Generous to a Fault?


Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society, by Tibor Machan, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 116 pages, $16.95/$8.95 paper

My friend the economist was puzzled, but only for a minute. Our flight was almost full, and the young family who boarded late had not been seated together. The mother and baby had a middle seat across from us, and the father was seated in another middle seat some rows to the rear. But before takeoff the seating arrangements changed; the passenger on the aisle next to the father had traded his seat for the mother's.

An unexceptional incident? Yes, unless you happen to be an economist trained at the University of Chicago. With a straight face I opined, "Looks to me like market failure." This secured my friend's attention. "That fellow gave up the better seat without compensation," I continued. "Don't you think it would be more efficient to have a market in passenger seat rights?"

While mulling this over the economist muttered some ritual phrases about "transaction costs" and "informational asymmetries." That, though, was wheelspinning. Eventually he offered two suggestions. First, the passenger who offered the seat exchange may have done so to avoid feelings of guilt (and to avoid replacing guilt with embarrassment he did not ask for compensation). Second, the passenger may have given up the better seat because coming to the rescue of the separated family gave him pleasure. (The economist said "positive psychic returns," but I'm pretty sure this is what he meant.)

This was explanation enough for my friend; subsequently we chatted about design possibilities for airplane-seat auctions and the failings of the Republicans. But this would not have been enough for the distinguished libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan, who in his latest book provides a simpler and altogether more intuitively satisfying answer: The passenger acted out of generosity.

Couldn't any schoolboy have come up with the same answer? No doubt that's true, but for philosophers (and economists) it isn't so easy. There are basically two reasons why that is so. One is the suspicion that authentically generous action does not exist–that despite appearances, whatever people elect to do is motivated by the relentless pursuit of self-interest. The other is that even if individuals do from time to time act for the sake of others' well-being instead of their own, they are thereby rendering themselves suckers, dupes, inadequate agents of their own flourishing. On the one hand, generosity is deemed to be impossible, and on the other, it is thought to be irrational. Whichever fork is taken, generosity becomes problematic and manifests a political dimension: If people are not in fact generous, or if they are ill-advised to act generously, then institutionalized and coercive mechanisms will be needed to address social problems. The name for those mechanisms is, of course, the welfare state.

Machan rejects the propositions that generosity doesn't exist and that generosity is a mug's game. He also emphatically rejects the proposition that the welfare state is superior to voluntary action as an instrument for meeting human needs. On all counts he is thoroughly persuasive. Generosity may not be the highest of the virtues, and it certainly isn't the only virtue, but it is a crucial piece of the puzzle of living a good human life among others. Thus, that which impedes the free flow of generous behavior damages people. That is Machan's chief indictment of the welfare state. By substituting the drear hand of mechanistic bureaucracy for private compassionate acts, society is literally demoralized. Notwithstanding contrived political rhetoric to the contrary, governments are incapable of being kind or compassionate because these are moral stances the existence of which presupposes free choice. Even apart from questions of effectiveness, coerced transfers negate choice and thereby deprive individuals of opportunities to open their hearts–and their pocketbooks–to their fellows.

This is a novel and insightful critique of the welfare state, but Machan overplays his hand when he claims that "despite all the rhetoric about compassion, kindness, and charity, supporters of the welfare state in effect make it impossible for citizens to be compassionate, kind, and charitable." That, for better or worse, is to give much too much credit to the enemy. Has public education eradicated ignorance, has public housing wiped out slums and homelessness, have transfer programs banished poverty and hunger? Not in this world. So there is no paucity of opportunities for acting generously toward those who have fallen through the cracks–or canyons–of the welfare state. That isn't to dismiss Machan's indictment, but rather to agree with scholars such as Charles Murray and Marvin Olasky that the demoralization occasioned by the welfare state predominantly falls on its alleged beneficiaries.

Underlying these political debates is a foundational moral question: Why is it good to be generous? For those who take morality to be a studied exercise in impartiality among persons, the answer comes quickly enough. Generous people act to secure the greater good in place of the lesser good, even if the lesser good forgone is one's own and the greater good accrues to someone else. Machan, however, heavily influenced by Aristotle and Ayn Rand, vociferously rejects impartiality as the be-all and end-all of ethical life. Rather, the overriding moral task for the individual is to flourish in his own activities. From this perspective, making the case for generosity as a virtue is no easy task. For those (like myself) who concur with Machan's rejection of impartialism, there is considerable interest in seeing how smoothly he can motor his way along this alternate route to generosity.

