Aristotle=s and Hume=s accounts of generosity are formulated to help readers to better understand themselves, and to free them from prevalent mistaken tendencies and accounts. While their readers will probably not think of themselves as morally perfect, they will tend to identify themselves with the virtuous agents described. In this way Aristotle and Hume are challenging them to greater self-understanding. As readers read these accounts, they are led to see themselves within a certain framework, to see more clearly the proximate and ultimate goods that they should pursue. This increased self-awareness is the means by which these two key texts in the philosophical tradition can hope to have the practical effects they are intended to have.1 Although neither believes that there is a simple, straightforward connection between hearing a true account of virtue and becoming virtuous, Aristotle and Hume do seem to believe that the understanding of oneself that their accounts provide will be helpful, both negatively (by overcoming misunderstandings of goods) and positively (by clarifying proper goals and motives).
Aristotle on Generosity
Aristotle=s Analysis of Generosity/Liberality (NE 4.1)
Within Aristotle=s account of the completion (telos
) of the human being, he analyzes the various excellences or virtues. Because the distinctly human >part= of the soul has two >parts=, that which shares in logos
and that which is logos
, there are two kinds of virtues: virtues of character and virtues of intellect. Aristotle analyses the virtue of generosity within the context of his descriptions of the various virtues of character. After discussing courage and temperance, the third virtue that Aristotle discusses in Nicomachean Ethics
(λευθεριότητoς, liberality, generosity2
This virtue takes its name from one who is free, not servile or bound. Those who are eleutheriotetos speak and act like free men. Liberal persons are not too attached to, not too serious about, wealth (1119b 30). According to Aristotle, they show themselves as liberal in their excellent dealings with wealth, that is, by giving and taking wealth well (especially by giving). Their freedom over wealth allows them to use it best, by giving (and taking) it well. AWealth, therefore, will be used best by the person who has the virtue concerned with wealth; and this is the liberal one,@ the one who gives (1120a8).
Since the completion of human life is excellent activity,3 it seems fitting that liberality be principally associated with an activity, giving, rather than taking; even though both are in a way right uses of wealth (1120a 12-15). Generosity is principally about a certain kind of action, giving, and only indirectly concerned with a passion. Indeed, the only pleasure and pain that Aristotle associates with this virtue is Agiving with pleasure or at least without pain@4 and he does not try to use it to better understand liberality (1120a 28).5
In keeping with the tri-partite division of a virtuous mean between vicious extremes, Aristotle notes the two vices against which liberality is contrasted: asotia (σωτία; wastefulness or prodigality) gives too much, and aneleutheriotetos (illiberality or meanness) gives too little.6 Aristotle notes that this mean displays itself in giving Ato the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving@ (1120a 26)7. Between the two vices, prodigality is less opposed to (less far away from) the virtue than stinginess is; it is less bad to be prodigal than it is to be stingy (1121a 20).
In the course of his discussions of the various particular virtues Aristotle notes, almost in passing, that the distinguishing motive of the virtuous is the kalon (beautiful, noble). This point about the centrality of the kalon is repeated throughout the Ethics, all the way to the end in 10.9.8 Here at the beginning of Book 4, Aristotle emphasizes that generosity is kalos (beautiful, noble) (1120a 24). Indeed, if the kalon manifests itself in contrast to the necessary and the titillating, liberal giving would be a most clear case of the kalon in human life. This concern for the kalon rather than for wealth is linked to being pleased to give the right things to the right people at the right time, etc. Those who are not motivated by the kalon will feel pain at giving. Also, the generous are most beloved because their giving is helpful (1120a 22); and people are grateful to them (1120a 16).
Aristotle notes that generous persons prefer conferring benefits to asking for them, but they will accept them with discrimination, from the right sources, at the right time, for the right reasons, etc. (1120b 1). Likewise, they will not give to all and sundry, but will discern who the right people are, what to give, etc. Discrimination is part of being excellent; without it they will become base and/or unable to give. Nonetheless, liberal people are more concerned to give than to receive because they Ado not look to themselves@ (1120b 8). Aristotle notes that it is easier for those who inherit money to be liberal for two reasons. People are fonder of what they themselves have made, so those who make their own wealth are more attached to it.9 Also, those who inherit their wealth have not experienced want, so they are less anxious about money and the things it can buy (1120b 12).
Finally, Aristotle notes that liberality is not determined by how much they give simply, but by how much relative to their means (1120b 25). The excellent is relative to all the particulars of the situation. So, excellent giving is conditioned by the amount of their wealth.10 Those who are liberal do not value wealth for its own sake, but as a meansCa means to giving (1120b 16). So, those who are liberal are not apt to be wealthy. They enjoy giving, they prefer not to receive, and they do not take wealth too seriously.
