Samuel Cooper discusses essays and letters between Anscombe and Foot, now held in the Somerville college archive. (Post 3/3)

Questions about Almsgiving

Anscombe begins the essay by asking us to leave aside questions about ‘how liberally a man can construe what he needs’ (and therefore what he doesn’t have to give away); but this still leaves us with the question of how much of our surplus we are obligated to give specifically as alms – as opposed to other gifts, investments, savings, and so on. This question crops up repeatedly in the essay. When one is discussing almsgiving, it is, I suspect, very difficult to get away from it: we can delay on answering ‘abstract questions’, but our conduct will embody some answer to the question of how much we are obligated to give from the point that it occurs to us, whether we like it or not.

The aim of this post is to encourage the reader to think systematically about the question of how much of one’s surplus one is obligated to give as alms, and some of the other questions that surround it. To get the most out of the discussion, it will be useful (though not necessary) to read a few short sections from the Summa Theologica, second part of the second part: Question 32 articles 5 and 6, and Question 66 article 7.


St Thomas contends that “In cases of need all things are common property… the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succouring the poor.”

The core claim which drives St Thomas’s arguments about almsgiving (and the related arguments about theft) is that, if I am in absolutely desperate need of something, then that thing literally belongs to me by natural right. In the case of something that I can borrow, I will have to give it back after the need is passed: for example, if I have taken my neighbour’s hose to put out a fire, I must then return it. But if it is the kind of thing that is consumed when it is used, like bread, then I have the right to take it for myself and never return it. Aquinas is making a very strong and perhaps very radical claim. (It is worth remembering that Aquinas takes money to be a thing that is consumed when used, like bread.)
It is because those in desperate need have a right to what I have that I am obliged out of justice to give alms to them.

Objection: It would seem something has gone wrong with the argument if I could use it to justify i.e. stealing heroin because I need it urgently to avoid suffering withdrawal.

Response: I cannot have a natural right to heroin because I do not have a natural need for heroin. ‘Natural’ here means in accordance with my nature. It’s in the nature of human beings to need to eat and drink, but not in the nature of human beings to need heroin. It’s only things we have a natural need of that we have a natural right to.

There is a certain intuitive plausibility to the principle that, if I am starving, I am justified in stealing bread from one who has a superabundance. Does this principle, that I have a right to what belongs to another on the grounds of my natural need for it, strike us as defensible? Can we think of counterexamples?


Anscombe: “Suppose I give it to some other purpose – e.g. as a present to someone who while not in grave necessity is in some straits? or to found a college? or to spend it to develop land or an industry?”

It seems likely that I am not guilty of a sin if I give money to a dear friend who is in financial trouble, if I invest some of my money in a business I believe to be valuable to society and which I expect to pay me a return, and if I have some savings for a rainy day, or in hope of one day buying a house or sending my children to university.
But it seems intuitively that there would be something wrong with doing this with all of my surplus money while I am surrounded by people who are in desperate need (and in modern times, when my money could quite easily help someone on the other side of the world, I am in some sense so surrounded). On what basis could we seek to decide how much money we ought to feel ourselves obliged to give away rather than put to such other purposes? Even if any line would seem arbitrary, we must have some basis on which to make decisions about our own conduct, for these are decisions which we will have to make.

To satisfy the demands of justice and charity, ought we to give absolutely all of our surplus, up to the point of keeping only what we need to live at a subsistence level until the next paycheck, to those who need it most desperately?

St Thomas is clear that he believes our first responsibility to be to ourselves and those in our care. He also thinks that we can lawfully keep not only what we need absolutely in order to stay alive, but also what we need to carry on our way of life, provided that it is a just way of life (Q32 Article 5); and he certainly thinks that most of the ordinary ways of living in a normal human community which satisfy a few basic conditions, such as doing a job which is good rather than harmful for society, are just ones. We can give even out of what we need for this if we as individuals wish to, but we aren’t required to and we don’t sin by not doing so: this is the meaning of saying that it is a matter of ‘counsel’ rather than ‘precept’.
But he also suggests (loc. cit.) that we ought to give even out of this (though not up to the point of our own desperation) if it will save “those who could not be succored if we not did succor them”. The idea seems to be that if someone on the brink of starving to death turns up at my door, I ought to give him what help I can spare even if I am really very poor: and this seems reasonable. But these days many, many people are ‘at my door’ in the sense of being within my reach to help.

Equally, “those who could not be succored if we not did succor them” is nowadays problematic, because except in very rare situations other people are also in reach of them and able to succor them; there is almost nobody who could not be succored except if I personally went out of my way to help them.

This leads us to –


Anscombe: “if all the rich gave a reasonable fraction of their surplus, the starving would be relieved; so each one strictly owes such a fraction of his surplus – but not his whole surplus even if many others are not contributing so that there are many who are not relieved. Now this argument, I think, is wrong; but why it is wrong is something to explore.”

Part of the problem with giving a good answer to question Two seems to be the fact that I myself can’t answer even the smallest fraction of the need of everyone within my reach, so that if I were to give everything I had it would still be like a cup of water poured out into a desert; and the thought of undergoing so much sacrifice so futilely is difficult to stomach. Whereas if everyone felt equally responsible one should have to give only a very reasonable amount, which is much easier and more pleasant to contemplate.

