LISTENING to Michael Sandel deliver the annual Theos lecture last week, I was struck by the overlap between his thoughts on merit versus grace, and the key dichotomies that I have uncovered in my study of the history of philanthropy (Books, 11 September), which was published yesterday.
The Harvard philosopher says that our current meritocracy divides society into winners and losers. This assumes humans are self-sufficient and that success is self-made, earned through talent and hard work. It ignores factors such as the families and circumstances into which we are born. “A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace,” Sandel writes.
Meritocracy inflates the winners’ opinion of their own worth — and makes them look down on the poor. This moral corrosion generates hubris among winners and humiliation among losers — and breeds the kind of resentment, Sandel says, which produced Donald Trump, Brexit, and populist hyper-nationalism across the globe.
One of the calumnies in the history of philanthropy is the idea that a thousand years of medieval Christian charity was self-serving because it arose from some corrupt Catholic intuition that the purpose of almsgiving was to shorten time in purgatory. In fact, medieval theology is clear that it was rooted in an Aristotelean sense that giving improves the moral character of the giver. But merit versus grace was at the heart of Luther’s insistence on reformation.
My book shows that, despite the spin of Protestant propagandists, it was not the doctrine of purgatory which changed philanthropy as it entered the modern era. Rather, it was to do with an agricultural revolution, the rise of the merchant classes, and the demographic changes produced by the Black Death a century before the Reformation. Feudal society broke down, and a tide of vagabond beggars swept through Europe, changing attitudes to the poor for ever — creating the idea that they were in some way to blame for their own poverty. The resonances with Professor Sandel’s tyranny of merit are all too evident.
There is another confluence, on the difference between theory and practice. Luther saw a clear theological dichotomy between salvation by grace and by merit, Sandel notes. But, in practice, merit always drives out grace.
For me, the corrupt medieval sale of indulgences confirms this — but so does the way in which, among Puritans, despite their theology, worldly success soon became seen not as a sign, but a source, of divine election. Merit triumphed yet again. Throughout history, the conviction has dominated that the rich are somehow more deserving than the poor. This was precisely what Andrew Carnegie believed. He was the richest man in the world at the start of the 20th century. In his Gospel of Wealth — titled without irony — he set the template for philanthropic giving which persists among today’s philanthrocapitalists.
The successful need more humility, Sandel concludes. I come to the same final judgement, but then spell out what rich givers must do to achieve this. They need to listen more to those to whom they give. They must give away power as well as pounds. They must turn philanthropy into partnership to recover some of the mutual respect present in medieval charity.
Read an extract from Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg, by Paul Vallely here
Read a review of The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?, by Michael J. Sandel here
Philanthropy — from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury at £30 (Church Times Bookshop special price £25); 978-1-4729-2012-6.
Listen to an interview with Paul Vallely on this week’s edition of the Church Times Podcast.
Or you can watch the interview on our YouTube channel