Comments on Aristotle=s Account of Generosity:
The first thing to note about Aristotle=s presentation of generosity is that it associates generosity with freedom and the right use of wealth. It is not obvious that these necessarily go together as he suggests, and yet this conjunction conditions everything that Aristotle says about this virtue. Are those who are Afree@ characterized by their stance toward wealth? Is generosity about the right use of wealth?11 Is the Aright use@ of wealth displayed in giving?
I suggest that Aristotle brings these things together because he wants to move his audience from a particular starting point to someplace new.12 It seems that Aristotle assumes that his readers will identify themselves as those who are free. They are neither slaves nor wage earners and this freedom is a result of wealth; so the self-understanding of freemen is in terms of wealth. Aristotle=s account of liberality seeks to change such self-understanding. The combination of freedom, wealth, and giving intends to bring these readers to see that if they are to truly be who they think they are, they must be characterized as ones who give their wealth, rather than ones who cling on to it.
It is striking that Aristotle never discusses the sources of generous people’s wealth. Although Aristotle acknowledges that the liberal must take from the right sources, he is silent about what those Aright@ sources might or might not be. Other than noting that pimps, loan sharks and thieves cannot be virtuous because they do not care about the base source of their wealth (112ab 33), Aristotle has nothing to say about sources of wealth. To say more about sources would focus readers’ attention in the wrong direction.
Similarly, Aristotle also avoids ever mentioning the neediness implicit in being human throughout this discussion of using wealth well. The only oblique reference in this chapter to the fact that Ahuman nature is, in many ways, in bondage@ (Metaphysics 1.2) comes in his discussion of stinginess. The stingy are concerned with necessities (1121b 23). Aristotle shifts readers’ attention away from human limitations and neediness, moving them to be open to a dimension of themselves and the world which is all too easy to lose sight of in their everyday lives of attending to necessities. It is important to note that not thematizing these necessities is not denying them; it simply brings readers to focus somewhere else. Aristotle is not, I think, suggesting that human beings do not have bodily and political needs.13 Rather, he is shifting his readers= attention to something about themselves which is not bounded by them.
Acts of generosity both manifest an agent=s excellence of character and cause his character to be excellent (2.2: 1104a 28-29). They make his completeness manifest while also making him complete. Aristotle=s description of this virtue focuses on the way that these actions perfect, bring to completion, the agent. Aristotle’s generosity seems more about the effects that giving has on the agent than about the effects on the recipient. This description leads his generous readers to focus on themselves, not goods outside themselves.14
This emphasis fits with the characterization of virtue as self-sufficient which Aristotle gives throughout much of the Ethics. Virtue=s place in human life is in a space beyond necessities. As long as one is within the horizon of human economic, social and political needs, one is not in the space where full human virtue can exist. For Aristotle, the distinctly human goods exist beyond these limitations. Liberal acts are described as both final and self-sufficient. They are said to be chosen not because of their (beneficial) effects, but simply for their own sake; and they stand above all needs as manifestations of splendid self-sufficiency. This is not the Ethics= final teaching about the virtues and the virtuous agent, but it is the picture that it paints early on in its presentation of the generosity.15
Hume on Generosity
Hume=s Description of Generosity:
According to Hume, benevolent virtues such as generosity, friendship, and beneficence are paradigmatic; when people are called >virtuous= (simply) it is because they have these beneficent qualities (EPM
, Appendix IV, &2). Indeed, according to Hume, no qualities are more worthy of good-will and approbation (EPM
, II.1, &5; II.2, &17). Hume says that these virtues which promote others= happiness and ameliorate their misery Aproceed from a tender sympathy with others, and a generous concern for our kind and species@ (II.1, &5).
Hume notes that a generous spirit will be manifest in a Akindly influence@ which extends beyond the narrow bounds of generosity found in lower creatures (II.1, &4). Shelter and protection are offered to those in one=s care (II.1, &4). Parents are cared for, authority over children is only exercised for their benefit; and domestics and servants are secured from fear and anxiety (II.2, &1). Benevolent people feed the hungry, clothe the naked, instruct the ignorant in useful skills, and bring industry to the slothful (II.2, &1). When these kindly sentiments hold sway, the Aorder of society, the harmony of families, [and] the mutual support of friends@ are promoted (II.2, &17).16
Benevolent people enjoy the respect and affection of others because they are seen as caring and helpful; people admire and enjoy being with those who are generous and humane. It is not only grateful recipients who have affection and respect for one who is generous; others do as well. And generous people are rightly proud of themselves; they enjoy a Apleasing consciousness@ of themselves as the cause of others= happiness (IX.2, &8). Because of this, Hume can claim that those who are generously benevolent are happier than those who pursue their Aself-interest@ narrowly understood, with a happiness which is more secure and more distinctly human (IX.2, &&8-12).
