Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Discourse on Charity

I was reading a book By Daniel Pink recently- Drive, the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Now the book in question is about theories of motivation and how creative activities are hampered by extrinsic motivators. Highly recommended. If you do not have the time to read this book, watch this 11 minutes clip. This covers some of the principal points of the book.

However, this post is not about motivation per se. The title suggests that I must talk about charity. And I am about to do precisely that.

While I was browsing through the “English Language and Usage” site I talked about a few days back, I came across this question. It set me thinking about volunteering and charity in new light. Is there something called charity at all? Are the conventional definitions of charity portraying an accurate picture? 

Charity is defined as  “liberality to or provision for those in need or distress; alms-giving” by the Oxford dictionary. Explicitly, whenever you do something that benefits someone else, it is charity. However, that would imply that anyone working anywhere is being charitable. All doctors, all engineers, all accountants, all of them do things that benefit others. That is why they are there in the first place. However, there acts are not called charity at all. Why? Because  these have a return to the respective benefactors.

This brings us to the implicit assumptions of this definition, that there is no benefit to the benefactor where charity is involved. As a doctor, if you treat your patients and pocket a fat fee, it is not charity but if you do it for free (monetarily), it’s charity! Right?

I hope you have seen the video by now. You haven’t? Go back and watch it now! I’ll wait here.

OK. As you must have seen in the video, most people in creative endeavors are driven by intrinsic motivators, a sense of autonomy, a sense of mastery and a sense of purpose. This is the principal driving force behind all the ‘so called’ charitable activities. A sense of purpose and autonomy, gives a kind of a high to the benefactor that money might not bring.

Now if there IS a return on the activity, can it really be called charity? Why is it that the definitions imply that the only benefit worth considering is monetary in nature? The great products of the intrinsic motivators, Linux-Wikipedia-Firefox-Apache, are certainly not charity. Or are they? What do you think?