What is Generosity?

Here are two different approaches to the idea of generosity. The first is an etymological essay that offers a brief introduction to historical uses of the word “generosity”, as well as the Science of Generosity usage; the second is an historical essay briefly describing the importance of generosity to various cultures past and present.

An Etymology of the Word

The modern English word “generosity” derives from the Latin word generĊsus, which means “of noble birth,” which itself was passed down to English through the Old French word genereux.

  • The Latin stem gener– is the declensional stem of genus, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race,” or “stock,” with the root Indo–European meaning of gen being "to beget. "
  • The same root gives us the words genesis, gentry, gender, genital, gentile, genealogy, and genius, among others.
  • Most recorded English uses of the word “generous” up to and during the Sixteenth Century reflect an aristocratic sense of being of noble lineage or high birth. To be generous was literally a way of saying “to belong to nobility.”

During the 17th Century, however, the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity came increasingly to identify not literal family heritage but a nobility of spirit thought to be associated with high birth— that is, with various admirable qualities that could now vary from person to person, depending not on family history but on whether a person actually possessed the qualities.

  • In this way generosity increasingly came in the 17th Century to signify a variety of traits of character and action historically associated (whether accurately or not) with the ideals of actual nobility: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness.
  • In addition to describing these diverse human qualities, "generous "became a word during this period used to describe fertile land, the strength of animal breeds, abundant provisions of food, vibrancy of colors, the strength of liquor, and the potency of medicine.

Then, during the 18th Century, the meaning of “generosity” continued to evolve in directions denoting the more specific, contemporary meaning of munificence, open–handedness, and liberality in the giving of money and possessions to others.

  • This more specific meaning came to dominate English usage by the 19th Century.
  • Over the last five centuries in the English speaking world, “generosity” developed from being primarily the description of an ascribed status pertaining to the elite nobility to being an achieved mark of admirable personal quality and action capable of being exercised in theory by any person who had learned virtue and noble character.

Modern Usage of the Word

This etymological genealogy tells us that the word “generosity” that we inherit and use today entails certain historical associations which may still inform, however faintly, our contemporary cultural sensibilities on the matter.

  • Generosity has not long been viewed as a normal trait of ordinary, or of all people, but rather one expected to be practiced by those of higher quality or greater goodness.
  • Generosity— unlike, say, truth telling or not stealing— is more an ideal toward which the best may aspire and achieve than a “democratic” obligation that is the duty of all to practice.
  • Generosity may thus, on the positive side, properly call any given person to a higher standard.

Yet simultaneously (and more problematically), this two–tier understanding may have the effect “excusing” the majority from practicing generosity because of their more ordinary perceived status.

We learn from this historical review that the meanings of words can and do evolve, and often do so in response to changing macro social conditions—such as long–term transitions from aristocratic to more democratic societies and cultures.

The Science of Generosity Usage

For our purposes, we use the word generosity to refer to the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.

  • Generosity thus conceived is a learned character trait that involves both attitude and action—entailing as a virtue both an inclination or predilection to give liberally and an actual practice of giving liberally.
  • Generosity is therefore not a random idea or haphazard behavior but rather, in its mature form, a basic, personal, moral orientation to life. Furthermore, in a world of moral contrasts, generosity entails not only the moral good expressed but also many vices rejected (selfishness, greed, fear, meanness).
  • Generosity also involves giving to others not simply anything in abundance but rather giving those things that are good for others. Generosity always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of those to whom it gives.
  • What exactly generosity gives can be various things: money, possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, emotional availability, and more.
  • Generosity, to be clear, 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 well.
  • And so generosity, like all of the virtues, is in people’s genuine enlightened self-interest to learn and practice.

The Roots of Generosity: A Brief Cultural History

The virtue of generosity has been central throughout the Western tradition, though not always under that name. In order to grasp its ongoing significance, it is vital to place generosity within a broader context of reflection on hospitality, liberality, love, and charity. We discover in short order that pondering the nature of generosity has most often involved fundamental religious questions concerning the nature of humanity, God, and the human-divine relationship. Sustaining the intelligibility and possibility of the virtue of generosity into the future will require something at least as powerful as these inherited contexts of meaning and justification.

The special place of the virtue of hospitality throughout the Middle East has often been noted. The Arab/Islamic tradition in particular emphasizes that the faithful have a duty to God to show generous hospitality towards the stranger, offering them shelter and the best food and drink available. This virtue has deep historical roots, as is witnessed by the Hebrew Bible. It is exemplified in Abraham’s eagerness to host the three strangers who approach his tent in the wilderness, strangers whom the text identifies as Yahweh appearing to Abraham. In showing hospitality to strangers, Abraham has thus honored God and has been enabled to hear God’s covenantal promise of a son in his old age. Aliens, together with widows, orphans, and the poor, are lifted up for special moral attention, and the Israelites are repeatedly reminded that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thus, care for those marginal to the community and thus in danger of being excluded from basic resources, is mandated both as a response to the needs of those persons and as a response to God’s salvific care for the people of Israel.

