Helping Hands

Helping Hands

Fred Groh

7 Mins
November 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society, by Tibor R. Machan. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1998. 107 pp. $16.95 cloth; $8.95 paper.

The murder took thirty-five minutes because the killer twice left the scene and returned to continue the assault. Afterward, thirty-seven people who lived in apartment houses on the street admitted they had heard the woman screaming for her life as she was being stabbed to death or had gone to their windows to watch the attack on the sidewalk below. It could have flashed across the mind of any of them, "That woman needs my help-I have to call the cops." It could have, because human beings perform such acts, generous acts. But none of these people called the police. Not one.

For years, liberals used the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese to flay individualist society for creating heartless, indifferent people. And perhaps nothing has done more to persuade the public that liberals wear the white hats than their condemnation of self-absorption and insensitivity to others.

Individualists have responded in quite different two ways. Some, such as Loren Lomasky, have distinguished ethical individualism (egoism) from political individualism (liberty) and have conceded that the former is incompatible with human decency, just as liberalism contends. But, they add, political individualism does not depend upon ethical individualism.

Other individualists, such as David Kelley, have argued that ethical individualism actually provides a sound basis for benevolent actions. (See David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism [hereafter, K]. Kelley mentions the Genovese incident and declares that the bystanders failure to provide help was "morally culpable." K, p. 47.) In Generosity, Tibor Machan puts himself squarely in the second camp and then goes one step further, maintaining that political individualism is required for generous behavior (Tibor Machan, Generosity [hereafter, M] ).


According to Lomasky, the "strict implication" of egoism is that "one may accord no weight whatsoever to the interests of others if doing so diminishes, even by an iota, one's own interests." (Loren Lomasky, "Generous to a Fault?" Reason, May 1998, p. 61.) Thus, the egoist may tend to his business so as not to violate the rights of others, but in that case his acts are at best just; they are not generous. Generosity necessarily has a self-sacrificial element; benevolence comes into the picture "only when one voluntarily accepts a bit less so that someone else can have more." (Loren Lomasky, "Nice Distinction," Reason, April 1997, p. 62.) The generous person forgoes "from time to time his own satisfaction so that others can benefit." (Lomasky, "Generous to a Fault," p. 61.)

To be sure, the generous act may not greatly degrade one's position, but the "generous" egoist would be doing less for his own life than he could have, and we are to construe this as "diminishing" his interests-self-sacrifice, in Objectivist parlance. Thus, on Lomasky's understanding, generous people can be altruists, utilitarians, practitioners of a duty ethics (e.g., Do it because God commands it)-anything except egoists.

Notice that Lomasky does not merely say the case for a benevolent egoism has not been made. He declares that such a case cannot be made, though he never explains why. He simply falls back on ordinary usage to insist that "benevolence means providing more than I must" and therefore any egoistic defense of benevolence is "misidentification." One could also prove, by ordinary usage, that any identification of selfishness as a virtue is "misidentification."

Another difficulty in Lomasky's critique is that his sketch of the egoist's position confuses motivation with the terms on which people interact. That one is motivated by good will toward others does not entail that one "accepts a bit less" in the interaction.

For there is a category of actions a person could choose in order to pursue his self-interest effectively enough and to coincidentally help someone else for that person's sake. For example, I could drive to my luncheon with a friend and drop you off at the market on the way. In this category, the person has a dual motivation: his own well-being and the well-being of others. Since these acts serve the agent's self-interest fully, there is no good reason to exclude them from egoism.

Overlapping this category is another one containing the acts to which Kelley refers in his analysis of generosity, where one helps as a means to his own betterment. It is profitable to help. These acts can still be called generous rather than just because, as Kelley puts it, acting from good will involves a type of "mental action" or "focus" different from that of justice, which aims at giving others their due (K, pp. 32-33).

Kelley argues that we ought to be benevolent, that benevolence and its components, including generosity, can be enormously beneficial to their practitioner. The values we can derive from other people, namely, knowledge, wealth, and self-affirmation, are crucially important to a good life, he says; the acts by which we obtain them, major virtues. The proper means for obtaining these values is trade, an expression of justice (K, p. 25). "But opportunities for trade do not simply present themselves. They must be created through our own initiative" (K, p, 26). Benevolence is a way we can "create opportunities [for ourselves] for trade by treating other people as potential trading partners" (K, p. 26). Benevolence is essentially entrepreneurial. Machan agrees that generosity is egoistic but takes a different tack in arguing for that conclusion.

