Sunday, July 08, 2018

Generosity: Why Is It Much More Important to Some Philosophers that to Others?

This is an article I wrote for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics. I think its interest goes beyond the purely academic, so I'm putting a copy here.
With few exceptions, the moral philosophers of the last several centuries have written little about generosity. Those of the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance periods, however, often treated it as an important subject. Though Plato ignores it, Aristotle devotes a substantial chapter to it, as does Aquina. Indeed, in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics (1119b–1122a) Aristotle recognizes two different virtues that could be regarded as subspecies of generosity: eleutheria (“freedom”) and megaloprepeia (“magnanimity”). Descartes calls generosity “the key of all the virtues, and a general remedy for all the disorders of the passions” in his treatise The Passions of the Soul (Art. 161). Spinoza discusses it at some length in Part IV of his Ethics and treats it as intimately connected with freedom (Propositions 37 and 50–73). After that, philosophers seem to have lost interest in the idea of generosity, until Nietzsche, a philosophical atavist on so many matters, sings the praises of something he calls a “gift-giving virtue” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Part I, Ch. 22). Most likely, Nietzsche’s gift-giving virtue and Spinoza’s generositas are best understood as a super-virtue, a sort of generosity of spirit, of which the trait that we ordinarily call generosity is a natural consequence.

One of the reasons for the decline of interest in generosity is fairly obvious. In premodern Western ethics it was typically assumed that the sort of value ethics is concerned with is something that inheres in the individual person, namely virtue. Virtue was typically supposed to consist of particular traits, such as courage, temperance, or generosity. The typically modern ethical theories – utilitarianism and Kantian deontology – are, essentially, rules for selecting right actions. Determining what is the right thing to do is quite a different matter from seeking to understand what sort of person is a good person. Recent decades have seen a great resurgence of interest in “virtue ethics,” but this has typically been treated as an alternative way of doing what Kantianism and utilitarianism do and has not led to a comparable resurgence of interest in analyzing particular traits, such as generosity.

Another possible reason why generosity was much more highly regarded before modernity set in is political. Moral codes and ethical ideals that place a high value on generosity seem to be most comfortably at home in aristocratic societies. The very adjective generosus, like Aristotle’s eleutherios (whence the derivative noun eleutheriotes, “freedom”), meant “noble”; and the kind of “nobility” originally meant here was one of birth or “generation” (generosus, generare, and genus are words from the same family) – hence it was political in nature. Part of the reason for the aristocrats’ high valuation of generosity must have been their disdain for productive activities. Giving wealth away was thought to be more appropriate for an aristocrat than productively investing it in agricultural land or capital goods. Further, the fact that one has wealth to give away rather than consume is proof of one’s lofty status.

Generosity differs in potentially important ways from other virtues that necessarily involve conferring benefits or detriments upon others (what is sometimes called the “other-regarding virtues”), and some of the differences might shed light on the question of which cultural and ethical systems tend to make generosity an important virtue and which tend to make it less so. Take for instance justice and charity. Justice is sharply different from generosity. Acts that are just – for instance being fair to an opponent, keeping a promise, or giving students the grades they deserve – tend to be required by considerations of justice. On the other hand, one thing that seems to be a necessary condition of generosity is that the act is not required. One gives, not from duty, but from the goodness of one’s heart. Of course, the promptings of the heart are also what typically lies behind charitable contributions. Typically, if the benefit conferred was charitable, it was not given because the giver already owed it to the recipient. To this extent, it resembles generosity. There is, however, a large difference between generosity and charity. “Charity,” at least as the word is used in modern English, refers to attempts to remedy deficiencies, such as poverty and disease. Generosity, on the other hand, is an attempt to confer a positive benefit. Generosity typically takes the form of giving, not alms, but gifts. Charity is a response to evils, while generosity is a response to opportunities to do good.

The notion that justice is the cardinal other-regarding virtue would make more sense in some worldviews than in others. The sorts of Weltanschauungen more congenial to it would have to be ones that see the most meritorious life as one that conforms to the relevant requirements – for instance one that gives a privileged position to quasi-juridical concepts like “duty” and “obligation,” as well as to other concepts that involve an agent’s being bound to do a particular act, such as “debt” and “owing.” Such a view becomes even more congenial to a lofty valuation of justice if we add a strong element of egalitarianism. Egalitarian ideas enable us to see as either unjust many facts – for instance, the fact that one person has a larger income than another – that might otherwise not seem to be so. An egalitarian worldview might well be held by someone who is quite comfortable with being a citizen in a modern, regulated, and bureaucratized welfare state based on some sort of egalitarian ideology – such as those that are characteristic of contemporary Western Europe and of the English-speaking world. On the other hand, placing a high value on charity is obviously congenial to orthodox Christianity, with its emphasis on human sinfulness and frailty and on the inability of humans ultimately to do well without powerful help (such as divine grace).

