The present status of the two related memes, responsibility, and charity, reflects a heavily distorted memetic field (ideology) of Western society. This post intends to clarify the distortion and partly the causes for it.
Let us start with a charity meme. Oxford Languages defines charity as
the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.” the care of the poor must not be left to private charity”.
Such a definition reflects the present dominant vector of a charity meme, as should any contemporary dictionary definition. But what happens when we search for a vector of that same meme back in time?
Christian tradition offers a considerably different view (vector) represented here by three examples; all referred to Oxford Academic definitions.
- The present »charity« comes from the old French »charite«, which comes from the Latin’ caritas’, which comes from older Latin nested in Aquinas Theology: ‘carus’. The twist comes with the ‘carus’ since its meaning (vector) is ‘dear’, reflecting the next two explications.
- Thomas introduces charity as a supernatural friendship with God and our neighbor. This supernational love exceeds the natural love of God.
- As we all know, St. Thomas stands on Aristotle’s shoulders, who defined friendship as a state in which friends mutually intend the good of the other, enjoy an ordinary life, and have the same end.
The present vector of ‘charity’ evolved from the special friendship with God spread into the profane world as a kind of mutuality among friends. Quite a twist.
The real surprise is yet to come! If we search for a definition of responsibility, what one notices first is that definitions of ‘responsibility’ are scarce while there is an abundance of ‘social responsibility’.
But there is a vector shift already within ‘responsibility’.
Longman Dictionary of English, for instance, defines it as:
A duty to be in charge of someone or something, so that you make decisions and can be blamed if something bad happens.
While Oxford Languages proposes two definitions that take quite a distinct way:
- the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone. “a true leader takes responsibility for their team and helps them achieve goals”.
- the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something. “the group has claimed responsibility for a string of murders”.
We can clearly see a shift from the ‘responsibility’ vector from Kant’s categorical imperative to ‘being guilty of something’ followed by ‘being blamed’.
This shift is even more visible considering Aristotle’s notion of moral responsibility. Susan Sauvé Meyer, in her book Aristotle on Moral Responsibility (Meyer 2011), states in the abstract that
… Aristotle’s concerns and aims in his various discussions of voluntariness are precisely those of a theorist of moral responsibility.
The stress (vector) by Aristotle and slightly different but still in the same direction by Kant was voluntariness. What a stark difference from all contemporary vectors on responsibility with the 180-degree shift coming with ‘social responsibility’.
Social responsibility is an ethical framework in which individuals or corporations are accountable for fulfilling their civic duty and taking actions that benefit society.
From Aristotle’s and Kant’s voluntariness, we have come to the civic duty. What a salto mortale! What a degradation.
Why did the above-presented vector shifts from friendship to charity donations and from voluntary individual responsibility to collective obligations happen?
The culprit is not too difficult to identify. It is related to both responsibility and charity. It is called the birth and rise of the “welfare state’.
Science Direct proposes a crisp definition:
A welfare state is a state that is committed to providing basic economic security for its citizens by protecting them from market risks associated with old age, unemployment, accidents, and sickness.
Investopedia finds the starting point of the ‘welfare state’ in the Great Depression that ran from 1929 to 1941.
Although fair treatment of citizens and a state-provided standard of living for the poor dates back further than the Roman Empire, the modern welfare states that best exemplify the historical rise and fall of this concept are the U.K. and the United States. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the welfare state in the U.K.—based on the Beveridge Report—took hold, leading to a growth in the government to replace the services that were once provided by charities, trade unions, and the church. In the U.S., the groundwork for the welfare state grew out of the Great Depression and the massive price paid by the poor and the working poor during this period.
However, there is ample evidence that the ‘social welfare’ meme proposed by Woodrow Wilson was soon upgraded to ‘welfare state’ in a paper published in the journal Social Forces under the title The State’s Responsibility for Social Welfare (Ritchie 1926), years before the Great depression.
The state responsibility in this field is not easy to define. (ibid., 608)
The aforementioned ‘field’ includes almost all social and community areas of health, hygiene, settlement, and education, with an emphasis on poverty:
The great subjects of poverty, dependency and charity are its special care. (ibid., 608)
What a stark departure from the Founding Fathers’ understanding of the state as defined in the Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 2014), and what a departure from Hayek and von Mises, who fought the welfare state when it was already entrenched.
It is not difficult, therefore, to pinpoint the main culprit for the distortion of the current memetic field of the welfare state that is sweeping Western society, at least. The responsibility that used to be the individual’s responsibility has become the state’s responsibility. And since the state cannot fulfill such a responsibility without sufficient resources, various taxations have developed over time. So, paying taxes is our responsibility to the state to exercise its power over us. We are morally and legally responsible to fulfill this responsibility. If we neglect this responsibility, we are legally charged and guilty.
But there is another consequence of the current deformation of the memetic field. Since in Europe we pay even more than 50%, and in the U.S. somewhat less, of what we earn to the state to carry out its responsibilities, we are de facto free of any social responsibility. Since the state has taken over the entire social sphere, if we are free from responsibility, we are free from responsibility. To take it from Nietzsche to Dostoevsky, responsibility is dead.
And that is why charity has changed from friendship (with God and with our neighboring communities and friends) to monetary donations. Since the state could not keep its promise (a fully covered social security), we must fill the gaps with charities/donations.
The results of the described vector shifts of ‘responsibility’ and ‘charity’ are the decline of morality and exponentially escalating costs to the state. Government insurance is poor and costly, while individual freedoms are disappearing.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 2014. The Federalist Papers.
Meyer, Susan Sauvé. 2011. Aristotle on Moral ResponsibilityCharacter and Cause. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199697427.001.0001.
Ritchie, Albert G. 1926. “The State’s Responsibility for Social Welfare.” Social Forces 4 (3): 608–10. https://doi.org/10.2307/3004743.