MACHAN'S GENEROSITYIn addition to generosity, the virtues of benevolence include kindness, compassion, and thoughtfulness, Machan notes. The common thread running through these virtues-their genus-is an inclination to do things that benefit others. But understanding these virtues as different species within that genus is, in Machan's discussion, not easy.

He suggests that kindness can be distinguished from generosity in being mainly an attitude-as in a sympathetic feeling toward a neighbor-which may not issue in action. He says that compassion differs from generosity in being directed toward a beneficiary who seems pitiable. Otherwise, he finds the distinction between generosity and the rest of the benevolence virtues unclear.

He is very clear, however, in saying that generosity is not primarily a matter of performing certain acts, but of having a certain character. Sounding a note he repeats many times, Machan says that the generous person performs his helpful, voluntary act as "a matter of course" (M, p. 3), spontaneously, unself-consciously. The generous person does not deliberate on-the-spot whether he should help, nor does he calculate any direct gain for himself from doing so. Rather, he has cultivated a trait in himself which leaves him with a readiness to help others because he is "just that kind of person." Acquiring the trait requires deliberation and self-consciousness-one must "resist laxness," for instance (M, p. 2)-but a person can only be generous, as opposed to simply helping others, after helpful acts have become "second nature" to him.

Machan does not mean that generosity is a blind habit. The generous person is like a good driver, he says. Unforeseen circumstances arise in life, as in driving. A generous person is alert for them, as a good driver is aware of his surroundings. When the unforeseen does occur and the right course of action is not obvious, the generous person must consciously check his principles to see what he ought to do, just as the driver may have to alter his route to get where he wants to go (M, pp. 23-25).

Normally, however, the practice of generosity, like any virtue one has cultivated in himself, is smooth and unself-conscious. A virtue proves itself to be a reliable guide to conduct in familiar situations. But the unforeseen can stump a generous person about what to do, and so, according to Machan, generosity needs to be supplemented, and perhaps constrained, by other virtues to which one can turn for direction. As with generosity, so with all the virtues, Machan says. In some situations, there may be no virtue one can call upon. "One may simply have to keep things in focus and see what is called for" (M, p. 24).

Machan is not abandoning hierarchy in morality in favor of a balancing act among competing moral considerations. He stops far short of "situation ethics," popular in the self-help literature a few years ago. Nor is he a proponent of "narrative ethics," whose greatest enthusiasts believe that general moral principles together with their implications for concrete situations should be replaced by guidance gleaned from life stories about the decision-maker. The idea behind these and similar efforts is that our moral lives are too rich to be caught within abstract rules. Accordingly, we have to come at good moral decisions without abstracting from the full complexity of our lived moral experience. This may impose requirements on the substance of morality itself, proponents say.

Liberty editor Timothy Virkkala's position is along this line. Reviewing Machan's and Kelley's books, he writes, "[M]uch of our lives proceed on hunch. And with this much apparent indeterminacy, we have no a priori grounds to throw out of court"-to rule out as such, on general principles-"any kind of act, 'selfless' or otherwise." "Should our level of benevolence be increased? Should our attention to our benevolences be more tightly focused? Should we treat our kindnesses more consciously and less symbolically? These questions can be answered without recourse to talk of 'ultimate standards'... ." Accordingly, the standard for which act we ought to perform in a specific situation is, for Virkkala, "a question of balance," not a matter of invoking standing principles. (Timothy Virkkala, "At the Altar of Ego," Liberty, September 1998, pp. 59, 60.)

Sometimes we do run through a variety of moral considerations at the level of specific decisions, reflecting a tough moral call. Should I take my family to the park, as my daughter would like, or to the amusement park, as my son would prefer? But whether this needs to be a balancing act as Virkkala envisions is another matter, turning on why we need general principles.

As Rand observed about abstractions, without general principles "you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon." (Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 5.) As Rand's remarks imply, we cannot interact with the world in an ordinary fashion as ordinary adults-or as moral agents-without using general principles. Even if we tried Virkkala's balancing act, we would need general principles to tell us which considerations we should balance in a particular case and what scale of values we should place them on in order to judge them. By making our morality as "principled" as possible-with general substantive principles arranged according to a principle of priority-we will have the most powerful morality possible for making decisions efficiently.

