Unfree Generosity


I have often wondered about the relationship between generosity and so-called free will. Certainly we all have ‘will’. But just how ‘free’ is it?

We cannot have free will, but only its appearance.  If I choose a course of action, for example to donate money to a beggar, I have run some sort of algorithm in the architecture of my mind and the giving of money has emerged as the solution with the highest value to me, in some perhaps intangible sense.  We may feel that we are choosing freely – and we are indeed choosing – but the ‘freeness’ of the process is obscured by the fact that we cannot observe the exact mechanics of our mental machinery.

Looking closer, there can only be two methods of selecting an action: (1) enacting an algorithm – i.e. some sort of decision process that weighs the possible outcomes, and (2) a random decision.   It seems to me that we are impaled upon these two horns – there is nowhere for free will to reside.  Let us look closer still.  It is hard even to see how a decision could be made randomly by a person.  The human mind seems unable to choose randomly, but still inevitably measures hidden factors and weights.

Let us consider when a person is asked for something and he makes a quick easy and cheerful decision to give of his time/money/etc.  Perhaps he has been asked to subscribe to the National Trust.  Should his apparent generosity be applauded?  Is he in fact being generous?  Certainly he should be admired if this gift was made ‘freely’, employing free-will.  But we know there is no such thing!  In fact, this ‘generous’ chap is merely following a line of least resistance within the architecture of his mind.  He does not even experience any sense of sacrifice.

Let us ponder now a second chap who is asked to subscribe to the National Trust.  He knows that he ought to do so, for reasons of ethics and conservation, preservation of beauty etc, but as he is of limited means he really does not wish to.  The issue raises internal conflict as there are other demands on his resources and he experiences discomfort and angst.  Nevertheless he signs up, but let us be clear that he has not agreed simply through weakness.  Now, this decision has taken time and was accompanied by a great deal of umming and arring and soul-searching and muttered ‘I really don’t know if I should.’  But despite his difficulty with this decision he has gone ahead and made the sacrifice.  Still there is no true free will here, as discussed earlier, but surely this second man has shown greater generosity?  Surely, as he has faced greater adversity in his decision he is more worthy of admiration than the first chap?

I would say yes.  However, conventional thinking seems to dictate that a person who gives grudgingly should not be felt to have been generous.  Whereas he who gives without hesitation must be considered selfless and generous.

It comes down, as ever, to most people’s thinking being lazy and only following well-trammelled lines.


One Response to “Unfree Generosity”

  1. mcnalu Says:

    Without a doubt the person who can give something which is difficult for them to give is the more noble. A fact that crosses my mind when a wealthy person is honoured.

    Another aspect of generosity has puzzled me in the past: being generous to someone can encourage their selfishness. A friend of mine once mentioned that he usually cooks and that his partner would do the washing up; a fair and natural division of labour in a relationship. Then, one week, his partner had a particularly tough time at work and he did both the cooking and washing up for a few nights in a row. At some point his partner tacitly assumed that this was the new arrangement and that he was happy with it. In actual fact he was feeling as if his generosity had been taken for granted but did not complain because his partner was still having a tough time at work. It took many weeks for the resentment to build to the level where a full blown argument could resolve the issue.

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