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What Makes Us Generous?

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?