It may possibly be that this is simply because we are deficient in charity (caritas, love of one’s neighbour). It seems possible that if I genuinely loved every person within reach of my help as I do my own self, it would feel natural and inevitable to me to give away everything I had to help them, even if I can only help a few. Christ says “Sell all thou hast and follow me”; not “sell a reasonable proportion of what thou hast, and put the rest in an investment fund”. (Though it is worth remembering that when Christ told those who had chosen to follow him not to worry about how they would be fed and clothed, but God would provide, they generally did not go without food or clothing.)

However, St Thomas generally takes it that such extreme-sounding decisions as living in perpetual poverty or chastity are gifts or vocations: it’s good if you feel called to them and capable of living up to them, but it would be unreasonable to expect them of everyone. Like Foot, St Thomas considers wisdom and virtue to be something that can be practised in the context of a reasonably normal life in a reasonably normal society (there may be societies that are structurally so unremittingly unjust that any engagement with them implicates you in injustice: but this must be taken to be a rare case). Indeed, he sees a real value in there being societies of a reasonably ordinary sort, and so he is committed to the possibility of living just lives within such societies.

One obvious possible conclusion from St Thomas’s line of argument, as we’ve seen it so far, is that I owe to those in need whatever I can give without sabotaging my way of life, whatever amount that may happen to be: no less, because there are enough people I could help to use up all that I give; no more, because there is nobody who relies on only me for help.

Do we think this idea is sound?

Ought I to cultivate simplicity and to cut down on my idea of what is strictly speaking necessary for the kind of life I lead, and if so, how does this obligation not eventually just collapse back into giving away everything?

Do I have a responsibility to try to get others to do their part in helping the poor and if so, by what principle ought we to decide how much this responsibility should use up my time and energy?



If I save some money and give some away to relieve suffering, I have to make a judgement about how much to save and how much to give; and the same is true with other ethical commitments such as that of trying to get other people to be generous. St Thomas, Anscombe, and Foot would all agree that there is no principle upon which this judgement can be made: wisdom is the virtue of being able to deal with particular cases and to imagine that we could collapse the kind of judgement of which the wise person is capable of into a set of easily-expressed general rules is mistaken.

But all three philosophers are also committed to the idea that the demands of virtue are the demands of practical reason. I can’t decide to dedicate so much to savings and so much to almsgiving just because I happen to feel that way, in the sense that I might happen to feel like Chinese rather than Indian food for dinner. Rather, I have to have an understanding of what I am doing as being reasonable. (This doesn’t have to ‘take up space’ in my head or mean that I have to think to myself ‘this is a reasonable thing’ as I’m doing it.)

So on what rational grounds do I think that I should give so much away as alms, but not everything?

Part of what it means to understand what one is doing as reasonable is to take seriously questions about why you acted in one way rather than another, such as ‘so, why did you plump for that much?’. If when asked such a question I gave a response like, ‘oh, I just felt like doing it’, or ‘I rolled a twenty-sided dice and put in that percentage of my income’, I may still have acted in accordance with justice and prudence on this occasion, but my virtue is put rather in question. I have to give a kind of answer that we would recognise as reasonable and pertinent to such questions. It need not be an exhaustive answer or one that accounts for every penny: it just has to be the kind of answer that we, in ordinary circumstances, think appropriate. (I may also happen to be unable to answer because I am very inarticulate: but even in this case I think I should feel that I had to do my best to give the right kind of answer rather than the wrong kind.) An answer such as ‘I gave that much because it was what I had left over after I had bought everything I thought I needed,’ functions as a comprehensible answer to this kind of question.

The structural use of the idea of a ‘way of life’ in St Thomas is as a principle for deciding how much we ought to commit ourselves to concerns, like almsgiving, which seem like they could become overriding and consume everything in our lives.

To decide whether something is ‘really necessary’ to your way of life may be difficult and certainly requires wisdom and justice; likewise to decide whether an element of your way of life may be a suspect one that needs to be changed or excised. We aren’t going to get away from this need for personal judgement (compare the discussion of the baby left on the doorstep in Natural Goodness). Nonetheless, the idea has, I think, fairly clear application. We understand what it is to, for example, have a fisherman’s way of life. A fisherman who gave up the money for a trip to the fair to help a starving person would have done a good deed. A fisherman who gave up the money to repair his boat to help a starving person would have done something much more significant (even this very brief description has a certain amount of pathos).

Thinking about what sorts of things we could make the equivalent distinction about in our own lives may help us to see more clearly what is necessary, and what we ought to dispense with for the sake of love of our neighbour.

This idea can be used to clarify the place that spending such as gift-giving should have for me as well as spending on myself. I think that being able to rely on my friends in certain kinds of extremity, and readily allowing them to rely on me, is a constitutive part of my current way of life as I am most naturally inclined to understand it.

It is usually our intuition, in the practice of our lives even if not in the seminar room, that obligations such as almsgiving do apply to us but shouldn’t take over our lives. I think we ought to try to think systematically about how and why we draw lines about how much we are prepared to give up for the sake of such an obligation, and what rational basis we imagine we have for drawing the lines where we do. Thinking about the idea of ways of life, and Aquinas’ use of it, may help us to begin looking at such questions more clearly.

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