Essay on Generosity (OC Register 12-21-08)

The virtue of generosity
Tibor R. Machan
"Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government
spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it
comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are
Nicholas D. Kristof (NYT, 12-21-08)
Some people divide us all into two groups, the greedy and the altruists.
This is a really simplistic way to understand human beings. We are, in
fact, motivated by a variety of habits and convictions. By the most
credible prominent account of human morality, that of the ancient Greek
philosopher Aristotle, as we are properly raised by our family and
neighbors we learn to practice several important moral virtues, such as
courage, honesty, prudence and generosity. These are all supportive of the
best possible life for a human being. An ethical youngster will grow up
with all of these well-cultivated by his or her elders. As we grow to
adulthood, we would take over the habituation of the virtues in ourselves
so we’d act decently and morally without even having to deliberate about
it all the time.
There are other views on morality, of course, but Aristotle’s is arguably
the most humane and sensible. Immanuel Kant, the very influential 18th
century German philosopher, believed that morality must always be
disinterested. You need to do the right thing simply because it is the
right thing, and if you even like doing it, it no longer counts as morally
The more realistic Aristotle believed that the reason for cultivating
these virtues in all of us is to further our human flourishing. In the end
we ourselves will benefit most from being morally good. That includes
being honest, courageous, charitable and so on, not just when we are being
Which brings us to generosity and charity, moral virtues that guide a
person to act benevolently toward others. We are all social – to be fully
human is, in part, to be integrated with others, though not
indiscriminately. (A good person doesn’t seek a thief or liar to be his or
her close friend.) A good person will definitely make sure that others are
treated decently and, when the need arises, compassionately, kindly,
generously. Even though one can be generous to a fault – by recklessly
spreading one’s limited resources – an ethical individual is heedful of
people in dire straits, especially when they became so faultlessly.
In all of this Aristotle did seem to give less emphasis than he should
have to something that Kant, in contrast, was firm about. This is that
doing the morally right thing requires that one do it freely, of one’s own
initiative and conviction, not by being forced, coerced or even nudged to
do it (a policy being prominently promoted today). Encouragement is fine,
since one might choose to go against it, but coercion is not since it
wipes out choice, freedom of the will.
This is well acknowledged in common sense as well as more technical
discussions of ethics. A good person has to be good by choice. If one is
made to do what’s right, it is quite uncertain that he or she would have
done it freely. So goodness and freedom are intricately related. When
parents wish for their children to do what’s right, they know that only
once the child does so out of conviction, not from fear, does it show
maturity and moral credit. Pretending to be good is actually frowned upon
in any civilized community because it is an insult to virtue. In the case
of virtues that involve benefiting others, faking it is rightly taken to
be an insult, demeaning. That is what lies behind the saying that
hypocrisy is the unintended compliment that vice pays to virtue!
Throughout much of human history the bulk of humanity wasn’t in the
position to practice some of the virtues, mainly because few people were
free to choose what they did. Instead most people were living in fear of
their lives and well-being from those who pretended to be their rightful
rulers. All those lords and dukes and whatnot in virtually all societies
prior to when the idea of the free society emerged treated their fellows
not as moral equals but as children or invalids. They dehumanized millions
by failing to respect their right to free choice.
Even in our time, and even in the country that’s called the leader of the
free world, the idea is still widely embraced that people can be forced to
be good, especially to be generous. When politicians take resources from
us and hand them to others for various purposes, they often consider this
a form of compassion or generosity. But it is the farthest thing from it.
One literally cannot be generous with other people’s labor or resources.
In substantially free societies, when people are in special need – in dire
straits, indigent, impoverished and the like – the only proper way to
extend to them the support they require is voluntarily. Charity,
philanthropy, compassion, kindness and benevolence toward people must stem
from the choices of the benefactors. Anything else is a reactionary
attitude whereby the needs of some become excuses for certain people to
lord it over others. Often when one makes these points one is questioned
about the practicality of leaving good deeds toward those who need it to
voluntary choice. And it is sometimes pointed out that many helping
institutions and organizations do obtain their funds by coercive means.
Doesn’t this prove that the idea of people helping one another freely,
without being forced to do so, is a dream, a vain hope? Unfortunately some
very bad habits have been instilled on nearly all of humanity over
centuries of being subjugated, robbed of sovereignty and free will. It
takes some time to acquire the traits of character of a free human adult.
Human psychology cannot be simply turned around after centuries of
mistreatment – we all know this from personal cases.
But just because it takes some time to adjust to the fact of our mature
humanity – that it involves, among many other matters, taking on the
responsibility of helping others who are in special need – it doesn’t make
it impractical. If all the energy expanded on forcing people to support
others – support that is considerably depleted by the coercive powers
skimming off a goodly portion of it for themselves – were to be spent on
persuading and imploring people to be helpful, to foster generosity within
themselves and others, the culture of freely giving would very likely have
a decent chance in any society. Already the most generous people live in
the freest of societies. Those are the people for whom it is nearly second
nature to reach for their wallets when they learn of a tsunami or
Hurricane Katrina, when they encounter devastation caused either by other
people or by wild nature.
Just as politics has, over the centuries, slowly moved away from
authoritarianism, paternalism and similar forms of tyranny, so other
aspects of human social life can develop toward free associations among
people instead of coercive ones, even when there is an emergency. A free
society is, I submit, a far more generous one than one where some people
take it upon themselves to rule others.
Machan is the author of ‘Generosity, Virtue in Civil Society’ (1998). He
is also libertarian adviser to Freedom Communications, Inc.

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3 Responses to Essay on Generosity (OC Register 12-21-08)

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