Charity as a duty? Gift-Giving dilemmas

Pope Benedict has given his Lenten address for 2008. It focuses on almsgiving. You can read it here:
http://www.radiovaticana.org/en1/Articolo.asp?c=183165

In the address, Benedict raises an interesting question regarding charity and duty. “To come to their aid is a duty of justice even prior to being an act of charity.”

Very interesting philosophical connections here. We might first think of Peter Singer’s well known argument that we are obligated (duty) to give (charity) to the poor, thus collapsing, it seems, charity and duty into a single category. On Singer’s argument (which I find very persuasive, even if I reject his underlying utilitarianism), charity is not optional – it is a duty. Singer’s article can be read in full here:
http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm

Given my own interests, the connection to postmodern ethics is more interesting. Levinas and Derrida both also flirt with collapsing duty and charity in their reflections on the Other and the gift. Levinas thinks we have a radical responsibility to the Other, a responsibility encountered first in the “face” of the Other. The “face” “destroys” us – it is the end of the subject (metaphysically understood). In the face of the other, we come forward as gift – we are “for-the-other” (contrast Sartre’s Being-for-itself). Once we get behind “egology” (say, Cartesian metaphysics of subjectivity), we are GIFT.
To Christianize this a bit – the gift of Christ is the condition for the possibility of our being a gift to others. Christ “made Himself poor to enrich us out of His poverty” (2Cor8.9). In receiving the Gift, we are “traumatized” (Levinas’ language) and made into gifts ourselves.

Are Levinas, Singer, and Benedict (and perhaps Christ!) right – MUST we GIVE? Bugbears abound here: If we must give a gift, is it still a gift? If we already owe ourselves to the Other, do we deserve thanks for our gift of self? Are gifts simply a part of a larger economy of exchange? In other words, are gifts impossible?

For my part, I am very attracted to this whole business of the gift. Gift-giving in contemporary european philosophy will likely be the topic of my PHIL 3180 (Contemporary European Philosophy) in the Spring of 09.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
This entry was posted in Catholic thought/religion/culture, Philosophy, Polis (politics, culture). Bookmark the permalink.

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