There are, I think, bumps along the way. "Generosity," claims Machan, "is a good trait because practicing it makes us more at home with the world." Insofar as we are generous "we contribute to the positive upkeep and improvement of the community that can make a more hospitable setting for our own life." But while this may be true on many, even most occasions, it misses the distinctive point of generosity. If I act generously toward others I am endeavoring to make their world more hospitable. Benefits accruing to me are side effects. They are not what one primarily aims at–if they are, the conduct by definition is not generous. By analogy, when I paint my house and landscape my garden I enhance my neighbors' property values, but it would be seriously misleading to say that what I was doing was trying to make them richer.

In the book's epilogue Machan offers this Aristotelian variation: "Generosity is morally virtuous because we are essentially social beings with the prospect of intimate human relationships enhancing our lives, and because we can ennoble ourselves by supporting others." The problem with this claim is not that it is false but that it begs the question. We ennoble ourselves by acting generously only if generosity is indeed a virtue–the proposition that is to be established. Social beings do enjoy helping others out in a pinch. But to take pleasure from making things go better for others presupposes that one independently values their well-being, else there would be no pleasure in helping them. What we need to be told is why this way of securing pleasure is especially meritorious. Both Machan and my friend the economist have put the self-interested cart before the other-regarding horse. That is why their answers are unconvincing.

Does it follow that unless we concede victory to the impartialists, generosity turns out to be a sham virtue? I think not. With Machan, we can reject the demand that we set our own interests and projects on a par with those of all others. We are rationally entitled to lend to the one life we live our primary attention. Primacy is one thing, though, and exclusivity quite another. Because we recognize that the weal and woe of others is as real as our own, we also recognize that factors bearing on their well-being should enter into our own practical accounting, albeit not with the same weighting that one's own good (and that of one's loved ones) carries. To count oneself as one and others as zero would be to fall into a kind of moral solipsism. The generous person is not solipsistic. He expresses his recognition of others' status as persons with ends of their own rather than mere things by forgoing from time to time his own satisfactions so that others can benefit. This isn't masochism or heroic self-sacrifice. It's no more and no less than generosity.

Machan possesses the resources to offer a similar analysis, but he holds back because he remains under the spell of the philosophical theory of "ethical egoism." According to the egoist, one ought to act in the way that most advances one's own good. The strict implication of this is that one may accord no weight whatsoever to the interests of others if doing so diminishes, even by an iota, one's own interests. The best known recent exponent of egoism is Rand and, with implacable consistency, she proceeded to announce that selfishness is a virtue. Perhaps Rand believed that this was the only approach compatible with a rejection of impartialism. If so, she was mistaken, just as she was about the status of selfishness. Selfish people are not generous, and it is generosity rather than selfishness that is a virtue. Machan perceives that that is so, but not with sufficient clarity to lead him to jettison the constricting egoistic framework.

Machan's analysis could have been sharpened had he availed himself of the insights of philosophers outside the Aristotle/Rand axis, especially the 18th-century Scottish theorists David Hume and Adam Smith. Unfortunately, he takes them on not as collaborators but competitors, in the process significantly distorting their views. Hume is presented as denying the existence of free will and reducing human behavior to the tugs and pulls of sentiment. To the contrary, Hume affirms free choice, albeit basing it on a different theory of free will than that favored by Machan. For Hume, generosity springs from a natural beneficence that is inherent in all normally functioning human beings, but that in no way precludes the voluntary status of generous actions.

Smith is mischaracterized even more seriously as someone for whom "it is a matter of calculation whether one will engage in social relationships." Rather, Smith maintains in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that one's sense of self and one's conscience (poetically labeled "the man within the breast") is from earliest childhood grounded on recognition of and regard for the attitudes of others. No less for Smith than Aristotle are human beings social animals. Any theory of generosity could benefit from careful study of his nuanced, sensitive account of how individuals come to modulate their passions and live decently among others.

These are not the only adversaries with whom Machan is a bit too fast and loose. John Rawls's "intuitionism" is held up for criticism, but that Rawls explicitly rejected the claims of intuitionism as a theory of justice passes without mention. Rawls's philosophical forebear, Immanuel Kant, is also presented in tendentious fashion. There is perhaps some irony to the fact that a work of advocacy for the virtue of generosity is less than generous in its representations of other theorists' views. I bring this up not because scholarly pedantry is fun (although I must confess that it often is) but because the consequence of Machan's partisanship is a less illuminating analysis than might otherwise have been achieved. Still, this commendably concise and readable volume takes important strides toward clarifying the place of a crucial civic virtue. To suggest otherwise would be, well, ungenerous.

Contributing Editor Loren Lomasky ( teaches philosophy at Bowling Green State University.