By special request of a man I consider one of the most intelligent persons I've ever had the privilege of knowing, I'm obliged to address the differences between charity and altruism in terms of objectivism. Now, I don't consider myself an expert on objectivist philosophy. Hell, I don't even consider myself an objectivist--since its creator once professed that no one is an objectivist unless they accept every tenet of the philosophy and since I do not know the objectivist stance for every philsophical issue, I cannot make the claim that I agree and accept them all.
I actually consider myself an objectitarian, an affiliation I think I made up but, regardless, best describes how I reconcile my metaphyical and epistemological beliefs with my political beliefs. And since I'm not an expert objectivist and since I consider myself more of a political libertarian than objectivist, I think it's equally pertinent that I describe how I see charity and altruism as they relate to ethics--note: "how I see" ... not how Rand sees. She can answer for herself.
"Altruism -- 1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others | 2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species"
"Charity -- 1: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity | 2 a: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also : aid given to those in need b: an institution engaged in relief of the poor c: public provision for the relief of the needy | 3 a: a gift for public benevolent purposes b: an institution (as a hospital) founded by such a gift | 4: lenient judgment of others"
It's charitable to give a street musician $1 of the $100 in my wallet as I walk by and enjoy his "cool" tunes. It's altruistic to give a street musician all of the money in my pocket--at the expense of my family's being able to eat that day--as I walk by and enjoy his "cool" tunes.
It's charitable to help my neighbor move after a house fire. It's altruistic to give him my house.
It's charitable to donate $100 to Jerry's Kids. It's altruistic for the government to mandate that I give that same $100 to Jerry's Kids.
Altruism seems to me--and I'm trying to give the "most fair" definition here, having cited a dictionary first--a philosophy in which the good is the elevation of others at one's own expense--in terms of time, money, energy, etc. It mandates not only that giving is good but that someone cannot be good unless they give. Altruistic morality, then, depends on the extent to which I harm myself for the benefit of someone else. (Sound like a straw man argument? Could be. I never claimed to be a good philosopher, just a philosopher.) Consider: To have unselfish devotion to the welfare of others, one has to think about anyone and everyone that is worse off than him/herself. Aside from the fact that this is negative liberty, it creates an impossible situation. If Bob has a need--a monetary need, for example--and I, being altruistically moral, give him the money, then Bob no longer has the need. In fact, in order for Bob to be moral, he now has to give to someone with a greater need. Once that person receives the money, they must give to someone with greater need. Ad infinitum. (This point seems to be only one of the major flaws of altruism and I could probably write for quite some time, but in the interest of going to bed, I'll leave it here and we can talk another time.)
Charity, on the other hand, differs from altruism on point, a point that makes one hell of a difference. By definition altruism requires participation. Charity does not. Charity is a gift--a voluntary transaction between willing participants. Charity requires no harm on the part of the giver and no action at all on the part of the receiver--though "thank yous" are always appreciated. Choice, here, seems to be the only and fundamentally moral difference. If a masked robber accosts you with a gun and forces you to donate $100 to Jerry's Kids, we do not classify that as charity. That's robbery. What's the difference if the government mandates that same donation? (And I don't mean to imply that all taxation is robbery or even immoral. I do mean to imply, however, that it can be.)
From an objectivist view and my personal view, charity has no moral value, good or bad, unless it works in your rational self-interest1. That is, if charity makes you happy, then, by all means, be charitable. If it does not make you happy, then don't do it.
And here is where I must separate myself from objectivism. From a libertarian viewpoint, it does not matter to me what you (e.g.--everyone not me) considers to be the good. What matters is that the government does not implement policy that requires me to act contrary to my beliefs--unless, of course, my beliefs infringe on the beliefs of others or are not in my rational self-interest. That is to say that I'm OK with someone believing that altruism is the correct way to live as long as that person does not use force--physical or law--to enforce altruistic morality.
Having I considered every angle of altruism and charity? Absolutely not. And I anticipate that you will find some outstanding flaw in my argument on which I will ponder until I discover some self-satisfactory answer. I have put forth what I consider to be the biggest problem with altruism, though, like I said, I believe there are many more. I'm always willing to talk. And I might as well do so now before you get that PhD and can out-think me even faster and more aggressively than you do now.
All the best,
1 I use the term "rational self-interest" specifically here to denote a concept that is often misunderstood. In the next sentence, I say that if charity makes you "happy" then do it. Someone might say, "Well taking ecstasy makes me happy, so I should be able to do it." True, it may make you feel happy, but it's not in your rational self-interest since it is, ultimately, destroying you. And here is where we enter into the realm of politics, where the government must weigh the harm of something versus the public's civil liberties. Alcohol, for instance, is technically "harmful," but when used "appropriately" it is safe. There is no circumstance under which ecstasy, when used, is safe. When in doubt, I believe the government should err on the side of civil liberties.