The elusive value of generosity

Indiana University: Amir Pasic, Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Giving a kidney to a stranger is an awesome expression of generosity. But we are also sadly well aware of our capacity to be mean to each other. We find generosity blazing triumphantly at the loftiest heights of the human spirit. And we find it glaringly absent in the depths of despair and evil.

The heroic French village of Le Chambon created an oasis of generosity, saving thousands of Jews in the wretched time of Nazi domination. However glorious its example, we wish we had many more such villages.

We have a lot riding on this virtue that resists regulation and discipline. In his introduction to the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton asks his compatriots to entertain the radical idea of a choice of government by appealing to philanthropy. Before he enumerates the various obstacles to aligning the interests of those who would compose a union, he suggests: This idea (of a choice of government) will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event.

So arguably, some degree of generosity toward one’s compatriots in the colonies was a requirement for constitutional agreement. Today we fret about its absence as polarization has relegated bipartisanship to history, at least at the federal level. Our political system has an impressively intricate way of channeling interests and passions, generally creating decent outcomes, and more importantly avoiding disastrous results, but it grinds to a crawl at best without the lubricant of generosity. 

The economist Zoltan Acs argues that philanthropy has been underappreciated as a strong sustaining force for American capitalism. Try to run a business or set up a market in a war zone where corruption or lawlessness are rampant. Well, you might say, everyone knows you need the rule of law for the economy to thrive. But can you have sustainable rule of law or a vital political system without generosity to help it along?

There is much to suggest that generosity is fundamental to who we are and how we connect to others. And it is not such a stretch to consider generosity as critically important to stable and peaceful social relations. Even the masterfully technocratic leadership of Singapore has supported a “Kindness Movement” to foster a culture that can complement the meticulous governance of this city-state.  

When disaster strikes, we often see individual and collective acts of exceptional generosity. Giving in the U.S. tends to spike after hurricanes and earthquakes. Official assistance to other countries also rises in response to disasters like tsunamis.

However, generosity also disappoints. During the recent Great Recession, when we could have used much more of it, giving went down. The notion that philanthropy can fill the holes that are created by a declining economy or reduced government provision has with some justification been called a fantasy.

In more intimate situations like friendships and marriages, when generosity dissipates we have resentment, recrimination, and the parting of ways.

While generosity remains elusive, it often shows such strength and persistence that we expect to see it in everyday life. We build institutions around it. From marriages to constitutions, generosity is the background assumption. 

So it is remarkable that we have only recently seen a surge of scholarly and scientific work through initiatives like the science of generosity, the science of philanthropy, and of course, our still fledgling school of philanthropy.

This is laborious work bringing different disciplines and habits of inquiry together, some that were designed to avoid value-laden terms like generosity. It is not then surprising to see impatience in moving forward with solutions to pressing social problems without pausing to decipher generosity.

Socialism as expressed by Marx was perhaps most famous for its critique of “meliorist” generosity as a means of perpetuating capitalist society. Generosity was wooly, too soft an idea, dependent on the capricious will of those who had something to give, and it didn’t get at the core mechanism of exploitation that was at the wicked center of capitalism. 

But one does not have to look to the left to find impatience with generosity. We see it in one of the hottest new trends, impact investing. It seeks to marry positive social outcomes with financial investment products. So instead of thinking of giving as dependent on the prior accumulation of wealth, impact investing seeks to integrate improving society into the process of accumulating wealth.

There are good reasons for not wanting the effects of your wealth accumulation to counteract the good work you try to achieve when you give your wealth away. Many financial products today seek to limit the negative effects of accumulation by screening investments for environmental, social, and governance damage. For example, investors will avoid tobacco companies.

Impact investing goes a step further by seeking to attain positive outcomes for these areas through the investment process. Impact investors will fund smoking cessation products.

There are fascinating conversations taking place about the complexities of defining and measuring social impact. 

However, much remains to be seen about how impact investment will evolve. Will it work to make the accumulation of wealth more “generous” at its core so environmental, social, and governance problems do not get passed to the public or nonprofit realms to solve? Or will it provide a smokescreen for those disinclined to share their wealth to say that they gave at the office?

But one important feature of impact investing is that generosity need not play a role. The impact can be sought in order to preserve capitalism, to solve social problems as puzzles that need to be solved for their own sake, or to reflect principles of justice.

Perhaps impact investing will succeed where government and classical philanthropy have faltered. And perhaps it will do so by eliminating any reliance on generosity by fixing the pathologies of wealth accumulation at their source. 

But perhaps we might also find that one can’t deny the place of generosity in arranging human affairs. And even if by some chance impact investing has wild success without tapping into generosity, wouldn’t we miss it?

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Photo by Elaine Casap @ecasap