Your guide to charity

What is charity?

Charity is usually defined as a voluntary human act which means giving time, money or a resource to someone, or a group, that is need of it without asking for anything in return. As such, it is seen as a humanitarian act that is often, but not always, associated with religious faith. As such, charitable giving is seen as a virtue by certain religious groups, although the so-called principle of charity has also been developed by a number of secular philosophers, too. At its simplest, charitable giving is a simple altruistic act that means someone other than the giver derives a benefit.

 What does charity mean to religions?

 As mentioned, charitable giving is often associated with religion. Indeed, religious teaching often encourages it. In Christianity, charity was encouraged by Jesus, which the church developed into practices like giving alms to the poor within their communities. In Judaism, tzedakah is the word for charitable giving, something which is also translated as righteousness. As such, giving is often viewed by Jews as a righteous thing to do. One of the five pillars of Islam is charitable giving, so it is central to this religion, as well. It is known as either Zakat, which is a little like alms offerings, or Sadaqa, something that is more individual and translates more like benevolence. Daana is a similar concept of religious charity which is used in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. This is a virtue that is associated with giving.

Are there criticisms of charity?

Although few people criticise individual acts of charity, there are some well-known critiques of organised charities, especially of the larger charitable institutions. Firstly, there have been some high-profile scandals involving international charities operating in the developing world. Some nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Friedrich Engels, criticised charities for just about sustaining conditions in slum areas that made them more long-lived than they otherwise would have been. Oscar Wilde famously wrote about charities as being sentimental over the private lives of poor people. Finally, some people view the charity lobby as a negative force in society, often asking for government grants that are in support of certain social policies only, usually those that are in favour with the government of the day.

How does charity help society?

Although most western countries have a welfare system, it usually does not cover every eventuality of hardship, medical research programme or social need. When money is given to a charity that fulfils a niche, it is able to meet such needs without the need for the state to intervene.

Is charity selfless?

Altruistic giving is selfless, but charitable acts don't always fall into this category. People who make a great deal of their charity work, for example, may gain a social edge or kudos for their activities which means their giving, however well-intentioned, may not always be regarded as truly selfless.

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    The term was first brought into usage by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century French philosopher. When he used it, he really wanted a word that meant the opposite of egoism, the self-centred part of the human condition. Altruistic behaviour has gone on to be described in various ways, usually coming down to the specific cultural context in which it is used. In the main, however, it is interpreted as a virtue that means an individual is actively engaged in the greater good.
    Kindness is often described as a series of ethical behaviours that show consideration and goodwill to others. It is also sometimes seen as a virtue, something that is morally good of itself. Although it can be reciprocated, in its purest form it is often given without altruistically any thought for a return. An act of kindness might be showing compassion for someone or loyalty towards them. In many studies into personal relationships, it is how kind an individual considers their partner to be that usually plays a big part in their decision to get together. Some psychological studies seem to indicate that kindness might be an inherent behaviour in people. However, some people believe that is learned in early childhood about the same time that toddlers begin to get to grips with the concept of empathy.
    In essence, volunteering is an altruistic pursuit that means offering one's skills, labour or resources to another person or group without any reward in return. It is often tied up with concepts like the quality of human life because people who volunteer are usually doing so in order to improve things, either by acting in a charitable way or by sharing their ideas for the good of the whole community. Volunteering programmes now run in many walks of life, such as charity retail shops, mentoring schemes and overseas development projects. Volunteers often report they are rewarded from their activities even though they receive no pay.
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