What Makes Us Generous?

What Makes Us Generous?ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

Why are people generous? Why are some humans much more generous than others? What factors tend to promote or inhibit generosity? It turns out that generosity makes a big difference in the quality of human personal and social life, both for the givers and receivers. So the better we understand it, the better we will be able to think about and practice it, toward greater human flourishing.

By “generosity,” I mean the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly. Generosity thus conceived is a learned character trait that involves attitude and action—entailing both the inclination and actual practice of giving liberally. Generosity is not a haphazard behavior but a basic orientation to life. It entails not only a moral good expressed but also certain vices rejected, such as selfishness, greed, fear, and meanness. Generosity also involves giving not just anything, but rather those things that are good for others. What exactly generosity gives can vary: money, possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, emotional availability, and more. But it always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of the receiver.

Generosity is not identical to pure altruism, since people can be authentically generous in part for reasons that serve their own interests as well as those of others. Indeed, insofar as generosity is a virtue, to practice it for the good of others also necessarily means that doing so achieves one’s own true, long–term good, as I note below. Generosity, like all virtues, is in people’s genuine enlightened self-interest to learn and practice.

Having said that, the answer to our question is going to be complicated. There are no “social laws” that explain who is generous and why. There is no simple list of variables that “produce” or “predict” generosity. A variety of complicated factors operating in any number of combinations at different levels of life—cultural, institutional, experiential, situational, psychological, and neurological—influence different levels and kinds of generosity that people express.

Empirical research can nonetheless tell us much about the conditions and expressions of generosity. At the most basic level we should note that human persons not only have selfish tendencies, but also possess the natural capacity and even the propensity to be generous. This capacity and tendency for generosity in fact begins to be exercised in the earliest years of life, even before toddlers learn to talk—as shown, for example, by the developmental-psychology research of Harvard University’s Dr. Felix Warneken, funded in part by my Science of Generosity Initiative. This tells us that social-science theories and explanations that assume strong versions of “rational egoism”—that everything people do is ultimately driven by calculated self-interest—are missing crucial parts of reality. Against traditions that posit, essentially, that “humans are naturally just nasty,” exemplified by Thomas Hobbes, the truth is that human beings are more complicated, and that generosity is just as natural to the human condition as is selfishness.

The primordial origin of human generosity may partly relate to the intimate experience of maternal care for offspring, as suggested by the neuroscience research of Stony Brook University’s Drs. Stephanie Brown and James Swain, also funded by the Science of Generosity Initiative. It appears that something about becoming a mother (and father, though that process appears to be delayed) actually changes the way adult brains are wired to respond generously to the needs of others. The long proto-human and early human experience of hunting-gathering life in a world of scarcity and danger also certainly formed in deep human neurology the importance of generosity among at least the members of family, kin, and tribe. Natural selection would have worked against human ancestors who did not practice the giving, sharing, and sometimes self-sacrifice necessary for the collective survival of one’s immediate group. Such processes would have over the long run built the capacity and readiness for generosity into deep human nature. (As an aside, the much bigger challenge, usually only somewhat successfully met, has been learning to be generous with people beyond the close social ties of blood relatives and tribe, to those who are genuinely “other.”)

But possessing the natural general power for some given practice like generosity does not guarantee that it will be activated and exercised in any give case. Not all human capacities are triggered, cultivated, and expressed. Some, perhaps especially virtues like generosity, need to be actively prompted and tutored in order to become regular practices. That shifts our analytical attention from deep human neurology to more proximate triggering and routinizing factors promoting generosity. Again, nothing here is determinative. Everything is a matter of tendencies and contingencies.

For example, at a big-picture level, societies whose macro cultures normalize and encourage generosity in different forms will tend to produce people who are more generous than those of other cultures. People who were raised by parents who practiced generosity will also tend to be more generous themselves as adults, sometimes without even realizing it. And those who are committed members of social institutions that teach the good of generosity—such as many religious congregations or community associations—will tend to be more generous people. Exactly how such factors shape different people, however, will vary from case to case.

