Up until now we’ve been talking about generosity in a fairly direct, person-to-person sense: building social bonds with your neighbor, welcoming the traveler at your gate. But when generosity comes up in modern, industrialized society, we often mean it in the more institutionalized sense of charitable giving.
Which isn’t to imply that charity of that sort is a recent invention. Far from it! One of the fundamental cohesive functions of society is for those with more to help those with less. How this operates and how much it’s prioritized may fluctuate, but some concept of mutuality is pretty much always woven into the fabric of a given culture — so let’s take a look at that now.
Religion has frequently been up to its elbows in the business of charity. If worshippers are expected to tithe money to their local religious community, some of that goes toward supporting religious personnel and infrastructure (i.e. clergy and worship sites), but a non-trivial amount is often earmarked for charitable works. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, possibly educating the illiterate . . . maybe with a side order (or a main course) of proselytization, depending on the religious institution, but charitable efforts just the same.
This isn’t just a Judeo-Christian idea, though I imagine that’s where many of my readers have encountered it. Monasteries often engage heavily in this kind of work, and that’s true of the Buddhist sort as well as the Christian. In the past such efforts were usually confined to nearby targets, simply because of the logistical hurdles, but with modern travel it’s also become common to see religiously mediated charitable outreach all around the world.
Certain groups are common recipients for this type of charity. Widows and orphans are proverbial examples of groups in need, because in patriarchal societies they’re considered dependents of the male head of the family. (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of charity oriented toward helping widowers.) More than a few Christian institutions have also taken as their mission the reformation of prostitutes, getting them off the street and into a better situation — or at least one that’s more socially acceptable, whether that be a proper marriage, an honest trade, or a new life as a nun. Men are more likely to receive charity when they’re disabled veterans of a war.
As you can see, there’s often a heavy moral dimension to this kind of thing. Certain people get evaluated as being more worthy or in need of aid, based on circumstances that have nothing to do with the economic numbers involved. That’s not surprising, when charity is mediated through religious institutions (which are, after all, in the business of morality). But the moral dimension often stays even when the charitable institution in question isn’t religious.
We have a lot of those nowadays, as the centrality of religion to society as a whole has declined and the scale of that society has grown. It was one thing to organize parish relief when your parish was the center of your social and economic world; it’s another thing entirely when you’re living in a city of millions. The same factors I’ve mentioned before, about how certain systems only work when the social fabric is tightly woven, apply again here. As a result, a lot of our charity now goes through two other channels: governments, and non-governmental organizations.
In theory, governmental aid is usually driven purely by numbers, without too much concern for who’s morally deserving. In practice . . . I don’t know if it’s different in other countries, but the United States puts a lot of effort into policing the moral dimension. Food stamps can only be used for acceptable categories of food, and some kinds of aid are only given to those with jobs — as if those without jobs are simply lazy and need a good kick in the pants to motivate them. (In Elizabethan England those were termed “sturdy beggars,” i.e. assumed to be perfectly capable of work.) The Puritans have left us with a deep-seated fear that someone, somewhere, is receiving something they didn’t earn.
NGOs are all over the map, because they can be anything anybody has enough will and wherewithal to set up. Many of them aim at affecting, not specific types of people, but specific causes: the distribution of vaccines and eradication of diseases, environmental protection and restoration, and so forth. These have to scramble constantly to raise funds, because they can’t depend on regular tithes like a religious institution can, nor regular taxes like a government. Instead they’re reliant on individual citizens choosing to back their causes . . . and with so many of them clamoring for attention, deciding who you should support and how much you should give each one of them can become overwhelming.
There’s another facet to charity, though, which we often forget because it’s wildly out of reach for most of us. This is what I think of as “public charity”: the funding of some large-scale endeavor like a new building or institution.
In the West, at least, this goes back to ancient Greece, where wealthy citizens were expected to pay for things like temples or public theatres. (When they didn’t, you got Sparta: a society with wild income inequality, which left almost no great monuments to posterity.) Our modern equivalent is highly visible at universities, where a rich donor funds the construction or renovation of something on campus, whether that’s a whole new science building or something smaller like a lecture hall. In exchange, the university names that thing after them or a chosen relative, e.g. the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.
Obviously there’s a lot of prestige tied up in this kind of charity. If the average citizen gives a hundred dollars to an NGO, they get thanks and probably a bunch of personalized return address labels. But if you fund a symphony center or a library, you aren’t only doing a good thing; you’re also playing a status game with your fellow wealthy elites. One look around a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts (home of Harvard University) can give you a pretty good roster of the influential families of the past, through the repetition of certain names. In the ancient classical world, this sometimes rose to the level of straight-up obligation: gaining or holding public office meant you were required to use your wealth on certain public works.
So from a worldbuilding standpoint, you can do a lot of underpinning for your history and politics by asking: who funds this stuff? Is charity entirely a religious undertaking, or is it also the business of government? Are elites allowed to plaster their name across the things they back, and is that backing voluntary, implicitly required, or a literal obligation? Fiction gives us a lot of individual beggars on the street (and they’ll get their own essay someday), but much less of charity in its organized forms.