Will you pass Aristotle’s generosity test?

5 August 2010

What is generosity?

I asked myself this question when I read Jane’s blog post on how much we should give to charities.

So I went to the first place I thought of – Wikipedia. It turns out that ‘generosity’ comes from the Latin ‘generosus’, which was used to designate noble birth, but later evolved into attributing an idealised nobleness of spirit that was associated with high birth – after all, it was only the nobles who could actually afford to be charitable.

So generosity simply means being charitable. But this didn’t feel quite right and it was after I read Perla Ni’s contribution that I decided to seek some pearls of wisdom from the Ancients themselves.

I dusted off my battered copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that evening and discovered a whole chapter devoted to generosity (book IV chapter I for those interested).

It turns out that generosity isn’t so much about giving to charity or the amount you give but about how it compares with what you can afford to give.

But what can I afford to give? As a recent graduate, I really can’t afford to give that much. But Toby Ord, an Oxford philosopher and a recent-ish graduate himself, reckons that any of his own earning above £20k a year is fair game for effective charities. To help others make a similar decision, he’s made a tool to show just what you can achieve in terms of poverty alleviation with only a small sacrifice on your part.

But for Aristotle, there is still more to generosity than giving what we can. We must also give to the right people, at the right time and with the right intentions.

I, for one, am guilty of not giving for the right intentions. A Uni friend recently hitch-hiked from London to Marrakesh ‘for charity’ and I contributed, just because he’s a friend and the money’s going to charity. What I should have done was to assess his charity using our guide to charity analysis (but to my defence, I hadn’t joined NPC then).

So does that disqualify me from being generous? On Aristotle’s strict conditions, yes. But that’s only because generosity for him is more a way of life than simply giving to charity. It is about looking at the world, finding the problems you’re impassioned to solve and giving what you can to help solve it.

Generosity, according to the Ancients, won’t just help provide water for kids in Africa, but will give you an inner sense of fulfilment.