Part of the answer to the question about why some humans are generous is the fact that being a generous person is usually rewarding. To ungenerous people, the idea of giving good things away can feel like a threatening loss to be feared and avoided—which is partly why they do not give. But people who have learned to practice generosity know that their own lives are positively enhanced in various ways by their giving to others, as shown empirically and theorized in depth in my forthcoming book, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose (Oxford University Press, co-authored with Hilary Davidson). Practicing generosity causally promotes greater happiness, health, emotional wellbeing, and sense of purpose in life. Generosity toward others is thus usually “repaid” in valuable ways, which helps to explain its perpetuation. The next question then becomes what distinguishes people who learn to practice generosity from those who do not?

Normal social science in the quantitative vein will tackle such questions by searching for statistically significant associations between variables represented by survey measures. Doing that tells us, for example, that more financially generous adults in the U.S. generally tend to be more religious, better educated, more personally financially well organized, and more empathetic and trusting toward others, among other factors. Oftentimes, such associations are only weak to moderately strong, and they can miss different sets of significant correlations operative in distinct sub-populations. Still, this approach does begin to provide some important descriptive findings, which then need further explanation and theorizing.

But I think in the end associations between variables per se does not explain why (some) people are generous. The best philosophy of social science, critical realism, tells us that the answers must be found at a deeper and more theoretical level than correlated empirical observables. Many causal psychological and social mechanisms that are not directly empirically observable are operating in complex ways that produce (or inhibit) generosity. Research projects, such as my own Science of Generosity Initiative, are currently working to identify and theorize just such underlying causal mechanisms, and publications in coming years will enhance our knowledge and understanding of them.

Meanwhile, shifting to a higher level of observation and reflection helps to answer our question more adequately. We humans are ultimately generous because, if we (or enough of us) were not generous, we not only would not survive but could never flourish as persons. A world without human generosity would be like an internal combustion engine without lubricating oil—pretty soon it would overheat and shut down. Generosity, like trust and reciprocity, provides a necessary lubricant for the functional human social and institutional relations necessary for human thriving. But generosity is even more than an instrumental necessity for the smooth operation of society’s machinery. Generosity itself helps to define what good human lives and societies even look like in the first place. Simply to be a flourishing human person inherently involves practicing generosity. There is no such thing as an authentically thriving stingy person. The same is true for society. Good societies that promote the widespread flourishing of their members not only depend upon but also embody and promote generosity, both inter-personally and institutionally. That is simply part of what it means to be a good society, given the nature, goods, and limitations of human personhood itself, as I argue in my book, What is a Person? (University of Chicago Press, 2010). In the end, beneath all of the self-interest, competition, and conflict that we find so much of in human societies, it is finally people’s degree and quality of care for the wellbeing of themselves and others that defines a good human life and a good society. And caring such ways well always requires practicing generosity.

Discussion Summary

Numerous important questions arise when considering the big question of why human beings are generous. The first concerns the relationship between generosity and altruism. I argued that the two concepts—generosity and altruism—are not identical. Most forms of generosity are not purely altruistic, nor do they need to be to count as authentic generosity. Humans are often genuinely generous for mixed-motives, including serving their enlightened self-interest. At the same time, we can all imagine scenarios of apparent generosity that are performed for completely self-serving motives. In such cases, the recipients of the giving are really only being manipulatively used to serve the interests of the givers. Most of us would probably say that this is not real generosity. Still, such giving can genuinely serve the good of the recipients, who may have no idea that they are being used for their benefactor’s purposes. The question, then, is where to draw the line between true and false generosity. This question arose in the comments on my original essay, too, as readers debated the importance of an individual’s motivations in identifying true generosity. I would like to explore that topic in more detail here.