By the very same reasoning, though, generosity might be of great interest to someone who rebels against the worldviews of modern welfare-state liberalism and Christianity. This attitude is one of the factors that motivate the work of Hunt and Machan on generosity. The other-regarding traits of character connect us with our fellow human beings and thus color the quality and the very meaning of our lives. A highly valued virtue of charity connects us with others through their suffering and inability to help themselves. This might well seem like the wrong sort of focus for such an important part of one’s life. Generosity connects us with our fellow human beings though opportunities for advancing their positive well-being. Thus generosity, as a cardinal virtue, can be a fundamental functioning component in a view of life in which human beings are regarded as agents who create value and build their lives, and not primarily as frail and sinful beings in need of help from above. Justice, if sufficiently inflated, creates a social world in which the good we do for others is entirely prescribed, in which everything that is not required is prohibited: a sort of highly regulated economy of the soul. A generous act, on the other hand, is not required but chosen freely. To the extent that one treats generosity as an important other-regarding virtue, one’s ethical relations with others become a realm of moral freedom.


Aquinas, Thomas 1948 [ca. 1273]. Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Bros. (Esp. 1a 2ae: Question 117.)

Aristotle 1985. The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Esp. Book IV, Ch. 1 = 1119b–1122a.)

Descartes, René 1989 [1649]. The Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen H. Voss. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Esp. Articles 156, 159, 161.)

Nietzsche, Friedrich 2006 [1883–5]. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. Robert Pippin, trans. Adrian del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Esp. Part I, Ch. 22: “On the Gift-Giving Virtue.”)

Spinoza, Baruch/Benedictus de 2005 [1677]. Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley. London: Penguin Books. (Esp. Part IV, Propositions 37 and 50–73.)
Further Readings

Hunt, Lester H. 1975. “Generosity,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 12, pp. 235–44.

Hunt, Lester H. 1997. “The Unity and Diversity of the Virtues: Generosity and Related Matters,” in Lester H. Hunt, Character and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 55–87.

Kupfer, Joseph 1998. “Generosity of Spirit,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, pp. 357-367.

Machan, Tibor R. 1998. Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society. Washington, DC: The Cato Institute.

Schrift, Alan, ed. 1997. The Logic of the Gift. New York: Routledge.

Wallace, James 1978. Virtues and Vices. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Esp. Ch. 5: “Benevolence.”)

White, Richard 2016. “Nietzsche on Generosity and the Gift-Giving Virtue,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, pp. 348-364.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Lawsuits

Since my original post about Jordan Peterson discrediting himself as a champion of the right to free speech I have gotten a response from more than one person that I would paraphrase like this: Peterson is suing the two professors at Wilfred Laurier University and threatening to sue the one at Bloomsburg University for libel because the former said he is “analogous to Adolf Hitler” and the latter said that he is a “white nationalist” and a “misogynist.” If libel law is not incompatible with free speech then what he is doing is not inconsistent with it.

This is like saying: if a 12-gauge shotgun is not incompatible with free speech, then my pointing one at you and threatening to shoot if you say one more word in defense of Donald Trump is not inconsistent with it.

A lawsuit is an attempt to use government coercion against someone. A threat of one is a threat to coerce. What feature of libel law makes it possible to think this is consistent with free speech? I would put it like this: Libel law does not prohibit points of view or ideas, however bad they might be. The tort of libel consists, roughly, in maliciously harming someone by damaging their reputation by making false statements about them. Moreover, the harm has to be something that is in some way measurable in money, since the whole point of a libel suit is to get compensation for the harm that the plaintiff has suffered.

In all the public pronouncements Peterson has made defending his lawsuit threats and explaining their motives, I have not seen him say one single thing about how these professors have harmed him. What he has said is things like this: “So I think this is a warning, let’s say, to other careless administrators and professors who allow their ideological presuppositions to get the best of them to be a bit more careful with what they say and do.” In other words, he wants to intimidate people with bad ideologies to avoid being led by them into saying objectionable things. This is not the point of libel law. It is, however, the point of typical censorship regulations.

There is an obvious reason why he does not talk about the harms he has suffered. Notice that the professors he is threatening or attempting to coerce teach at Wilfred Laurier University and Bloomsburg University. I was employed as university faculty continuously from 1974 until I retired in 2016, and I never heard of either of these institutions until this case. On the other hand, Peterson is a tenured professor at The University of Toronto – one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Beyond that, he is probably the most prominent professor in the English speaking world right now, at least as far as the mass media are concerned. Every week, hundreds of people (for reasons that I do not pretend to understand) give him thousands of dollars by contributing to his web site.

The idea that comments that one group of these professors made about him in a closed meeting and the other in an obviously intemperate twitter message can damage his professional reputation and cause him damage is patently absurd. However, unsophisticated people who do not understand the law very well can easily be intimidated into silence by threats of a lawsuit from someone who, like Peterson, has vast financial resources, even if the lawsuit is in fact frivolous and groundless and would violate their rights if successful. To deliberately intimidate people into silence by threatening coercion that would violate their rights is itself a violation of their rights: their rights to speak freely.

Jordan Peterson is the biggest kid in the schoolyard, and he is picking on little kids who have no way to harm him, but who do seem to be able to make him very very angry. He is simply a bully, and like any bully he is violating the rights of others: in this case, rights to freedom of speech.