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Sociability • Social Virtues

Charity of Interpretation

At its most basic, charity means: giving someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. Normally this is understood to mean something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money.

But, at its core, charity goes far beyond finance. It is about the interpretation of motives. It involves seeing that another person’s bad behaviour is not a sign of wickedness or sin, but is a result of suffering.

The psychologically charitable feel inwardly ‘fortunate’ enough to be able come forward with explanations of others’ misdeeds – their impatience or over-ambition, rashness or rage – that take attenuating circumstances into account. They generate a picture of who another person might be that can make them seem more than simply mean or mad.

In financial matters, charity tends always to flow in one direction. The philanthropist may be very generous, but they normally stay rich; they are habitually the giver rather than the recipient. But in our relationships with others more broadly, the need for charity is unlikely ever to end up being one-sided, for we all stand in need of constant and shifting generosity of interpretation.

We are never far from requiring help in explaining to the world why we are not quite as awful as we seem.

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