Sympathy=s Effects in a Generous Person:
Beneath these seemingly obvious points about generosity lies Hume=s teaching about sympathy which is the key to his distinctive account of virtue.17 Through recognizing the various roles played by this moral sentiment, readers of his account of generosity are able to achieve a better understanding of themselves, about proper human goods, and about the kind of person they should strive to be.
The moral sentiment is both the epistemological foundation of moral language and the motivational foundation for virtue, and these two foundations are intimately connected. Moral language is crucial for the way that human beings are moved to be virtuous. They are moved to pursue natural goods on their own, but moral goods require personal interactions mediated by moral language. By talking together, human beings make clear to each other what things are good, and cause these humanly constituted goods to become more powerful influences in each other (V.2, &27; IX.1, &&8-9).18
Sympathy is not only the motive behind those virtues which are useful to others, it is also a motive for the three other kinds of virtues. Nonetheless, Hume shows the moral sentiment to be most fully and effectively at work in these generous virtues; that is what makes them paradigmatic for virtue as a whole.
On the most basic level, >sympathy= or >humanity= simply names a distinctive and significant phenomenon: human beings are not indifferent to others= condition; human beings react to the happiness and misery of others. This reaction may be quite weak, too weak in many people to bring them to do anything, but it is real. This sentimental reaction is the foundation of moral language.19 Hume notes that all human beings, because they have the basic reactions, can register and articulate them; all human beings use moral language. Everyone praises some people, dispositions and actions, while condemning others.20
Sympathy is also at work, but in a different way, when it is a motive for action. Hume acknowledges that sympathy is not always forceful enough to move one to act; he is willing to admit that humanity may not be the strongest motive within the human breast (IX.1, &4). However, he argues that it does at some times move some people. Perhaps it moves every human being at one time or another, but in the Enquiry Hume avoids precise determinations about the extent to which it is a motive in human life (IX.1, &4).
So, at least some people have a disposition which causes their negative reaction to the misery of someone else to move them to do something to alleviate it; or, their concern for the happiness of another moves them to do something to bring happiness to that person. There are people with the benevolent virtues. Hume notes that people who have this kindly constitution experience a different kind of pleasure: the pleasure of being connected with other people (e.g., VII, &19). It is pleasing to be engaged in the good of others and to help them; to be in a situation where one is separated from meaningful connections with others is quite unpleasant (VII, 19). This benevolent disposition is founded on the enjoyment human beings have in being connected to other people and engaged in their good. A concerned attachment to others makes one feel better. Hume notes that this new kind of pleasure can then itself become an object of desire; one can want to experience the pleasures of being connected to others and of helping them. He notes that even where people do not stand in need of one another, they enjoy being with and being attached to each other (VII, &20). So, it is immediately agreeable to be benevolent.21
These humane qualities are recognized and praised as virtues because spectators see them as the source of happiness to others. When one has a kind disposition, one is praised for having virtues which are useful to others. People like and admire those who are helpful to others, and they are positively disposed to them, wishing them well. Others are positively disposed toward those who are the cause of the happiness of others; esteem and affection come together.22
Hume notes that these kindly sentiments Atransfuse themselves@ into all who behold their presence. Seeing them at work in someone else calls them forth in one=s own person; one=s own benevolent sentiments are enlivened when one witnesses their effective presence in another (II.1, &5). The kindly attentions shown by benevolence are communicated to spectators, and move them with the same fondness and delicacy (VII, &19). In this way, these benevolent virtues are immediately agreeable to others; others find it pleasant to be with benevolent peopleBeven when they are not the recipient of their generosity. And this is a new, further source of approbation and affection.
In addition, it is both enjoyable and practically beneficial to be admired and liked; so these generous virtues will be both agreeable and useful to oneself. Here is a second way in which the benevolent virtues are agreeable to oneself: it is agreeable to be praised and liked by others. And being admired and liked will enable one to be more successful in one=s endeavors. Those who are only concerned with their own gratification are despised and hated (App. II, &4).23 This esteem and affection are desirable pleasures; human beings want to be admired and liked. Sympathy founds one=s reputation and, therefore, one=s desire for reputation.