Another way to approach this is to ask how important the character of the subjective motivations or intentions of the generous giver are for qualifying their giving as authentically generous. Complications arise when the giver is not fully aware of their own motives for giving, which indeed happens in human relations. In our research, for example, we have detected cases of what we call “pathological generosity,” in which some extraordinary giving behavior, when probed a bit, seems obviously driven by the pathetic needs of the givers to be noticed, appreciated, and have their own moral self-identities affirmed. And in many such cases, the givers are actually not taking care of themselves at all, in fact may be ruining their own lives by giving to others so much. Here is the key point: these pathologically generous people are not self-aware enough to know that their generosity is probably compromised by their own distorting needs and motives. So the question is, to “qualify” conceptually as truly generous giving, must the givers in question be adequately self-aware of their own motives and not be driven primarily by distorted and pathological motivations?

Yet another problem that arises when considering the big question of human generosity is the stubborn matter of whether human beings are, in the end, capable of anything other than self-serving behavior. One of the discussants of my original essay suggested that all “generous” giving is really essentially, ultimately a way to control, dominate, or manipulate other people. Giving good things to others may look very noble on the surface, but beneath that, so this view says, always lay fundamentally selfish motives. Such an interpretation proposes to explain all seemingly generous behavior—whether between individuals, groups, or nation states—as merely another form of pure self-serving.

I call this problem “stubborn” because it is a position that is impossible to definitively evaluate by appeal to empirical evidence. That is because this view is finally not driven by the observable facts, but is rather an interpretation of facts based on a pre-scientific commitment to a particular worldview. This position functions as a presupposed, paradigmatic belief about human nature globally, which governs how (apparent) acts of generosity are then interpreted, namely, as selfish. And once one accepts this presupposed view, it is impossible to refute or falsify it, since every anomaly (that is, cases of apparently genuine generosity) can be explained away again as ultimately “really”’ selfish. The problem here, however, is that the stories this view must tell to interpret away discrediting evidence eventually to most people come to seem implausible. One must argue, for instance, that people like Mother Teresa or those who at their own peril rescued Jews from the Nazis were “really” only acting to serve their own personal interests. At some point, the position collapses from its lack of “face validity.”

In order to untangle the complicating lines of thought here, we need to realize something that is often lost on most neo-utilitarian interpretations of human life. That is that people’s desires, preferences, and utilities can substantively change over the developmental course of human life, so that the same experience that for one person would be a huge cost can be for another person deeply rewarding. For example, to spend one’s weekends volunteering to care for disabled children may be a unpleasant prospect for many people, but for some it may be highly worthwhile and fulfilling. People can learn to transcend what we might think of as basic human selfishness and come to positively desire giving good things to others. Rather than interpreting that from the neo-utilitarian paradigm as just yet another form of “masked” selfishness, I think we should adopt an Aristotelian framework and better view this as a matter of people learning to overcome vice by acquiring virtues. That, I think, resonates much more authentically with our phenomenological human experience than does that twisting approach of neo-utilitarianism. In from that perspective, genuine generosity does in fact operate widely in human life.

New Big Questions

1.       Is Genuine Human Altruism Real?

2.       Why and How Do People Change their Desires to Become More Virtuous?

14 Responses

  1. Hpschenkel says:

    Does the act of being generous only have real worth when it is done with sacrice?  This becomes a cunnondrum for the very afluent in society.  Sacrifice would mean, giving up something (ie. a vacation) in order to give.  Being a generous person is a way of life for many but at what cost?

    • Christian Smith says:

      I suppose it depends in part of what one means by “worth.” By my account, generosity does not require sacrificial giving to be worthy of being considered generous. Generous giving can have real worth for both the receiver and giver even if the giving does not involve a big sacrifice. At the same time, I think most people would say that generosity that does requires real sacrifice on the part of the giver may reflect greater moral worth than “easy” generosity. But keep in mind, too, that objectively having more to give is not correlated empirically with giving more–it can actually have a tendency of making it harder to give anything away. So, for the wealthy to learn generosity is I think just as significant, in at least some ways, as those of modest means doing so.