For Christians, to be generous is to be conformed not just to Christ but also to the loving divine Parent, whose sacrificial self-gift into the world makes possible human fellowship in the divine life; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The apostle Paul regarded generosity (as expressed in the gifts of other Christian churches to the Jerusalem church) as a proof of the genuine character of Christian love. For Paul, this love is exemplified by Christ who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Corinth. 8.9). Generosity involves giving beyond one’s means, though Paul also notes that those now giving out of their abundance may at some point be in need and be the recipients of the generosity of others.

Generosity was also a virtue in the classical pagan context. It is the third of the virtues of character discussed by Aristotle, following on the heels of courage and temperance. The generous person, for Aristotle, is one who gives of his or her wealth in a way that achieves a mean between wastefulness and covetousness. The generous person does not give indiscriminately, but seeks to give in a way that is good and fine.This, in turn, requires giving to the right people, in the right amounts, at the right time, with pleasure, and without looking out for oneself. Aristotle suggests that giving to those who lack good character, or to those who respond with flattery, is not true generosity. Generosity is proportionate to one’s resources, so it is not contingent on possession of great wealth. However, it is closely allied to the virtue of magnificence, which for Aristotle does involve large-scale giving for worthy ends, in particular those that benefit the community as a whole.

Thomas Aquinas, whose thought represents the peak of medieval scholasticism, absorbed much of Aristotle’s account of generosity into his own account of liberality, but his treatment focuses on the way that freedom from attachment to money and possessions makes possible the good use of these external goods. Liberality is not a species of justice, even though it is discussed under the heading of justice; it does not give another what is properly speaking his, that is, due to him, but gives another what is one’s own. Like Aristotle, Aquinas suggests that there are more and less fitting ways in which to give of one’s wealth.

The heart of Aquinas’ account of giving, though, is found not in his discussion of liberality, which focuses on the giver’s disposition toward wealth, but in his discussion of the outward acts of charity, notably beneficence and the giving of alms to the poor. Most fundamentally, these acts are significant because they are a way of being conformed to God, whose nature is self-communicative goodness. The mutual love of the divine Persons is expressed outward in the creation and redemption of the world. Human beings are called to respond in gratitude to God’s love by loving God and one another. In acts of beneficence we seek to do good toward others in ways that emulate the good that God has done and is doing for us. To give simply in order to receive a return is not charity but cupidity, a form of selfishness. Aquinas insists that these acts of charity should in principle extend to all, in the sense that we should be ready to do good to anyone at all, including strangers and enemies. Noting the limitations of human agency, however, he argues that our beneficence should ordinarily focus on those who are nearest and dearest to us on the one hand, and on those whose needs are most urgent, on the other. Aquinas recognizes that these claims may conflict, and that prudential judgment will be required in order to determine how one’s acts of beneficence should be directed in any concrete situation.

Today, we associate the word “charity” primarily with charitable giving to the poor. Care for the poor, together with widow and orphan and prisoner, have always been central activities of Christian churches. Generosity was not simply a virtue of individuals but a corporate responsibility, institutionalized in myriad ways. In the sixteenth century, a fundamental shift toward centralized organization of poor relief took place across Europe. This shift has at times been seen as a corruption of true generosity, as in the widespread chorus of praise for voluntary private giving in the eighteenth-century. The challenge has been to preserve, within corporate forms of charity, both governmental and non-governmental, church-related and non-church-related, some element of personal care and spontaneous gift.

An influential strand of contemporary continental philosophy has argued that the dominant received conceptions of generosity in the West are insufficiently unconditional and betray expectations of reciprocity. Emmanuel Levinas insists that true generosity does not differentiate between more or less deserving recipients, nor does it give in the expectation of return. Rather, it is an unconditional openness to the Other, an opening of oneself to otherness in a way that is willing to have one’s own identity called into question. Jacques Derrida has developed this line of reflection into an assertion of the impossibility of gift. As soon as something is recognized as a gift, the receiver becomes indebted and obliged to offer a return; free gift thus collapses into economic exchange. A gift can only exist so long as it remains unrecognized by both giver and receiver. Derrida’s argument has been subjected to vigorous critique. Most fundamentally, it is not clear why a desire for reciprocity (as opposed to a “gift” made contingent on return) taints generosity, particularly when generosity is understood fundamentally in terms of a gift of self offered in the hope of establishing relationship with some other.

These contemporary reflections on generosity and gift are finally best understood as a retrieval of core themes in the Western tradition rather than a fundamentally new departure. But the intense interest they have aroused is an indication of the fact that generosity is endangered in today’s world, a world dominated by contract or economic exchange, which is indeed strictly conditional.