Finally, on the basis of their beneficence, agents can be pleased to see themselves as the cause of others= happiness. They can take some distance from themselves, and see themselves as the cause of others= happiness, and this will cause a pleasant sympathetic reaction. When this reaction is registered, it causes people to esteem themselves, to feel pride. Hume observes that it is agreeable to know that one is and has been of help to others; consciousness of one=s own helpfulness is pleasant, as consciousness that one has unreasonably caused others harm is disagreeable (VII, &&4, 16; IX.1, &10; IX.2; 8). One can want to be proud of oneself for being helpful to others. And this desire to feel proud (and to avoid the pain of shame) is yet a further motive at work in a generous person.
Hume argues that praise and pride (two sources of pleasure which are founded on sympathy) support virtue by providing further motives to benevolent actions. With these pleasures of being admired and being proud, those who generously give to others are able to be happy in a more sophisticated sense. Indeed, the more alert they are to this dimension of themselves, the more they are motivated to be virtuous; without this sympathetic motive they are not moved to these virtues.24
Hume=s presentation of generosity shows that human beings are not isolated individuals. Fulfillment depends on being connected with and concerned about other peopleCnot only in addressing their neediness, but also in how they react to us and what they think of us. If, under the influence of some theory, people attempt to deny or overlook this, they will impede their chances of happiness. Bad theory cannot change human nature, but it can interfere with its flourishing; good theory clears the way for nature to function well (IX.1, &3; App. IV, &21).
Hume=s presentation of generosity shows that the proper world for human beings is neither an isolated, private world nor a superhuman world, but the human world of deeds and conversation. Reading it enables people to appreciate the many ways that they are tied to others, without moving them beyond this human world into a supernatural world.
Although Aristotle and Hume are clearly talking about the same type of person and action, the differences between their accounts of generosity is striking. While Aristotle and Hume agree that a selfish concern for oneself (especially as that manifests itself in an unwillingness to give money and the things money can buy to others) interferes with achieving the goods which constitute true human happiness, they disagree about the character of these goods.
For Aristotle, an attachment to not only wealth but also other people=s opinions lowers one=s horizon away from the true human goods which lie beyond the economic and political. Aristotle=s presentation of generosity asserts the insufficiency of goods tied to necessities while pointing to the possibility of human beings moving beyond them to something more beautiful, the eternal. Because the goods of the body and of the polis are so attractive, they tend to blind people to higher goods. The one-sided presentation of liberality he gives, which ignores necessities and exaggerates freedom, seeks to show his readers that there are these higher goods. For Aristotle, the goods of the body and of living together do not encompass all the goods that are available; the most complete goods lie beyond them. These goods beyond the body and the polis are available in one way in the practical virtues and in another more complete way in the theoretical virtues. 25
Hume=s account of benevolence and the distinctly human goods available to the benevolent is opposed to two quite different threats: ‘individualism’ and popular religion.26 Against a Hobbesian interpretation of human goods, Hume asserts the reality of connectedness and concern among people. For Hume, there are tendencies in human nature which cause people to be narrowly motivated by private gratifications. This keeps them from the sympathetic involvements with others which constitute true human happiness. To be happy human beings need to be connected with others, to actively pursue their good, and to be responsive to their sentiments. And yet, the moral sentiment which should connect people to one another often fails to hold sway. Anxiety about private and limited goods often dominates, keeping people focused on themselves, and keeping them from the distinctly human pleasures available to the virtuous. Hume=s analyses of the workings of sympathy call attention away goods which separate people and toward sympathetically constituted pleasures which bring them together.
Against the religious interpretation of human goods, Hume shows the world of common life to be sufficiently rich to satisfy human beings. Human beings, if they appreciate the full richness of sympathy-constituted goods available in a virtuous life, recognize that they do not need to be completed by anything beyond the ordinary human world. The shared human world is not so corrupt, ugly and incomplete that they need to look elsewhere for their happiness. Belief in an omnipotent, capricious God who rewards and punishes tends to cause people to be more concerned about this divinity’s demands and rewards than about the pleasures of living with others. So, religion tends to weaken the power of the natural moral sentiment, undermining the basis of virtue and happiness. Hume sees that by weakening sympathetic interactions among people, religion too often becomes a mask for the expression of base and destructive human passions (See Essays X, “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm”; NHR XII and XIV). Therefore, he would be distrustful of Aristotle’s attempt to ground human happiness in goods beyond the ordinary and everyday. 27 Hume=s presentation of generosity asserts the reality and sufficiency of the goods available in the common human world.
Both Aristotle and Hume are concerned to show that human happiness lies in achieving goals beyond the satisfaction of bodily needs, private gratifications and the possession of wealth. However, this concern leads Aristotle to elide the human with the divine; and the distinctly human tends to get lost.28 Hume=s sympathy-based account, on the other hand, provides a model of a philosophical vindication of the reality of distinctly human goods which remains emphatically human. Hume shows that to avoid the bestial, the human does not need to flee into the divine.