  2. Robert Roberts says:

    Who is the more generous of two persons who are equally “giving,” the person who insists on anonymity in his giving and feels uncomfortable in receiving expressions of gratitude from his beneficiaries, or the person who seeks and enjoys receiving such expressions of gratitude?

  3. Christian Smith says:

    I think by my account neither of these would be more or less generous, necessarily. However, we might think of the anonymous donor as expressing more altruism, which is not the same thing as generosity. True generosity can be expressed for mixed motives, as I see it. However, by my account, if the giver at an extreme literally does not care about the wellbeing of the receiver, that would not count as generosity, but rather something like manipulation or instrumental self-aggrandizement. How does that sound?

    • Robert Roberts says:

      It seems to me that some virtues are partially defined by motivation, so that to the extent that the person lacks the motivation, she also lacks the virtue, no matter how much her behavior seems characteristic of the virtue. I think you agree with this when you say that the person who doesn’t care at all about the wellbeing of the receiver is not generous. The abundant giving of the salesman who gives away lots of free samples doesn’t qualify him as generous. Generosity can be expressed by actions that have mixed motivation, but to be generous the action needs to be at least partly motivated by a generous motive. You mention the wellbeing of the other as a generous motive. I think my question is whether other motives are generous. The person who wants to be thanked and enjoys receiving expressions of gratitude wants to make a “connection” with her beneficiary. There’s a kind of fellowship, a friendly meeting of minds, when the well-wishing motive of the generous person receives a well-wishing acknowledgment from the grateful beneficiary, and the generous person sacrifices this fellowship when she remains anonymous. If both altruism and this concern for a loving meeting of the minds are generous motives, then someone might think that this “mixture” of motives is a more balanced and perfect kind of generosity than a purely altruistic one.

      • Christian Smith says:

        Yes, I agree that motivations are significant here. I mostly do not want to conflate generosity and altruism. Also at work is the fact that, as people learn virtues, their “preferences” actually change, so that they can come to want different things. What previously might have been thought of and experienced as a “cost” can become a reward. And that makes “motivations” a moving part, so to speak.

        • Lui Di Martino says:

          Generosity would be seen as successful evolution if one takes into account that it is the more cooperative groups that have survived. Contrary to popular opinion regarding evolution, it isn’t the dominant specie that survives, but the specie that is being dominated and has to adapt to the outskirts that generlaly survives and evolution favours. It is called the ‘Altruist Survivor Theory’, and it seems like a reasonable challenge to the Darwnian theory of evolution. Here’s some snippets from the essay:

          ………Altruist Survivor Theory says selfish genes are evolution’s dead-ends 04  because the `selfish’ fish remained fishes, `selfish’ reptiles stayed as reptiles, `selfish’ apes are currently apes.

          Real, successful evolution is a non-selfish process: mutual co-operation within a species and, ideally, within an entire eco-system. 05 & 06


          Subsequently we see that at every stage of our development our direct ancestors came from the smaller, weaker forms, physically dominated by more `successful’ competitors.


          Recent mtDNA analysis shows the Neanderthals 104  Homo sapiens neanderthalensis were very different, even from our own ancestors, and so may have diverged around half a million to a million years ago.

          Large brained (much bigger than ours), and supremely fit (both male and female were three or four times stronger than modern humans) they moved rapidly throughout Europe and to the East, and, with a body plan structured for chilly environments, seemed to prosper. 105 & 106


          At around the same time, or maybe earlier, another type of human 109  had evolved.  Recent archeological evidence from China and India hint at its surprisingly early spread, and at an origin maybe 250,000 years ago or even earlier. 110

          This `human’ – Homo sapiens sapiens – was weaker and slighter.

          Indeed. Homo sapiens sapiens seems to have been a budding artist from earliest times. 113

          Their males cared for and showed attachment 114  to their families – maybe first development of what is humans’ strongest drive.

