Charitable acts are acts of love. As such, they are expressive of the deeply held commitments of the person acting. But unlike other modes of self-expression, charitable acts require an object upon whom the act is performed. The “otherness” of the recipient necessarily implicates a basic social problem: namely, that we tend to think of ourselves as subjects and others as objects. A move to inter-subjectivity doesn't happen naturally.

Furthermore, the “object” of a charitable act can be either abstract or particular.  The former category would include anything that has no immediately demonstrable referent. Consider, for example, terms such as “humanity” or “global citizen.” It would be hard to point to either of these things. Indeed, part of the difficulty in any concept of citizenship is a lack of specificity, the absence of which can be partially filled in by shared principles of unity that require a concrete nature themselves in order to compensate for the abstract nature of the concept. The term “American,” for example, modifies the term “citizen” better than does the term “global” precisely because the former has some sort of concrete legal, historical, and social status. One can describe what it means to be an American, but few could sensibly explicate the idea of what it means to be global.

The airier the concept, the less obligatory and the less meaningful the action of charity. Where there is no capacity to act, and no recipient of action, there is no obligation to act. The vagueness of the object implies both diminished capacity and obligation. And yet, human beings often flatter themselves that only such charity is worthy of their attention. Why?

I can think of at least three reasons. First, we are crooked timber, and our motivations are rarely pure. The scriptural injunction to perform charity privately cuts against out tendency to want credit for what we do. In a particularly brilliant episode of Seinfeld, George drops a dollar in the tip jar, but precisely at the moment the service person turns his back, George then dips his hand back in the jar to retrieve the bill so that he can perform the act again and be noticed for it, only to be caught pulling the money out of the jar. The need for recognition is a particular feature of our weakness, and our own sense of self requires recognition in order to buttress its fragile status. Lack of recognition is anomic, but a withholding of recognition, as is demonstrated in campus debates, is tantamount to violence precisely because it is experienced as a negation. The more dissociated people become, the greater the imperative for recognition.

Second, mass culture creates a profound sense of personal insignificance, isolation, and feelings of replaceability. Private acts of personal charity do nothing to alleviate such feelings. What's the point of giving alms to this one particular person whom I don't know anyway? To make my charity, and thus myself, feel consequential it has to be scaled up to the outer demands of mass culture. Large stages require actors to preen and puff themselves. Giving large amounts aimed at fixing systems or solving problems at their “root cause” satisfies our need to make ourselves indispensable, noticed, and significant. It gives our lives import. Mass culture thus corrupts charity at its core.

Finally, the idea that charity can even be obligatory seems to rub against itself. What is it if not a free act? But removing the sense of obligation turns charity into sentimentality. It matters less what one does than how one feels about it. The primary function of the act is to make the actor feel good, feel virtuous, feel satisfied. The absence of obligation will only heighten the feeling. The closer we are to a person, the more difficult the demands, and the more distressing the failure of charity. The more abstract the object is, the easier the demands and the ability to walk away if things don't go our way. It is difficult for us to resist that temptation.