Machan is unequivocal in saying that the virtues form a hierarchy (M, p. 23) and in arguing for one of them-rationality-at the top of the tree (M, pp. 25-26). Of course Kelley's treatment of generosity is hierarchical both in picking up the established order of Objectivism and in setting out his new points.

This definition emerges from Machan's discussion: generosity is a self-cultivated inclination to benefit others, in which one routinely and unself-consciously acts without pity and without calculating a direct benefit to oneself. In this definition, he means to reflect the ordinary usage of the term, the way "we tend to take it" (M, p. 1). His concept is substantially the same as Kelley's but differs from it in two ways. For Machan, a generous person provides a modicum of help, something more than a token (M, p. 46). He thus accommodates the ordinary sense in which being generous entails a person's doing more than expected, customary or dutiful. Kelley does not.

They also part company on the place of rules and calculation in being generous. On Machan's analysis, a person decides to cultivate a generous character because he believes it is good to be generous; then he performs the helpful act because it is generous, not because he calculates a certain amount of good that it will do himself or anyone else (M, pp. 14-22). Here Machan is challenging the rule-following conception of morality, which implies that one must always deliberate and calculate about what to do. The trouble with the rule-following conception of morality, Machan says, is that it does not allow a "smooth, sensible, or rational link between the individual and the community," just as critics argue. If, however, we take the virtues to be inclinations which redound to the individual's good in a social context, rather than as rules, we have that uncalculated link (M, pp. 7, 20). Kelley would agree that helpful acts seem "obvious and automatic" to a generous person (K, p. 20). Still, for Kelley generosity is a "knowing commitment" (K, p. 20), one component of which is "an economic decision like any other" (K, p. 50)-and surely this involves a calculation-as to the amount of help to give on the occasion considering the good to be gained for oneself.

GENEROSITY AND EGOISMThese differences between Kelley (pictured below) and Machan carry over into the different ways they see egoism providing a basis for generosity. Kelley starts from Rand's trader principle, the one principle that she maintained was to be used for establishing and maintaining proper human relationships. Kelley proposes four possible benefits for an egoist from his generous act. (1) The beneficiary may repay the favor sometime, some way; or (2) it is good to live in a society where people will be helped in an emergency, and there cannot be such a society unless such acts are performed, so one performs them; or (3) the generous act will give one a "general sense that [his] life is improved by living in a world with better, happier, more fully realized people in it"; by helping, one is "creating value in the world, [analogous to] productive work"; or (4) one doesn't want to be a free rider, seeking unearned benefits (free-riding would strike against responsibility and independence), so one contributes to the endeavor from which he benefits (K, pp. 45-50).

These reasons are not conclusive. Kelley also calls for an economic decision "no different in principle from the decision of . . . how much insurance to buy, whether to read a book or weed the garden. All of these questions must be resolved by reference to one's own hierarchy of values" (K, p. 50).

Guided by Kelley's discussion, then, the egoist would ask himself three questions: (1) Would the helpful act benefit me in any of the four ways; (2) if so, how much (a function of the magnitude of the benefit and the ranking of the interest it would serve); (3) would that benefit be greater than I can reasonably expect from any other act I might perform instead? These three questions frame an ordinary economic decision. And if the answers favor the helpful act, the egoist has, contrary to Lomasky and other critics of egoism, the best of all reasons for being generous-his own well-being.

Machan begins his case that generosity is egoistic by trying to show that being generous contributes to one's living a good human life. The argument is that moral virtues "serve a person's project of living a good human life," "the one thing valuable in and of itself." Generosity is among the moral virtues. Therefore, one ought to be generous so as to live a good human life (M, p. 3).

But this argument is empty. As Rand noted, virtue aims at securing the good (that which is valuable), and that which is good is spelled out in morality (a code of values accepted by choice). Thus, any morality, Objectivist or otherwise, tells its practitioner that he is being virtuous and living a good human life in its practice. A morality or conception of the virtues according to which a person should never be generous says that. "Living a good human life" is therefore not a sufficient reason for being generous.