          Those `strong’, `successful’ Neanderthals died out. 117

          Sentimental, artistic and weaker humans survived.  And now we were all one race. 118  That is, able to mate across all of humanity – as we still can today. 119


          Could one say generosity also veers toward balance? It’s an attempt to reset conditions to their fundamental level, balance the scales. If I donate to a charity that uses the money to educate children in some less ‘fortunate’ countries, isn’t it because I wish to rebalance the difference between where I am at and where I perceive the child in the other country to be?

          What are the mechanics of generosity toward well known generous people? Is it easier to be less generous toward the generous? Do the generous themselves expect the same generosity back?

          • Christian Smith says:

            I would not say that individual people are generous today because it increases their reproductive fitness. My essay suggested that capacities and tendencies toward generosity developed in humans over the long run partly as a result of selection for survival success–and, yes, probably group success, not individual. But that is only one piece of the very complex puzzle. I do not believe we can explain why people are generous today in specific instances in terms of evolutionary theory, beyond the general capacities and tendencies I noted above. People’s specific behaviors in being generous are not determined by their genes. At this point, mostly sociological forces kick in to help shape people’s practices. And that could involve factors as simple as believing that giving 10% of one’s income is morally right or God’s will. For a lot more on what my Science of Generosity Initiative is learning, stay tuned here: https://generosityresearch.nd.edu/ 

  4. ianful says:

    A great question Christian. However, before I join this discussion, I would like clarification of this sentence. ‘But it always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of the receiver’. To me this implies that generosity is used deliberately by the donor to enhance the well being of the receiver. Maybe it is US English usage to use intend rather than tend. Tending implies that the receiver’s well being may rise due to gratitude.

    • Christian Smith says:

      Yes, my view is that generosity involves the intention by the giver to improve the wellbeing of the receiver. Someone who inadvertently helps someone else without intending to we cannot call generous.

  5. Meyer1953 says:


    I find that the first-order effectiveness of generosity is, that a generous person applies that person’s strengths and hopes THROUGH others, long before that person has the experience in the matter by which to make it a fully developed campaign.  That is to say, that a generous person is doing a beta-version of a movement that will (likely) later become fully fledged.  Just as our modern software developers have often released beta versions of their programs, often at no cost, to the public, so do we as people constantly speak influence through others.  Then, those influences that are most engaging through others suggest to the generous person who practiced them to begin with, that those influences should become fully developed.

    Much of what people do has multiple causes, and multiple concurrent satisfactions along with multiple costs.  What this view of generosity includes, is that a generous person develops a pertinent outcome through the engagement of people widely about.

  6. ianful says:

    OK so there is intent behind/associated with generosity. Leaders like politicians are generous with public money in order to get what they want – that is to attract constituents that will vote for them at the next election. Lobbyists also shower politicians with gifts, threats and job prospects following public office. There are strings attached and payback all along this path and it can lead to corruption in the end. This is the nightmare of many countries, where bribery is essential to get anything done. Targeted generosity destroys communities, and ends up where a government is mostly irrelevant to the lives of its people. I therefore do not consider generosity a virtue, and it may be just another form of greed.

    • Christian Smith says:

      Read Aristotle. Every true virtue can be practiced in the wrong ways, for the wrong ends, to the wrong degress–and then they become vices. Just because a virtute can be abused does not mean that all apparently good things are really vices. What matters is learning to avoid vices and practice virtues. Allow me to try a reducto ad absurdum of your argument: “People say eating food is good and healthy for us, but in lots of cases food involves obesity, anorexia, and other bad things, so I say food is not good and healthy but bad.” Really? Finally, I suggest that governing your argument is not an empirical observation about generosity, but a deeper precommitment to a particular view of human nature as selfish and manipulative. I would say that is a big part of human nature, but it is not the whole story. We need more complexity and balance, and once we have that, space opens up for a more appreciative understanding of generosity.