a welcome development in the West’s moral consciousness, in and of itself it is insufficient to secure its own goals. It is an argument worth attending to in light of HistPhil’s charity-vs-philanthropy forum.

In A Secular Age, Taylor proposes that modern Western societies are best understood as being secular in that within them belief in God is optional, debatable. Belief is always shadowed by unbelief.

Yet the converse is also true: to maintain unbelief, even within today’s secular societies, is not necessarily easy. As his perceptive commentator James K. A. Smith explains, Taylor observes that “in some fleeting moments of aesthetic enchantment or mundane haunting, even the secularist is pressed by the sense of something more—some ‘fullness’ that wells up within (or presses down upon) the managed immanent frame we’ve constructed in modernity.”

In Taylor’s terminology, our age is “cross-pressured” by the “What is the meaning of it all?’ question, which finds no uncontestable answer. Modern, post-Enlightenment philanthropy can be understood as one way of responding to this cross-pressure. The philanthropic turn, Taylor suggests, can be seen as a way of achieving transcendence of the self by reaching out in a horizontal (toward others) rather than vertical (toward God) dimension. To believe in and engage in philanthropy is a powerful way of constructing meaning in a secular age.

The turn to philanthropy is a characteristic move within what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism.” The modern philanthropic turn, insofar as it attempts to truly universalize benevolence and human solidarity, Taylor believes to be a good thing. In this sense, philanthropy more fully realizes the promise of Christian charity, a promise which purportedly Christian societies manifestly failed to deliver. But here Taylor raises a question: can a horizontally oriented philanthropy really deliver the goods? Or rather, does such a philanthropy “tempt us to neglect the failures, the blackguards, the useless, the dying, those on the way out, in brief, those who negate the promise” of exclusive-humanist modernity? In other words, are the moral sources of modern philanthropy adequate to sustain philanthropy’s ideals of “universal human dignity and well-being”? If not, what is missing?


“We could put the matter this way,” Taylor writes. “Our age makes higher demands of solidarity and benevolence on people today than ever before. Never before have people been asked to stretch out so far, and so consistently, so systematically, so as a matter of course, to the stranger outside the gates.” In this sense, philanthropy intensifies the demands of charity. If we do not always, or even often, live up to our ideals, nevertheless “how do we do as well as we do”?

In part, Taylor suggests, we do as well as we do because “performance to these standards” of universal benevolence “has become part of what we understand as a decent, civilized life.” Shame, in other words, is one of the sources of our moral selves, as far as philanthropy is concerned.

A second source of the modern philanthropic turn is our sense that we are affirming the great value and dignity of human beings—and thus, of ourselves—when we give. In discarding the “low and demeaning picture of human beings as depraved, inveterate sinners” characteristic of premodern Christian societies, we find “the courage to act for reform.” Giving can now be seen as at least potentially effective in making the world we all share a better one. Here is where philanthropy does not merely intensify but instead deviates from charity’s goals.

Taylor emphasizes the positive dimension of this shift. But he also asks us to consider the downside, which is that the human world all too often proves impervious to lasting improvement. In the face of “stupid recalcitrance” on the part of those we would help, we are tempted to abandon them, or worse—and all the more so when the personalist constraints of charity have been cast off.

A vicious dynamic arises. “Before the reality of human shortcomings, philanthropy—the love of the human—can gradually come to be invested with contempt, hatred, aggression. The action is broken off, or worse, continues, but informed now with these new feelings, and becomes progressively more coercive and inhumane.” Taylor does not hesitate to name the despotic communist and socialist regimes of the twentieth century as participating in this dynamic as much as did “a host of ‘helping’ institutions on a micro level from orphanages to boarding schools for aboriginals.”

The advent of this dynamic is how the exclusive humanism of modernity has come to repeat the tragedies it correctly identified as compromising the integrity of premodern Christian societies. “Wherever action for high ideals is not tempered, controlled, ultimately engulfed in an unconditional love of the beneficiaries this ugly dialectic risks repeating itself.” The question, Taylor implies, is whether a society shaped by exclusive humanism can generate the necessary resources for unconditional love of the other. Precisely this doctrine is embedded within the pre-philanthropic Christian concept of charity, of course.

In short, according to Taylor the universal benevolence preached by exclusive humanism “leaves us with our own high sense of self-worth to keep us from backsliding, a high notion of human worth to inspire us forward, and a flaming indignation against wrong and oppression to energize us. It cannot appreciate how problematic all of these are, how easily they can slide into something trivial, ugly, or downright dangerous and destructive.”

How can this slide be arrested? One path, generated from within exclusive humanism itself, was to affirm the nobility of philanthropy not out of a high view of humanity but out of a low, even misanthropic view. This was the answer put forward by figures like Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Milan Kundera. What is noble, they suggest, is to affirm the necessity of philanthropic solidarity even in the face of the clear meaninglessness and hopelessness of the human condition. This tradition is thus protected from disillusionment. It is between these two poles—the poles of optimistic and pessimistic exclusive humanism—where the modern dialectic of philanthropy takes place.

Taylor doubts that either answer is adequate to sustain “unconditional love” of the other. What is missing—although he does not use either word—is charity’s personalism. What if, Taylor asks, reciprocity—mutual self-giving, interpersonal communion—is actually the highest good, not social reform? What if, precisely by giving you an opportunity to give back to me, my giving is not just a service I do for you, but the beginning or nurturance of a “bond of love”? Isn’t this kind of bond a stronger foundation for human solidarity than anything else we might name?

Such a bond, writes Taylor, is driven by a sense that “we are somehow given to each other.” But the purely horizontal orientation of exclusive humanism can neither generate nor account for such a sense. It is available to us, he contends, “only to the extent that we open ourselves to God”—or, we might say instead, to the ideals and practices of charity.

Historians of philanthropy, no less than its theorists, might want to grapple with that contention.

-Jeremy Beer

Jeremy Beer is a founding partner at American Philanthropic, LLC. He is the president of the American Ideas Institute (publisher of The American Conservative) and a contributing editor at Front Porch Republic. He was formerly editor-in-chief at ISI Books.

One thought on “Charles Taylor on the sources of the philanthropic self

  1. What if giving is woven into the very fabric of existence? Maybe giving is a signal of transcendence; an action that was designed into us before our birth, that points to another realm. Giving is the way the world is. It is the air into which we are born.


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