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Jay Wood

CACE Seminar 2015

At numerous junctures throughout our CACE seminar, the idea of charity as an intellectual virtue surfaced, yet we never had the opportunity to analyze it. Below I offer one way of thinking about it. Charity is not motivated by robust appetite for intellectual goods such as knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. We can call the excellent appetite for intellectual goods  “the love of truth.” It is foundational to all the intellectual virtues. The motivation of charity centers on the wellbeing of one’s intellectual interlocutors.

Charity has a distinct motivation component. Charity is love of God and / or fellow human beings, and such objects are not intellectual goods. Charity becomes intellectual charity when it applies in contexts of the intellectual life. So charity is an attitude toward, most notably, interlocutors and authors of texts. If one reads a text charitably, one is reading the text as coming from an author who would like to be treated with respect and goodwill. Such charity is an intellectual virtue because of its applicability to intellectual activities like text-reading, and in part because it (presumably) enhances the agent’s prospects of achieving the aims of the intellectual life.

Consider an act of intellectual charity. I am discussing someone’s philosophical book, and I disagree pretty fundamentally with what I take the person to be saying. If I am reading a certain passage charitably, I interpret it so as to attribute as much validity and intelligence to the passage as I can, compatibly with a careful and therefore critical reading. The act of charity in this case is the interpretation: construing the text in its best light rather than its worst. My motive here is grounded in my concern to treat the author as I would like to be treated were I the author. It is goodwill towards the author, a valuing of him as a person and as an author. But this motive is not sufficient to make my reading a charitable one. If I make a “charitable” interpretation of the passage, because doing so will enable me better to crush the author in the noetic dust under my feet, then I have not acted charitably, even if I have interpreted the author’s work in the strongest light. For my act of reading to be charitable I must be motivated out of goodwill for the author. The characteristic aim of charity is the well-being of a person.

What is it to be successful in one’s goodwill towards an author? We can clarify the concept of we switch from the case of charitably reading a text to conducting charitably a debate face-to-face with an interlocutor. In such a debate, the goal of my charity (as distinguished from the goal of my love of knowledge) will be such things as not embarrassing my interlocutor, making him aware of my respect for him, staying on friendly terms with him, and bringing it about that he gets some genuine intellectual goods out of our conversation. If I achieve such things as these in the course of my conversation with him, then my charity will have succeeded. In reading a text charitably, if the author is dead and / or will never be affected by my charity, I cannot realistically aim at any such outcome. In such cases, the charity has a virtual or as-if goal: it does not really aim at anything, though it is as if it aims as the live interlocutor would aim.

            Though I have distinguished between the motive to gain intellectual goods and the motivation of charity, they are connected. Although treating my interlocutor charitably may allow me to gain knowledge and understanding, it can also provide the conditions for my interlocutor to gain intellectual goods. And one fitting way to wish my interlocutor well would be to wish that his own storehouse of intellectual goods increase. In this case, love of the intellectual goods and charity for the interlocutor come together in a special way: wanting the intellectual goods (for the other) is the motive of charity.

            How is the motive of charity related to the motive of getting the intellectual goods for oneself? Let’s assume that having charity for the interlocutor does in fact promote one’s getting the intellectual goods for oneself. Furthermore, the intellectually virtuous person may be aware of this connection. But he will try to keep the consideration that charity for his interlocutor is good for his own intellectual life in the background, where it does not come to the fore as a motivation for charitable behavior.