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Networking and Generosity

November 25, 2011, 3:08 PM
Restaurant-check

So BIG THINK reports a study that shows that social networking stimulates generosity.   Here’s how:  Rather than be shunned by one’s fellow generous networkers or “friends” (as in Facebook friends), stingy individuals will display generous behavior. 

Two conflicting forms of neediness come into play here.  Stingy people hoard their resources because they’re all too aware (unduly aware) that they will need them later.  They’re so anxious about all of life’s risks that they can’t engage in risky behavior of any kind.  The inclination to be virtuous, of course, is a risk factor.  It gets your mind off the bottom line.

But we all need friends.  The stingy guy needs them for at least two reasons.  In the general spirit of “networking,” he knows it’s risky to be all alone in the competitive marketplace that is our world.  He knows he might get in trouble and need a friend.  And nobody succeeds in business without the somewhat friendly or at least compliant cooperation of others.

And, of course, even the stingy guy gets lonely, and so he’s grudgingly willing to waste a few scarce sources to keep by impressing (or at least not repulsing) his friends. That means he calculates how much he has to spend not to drive his friends away. 

But is that really generosity?  If you go with observed behavior, maybe.  But according to Aristotle, who presents the best account of the virtue of generosity ever in his Nicomachean Ethics, a generous person spends his money (and other resources) in the right way and for the right reasons.  Avoiding loneliness and exploiting “networking” opportunities are hardly the right reasons. The generous person, to begin with, has to enjoy being generous for his giving to be a real display of his virtue.

According to Aristotle, generosity originates in the noble impulse to display your freedom from necessity.  Aristotle’s “generosity” is often translated “liberality,” to make it clear that the word is a variant of the Greek word for freedom.  What does it mean to be liberal with your time and your resources?  What does it mean, from a certain view, to really be a liberal?

Here’s an example of the impulse behind liberality or generosity:  Two guys go out to dinner.  One guy reaches to pick up the whole check.  The other guy reaches too.  They engage in a gentlemanly contest over who gets to pay, who gets to display his freedom from necessity, who’s less infected by what Aristotle calls the incurable disorder of stinginess. 

Generosity, Aristotle explains, is somewhere between the excesses of extravagance and stinginess.  The extravagant person irresponsibly spends as if his pockets were bottomless.  He consumes all of his resources displaying his freedom.  And then, of course, necessity slaps him in the face:  He ends up in bankruptcy court and his family ends up on the street.  His proud display was really self-destructive vanity.

The generous man is more responsible than the extravagant man.  But Aristotle adds that the generous impulse is always much closer to extravagance than stinginess.  The virtue has nothing to do with acquiring money, but only spending it.  Aristotle makes that distinction clear by saying we often say it’s bad luck that those who are so good at spending don’t have the resources to do so.  We would want them to have the money, without having to degrade themselves by having to hustle to get it. 

The generous person actually displays his freedom in two ways.   He shows he’s free from necessity by being so proudly ungrudging in his spending.   But he also shows his freedom through his class.  His spending is never vulgar or utilitarian.   It’s always on things that are noble and beautiful and intrinsically good, on the various accomplishments that are evidence of our singular greatness.  So generosity is about supporting the arts, liberal education, and other impressive monuments to who we are.  It is about using your time and money to raise your community above the banality of commerce and networking toward the appreciation and achievement of what proudly distinguishes human beings from the merely necessitarian creatures.

I’ve often thought that college and university “advancement teams” should read Aristotle on generosity.  Too often they make appeals to entrepreneurs by bragging that their institutions train people in the skills that facilitate entrepreneurial successes and technological inventions.  The entrepreneurs, in truth, are rarely impressed with the inefficiency and ineptitude of our institutions of higher education.  And their contempt grows daily, because they’re mistakenly evaluating higher education according to the vulgar standards of their own success.

Shouldn’t colleges say instead:  Entrepreneurs!  Show your class!  Show that you really know what to do with your money.  Lavish it on our noble and beautiful liberal education, on the way human beings most genuinely display their freedom from mere necessity.  What we have to offer is what your money is actually for.  We’re not teaching students how to make money.  That’s easy and not even a virtue.  We’re teaching them how to spend it virtuously, how to live well as genuinely free or liberal men and women.

Generosity is also about noble deeds that display one’s class through a kind of paternalistic service to other people and to one’s community.  In this case, generosity slides in the direction of the even nobler virtue of greatness of soul.  We see generosity and magnanimity displayed, for example, by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  He acted proudly on behalf of a man being wronged because that’s what people with his class do.  He displayed his generosity even at risk of his life, showing how free he is from considerations of necessity or “neediness.”  He certainly didn’t care what his friends thought, and he was free from the utilitarian considerations that animate “social networking.”

So the generous person knows who he is and what he’s supposed to do.  He has a kind of justified pride that keeps his behavior from being determined by money or power or popularity.  He, for that reason, is a liberal, separated by his reasoned nobility from what Peter Thiel calls “the herd.” 

Can social networking encourage generosity?  I’ve given plenty of reason to doubt it.  But consider this:  What people begin do out of calculation can turn into instinct. Having to appear to be generous to be an effective networker encourages habits that might, Aristotle would say, eventually become choiceworthy and enjoyable for their own sake.

Still, it's hard to imagine Atticus Finch putting down his books and spending much time online. The whole spirit of networking, virtual reality, and all that surely keep us from being either personal enough or classy enough to habitually display the virtue of generosity.

The generous person might be at his worst on Thanksgiving.  He doesn't like to acknowledge his debts, and he'd be the first to tell us, following Aristotle, that gratitude is hardly a virtue, although it's surely what he deserves for his virtue.

Generosity, atheists might note, is fundamentally a pagan or pride-based virtue.  And so it also needs to be distinguished from charity, which originates in personal love.

More from the Big Idea for Sunday, June 29 2014

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Networking and Generosity

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