Scruton on Duties of Justice and Duties of Charity

In How to be a Conservative, the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton briefly describes the important conservative distinction between duties of justice and duties of charity. He writes (pg. 49),

“Duties of charity are not duties of justice; if we fail to perform a duty of justice we commit an injustice — in other words, we wrong someone. The concept of justice is mediated by those of right and desert: the duty of justice is explicitly targeted at the other person, and takes account of his rights, his deserts and his valid claims. The concept of charity is not so explicitly targeted, and duties of charity have an open-ended character. If you extend charitable help to one person, and thereby exhaust your resources so that you cannot help another who is just as much in need of them, you do not wrong that second person. You have fulfilled your duty by offering help to the one who received it. To a certain extent the egalitarian outlook in politics stems from a suspicion of charity and a desire to construe all duties as duties of justice, which cannot make arbitrary distinctions between those with an equal claim, when the only basis for that claim is need. As subsequent arguments will imply, that narrow conception of the realm of duty has proved to be fundamentally subversive of civic institutions.”

It should not surprise us, then, that left-liberals and socialists, whose governing principle and pursuit is political, social, and economic egalitarianism, will see an extensive role of the state in justice. All or most goods, for these people, are matters of justice, not charity. Charity, then, is held in suspicion, since it is not coordinated and is exhausted on a few, not on all.

Conservatives, while preferring a limited and non-goal-oriented government (i.e., it is not the principal instrument in social progress), still want a robust and powerful civil society, apart from state action, that has extensive room for the fulfillment of the duties of charity. It is one aspect of Disraeli’s “feudal principle”: the right of property is also a duty. The state, of course, could enforce this principle with taxes and redistribution, but that would produce an impersonal, bureaucratic, technocratic, and managerial society (as we have today). The feudal principle as feudal recognizes something essential to civil society: that it is best when it is personal. An impersonal society, one in which egalitarianism is the goal of the state and accomplished through taxes and bureaucratic action, breeds nothing but resentment, since extractions and redistribution is masked. The beneficiaries do not meet the taxed. And when the first principle of the state is equality, the ‘have-nots’ see the ‘haves’ as enemies, as those standing in the way of progress.

It is better, I think, to leave much to charity, as Burke wrote, “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity by leaving much [charity] to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty without which virtue cannot exist.” (from Reflections)

how to be conserv


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