Machan may intend this argument to connect to a second one, which is more promising. When we are generous, he says, "we contribute to the positive upkeep and improvement of the community" and this can make the setting of our lives "more hospitable," help us toward "fulfilling our social capacities" (M, pp. 10-11). Unfortunately Machan does not go on from this auspicious start. This leaves us with problems if we want to say that generosity is good, and the welfare state bad for throttling it. What exactly are "community upkeep and improvement," "hospitableness" and "social capacities"? If this is what's at stake in being generous, I need to know before I could have good and sufficient reasons for being generous.

In addition, if I am going to avoid self-sacrifice, as Machan's advocacy of egoism requires, I have to compare the community upkeep or whatever the generous act would net me against what the act would cost me. To compare, I have to calculate, and I have to do this every time the opportunity for a generous act presents itself (though it might be a rough-and-ready estimate using my sense of what is appropriate rather than a punctilious totting up). Kelley is surely right that the amount of help to be given is partly a matter of calculation, and this must include whether in the end to give any help at all, for there is no guarantee the calculation will come out in favor of the generous act. Therefore community upkeep and Machan's other "social" reasons for being generous cannot guarantee that self-interested people will be generous. They are reasons to consider being generous, but they do not prove that one ought to clear a place in his life for performing generous acts.


In light of the foregoing, it is impossible to estimate how frequent generous acts would be in a free society. Machan avers that "[T]here are likely to be more than enough appeals to generosity in a free community to inspire each individual without the imposition of coercively forced obligations" (M, p. xi). But why should individuals respond positively to the appeals? They still need reasons to do so if they are rational people, strong reasons of their own good if they are self-interested. Machan has not given such reasons.

And that, says the liberal, is why we require a welfare state. It is the only way we can be sure that people will help one another (to the extent of resources available). Machan's principal argument is that by coercing people into helping others, the welfare state does just the opposite of what it ostensibly intends, truncating recognition of the citizen's individual moral sovereignty-his jurisdiction over himself and his belongings-and "usurp[ing] personal virtue" (M, pp. 41, 60).

For generosity is "necessarily voluntary" (M, p. 48), says Machan. "[I]f generous behavior were not freely chosen, but instead coerced by law, its moral import would vanish; it would amount to regimented conduct. ... It would cease to be generous" (M, p. 85). So it is no proper part of government to force people into being generous, compassionate, and the like. That will "destroy the foundation" of generosity and other moral virtues (M, p. 53). Indeed, government should do the reverse and enforce negative rights to life, liberty, and property, which conducting oneself as a morally virtuous person requires (M, pp. 53, 36-39).

But would generosity laws by themselves diminish generosity in society? Suppose everyone were perfectly willing to do what the law required. If so, they would act under coercive conditions-the presence of the law-but not because they were coerced, like motorists who drive safely because it is rational, not because they are afraid of paying speeding tickets. The total of generosity in society would be unaffected.

Suppose on the other hand that some people would not have been generous on their own, but they obey the law and therefore the number of helpful acts goes up. Since Machan requires that generosity be voluntary, these people would not be generous whether they are coerced (because then their helpful action is forced upon them) or uncoerced (because then they would perform no helpful action). Again, the total of generosity in society would be unaffected by the law.

Generosity would be diminished, it seems, only where a person is undecided whether to be generous and the law co-opted his decision (which as it happens would have been to help of his own volition). Since there are presumably some people of this description, it follows that there must be more generosity in a free society than in a welfare state (other things equal). But not more than the extent to which people are undecided before the law comes calling. If we ask whether these undecided but generous people would actually perform more generous acts in a free society than in the welfare state, the answer is that Machan does not show they would.

But even if we grant Machan his conclusion that generosity fails in the welfare state, is this equivalent to saying the welfare state fails in its purpose? As we just saw, the law may push down the total of generosity, while the number of helping acts remains the same or goes up. So the question becomes: Do liberals care if generosity declines? Welfare statists (and socialists and to some extent communitarians [M, p. 53]) may not care anything at all whether people are voluntarily generous. They may want only what people would produce if they were-money for the welfare programs, for instance. They needn't have the slightest interest about motives. The welfare state destroys moral virtues by changing them into enforceable duties, says Machan (M, p. 53). That is arguable. But the people who will care will be among those who are already outside the ranks of the welfare state faithful.

Generosity is noteworthy for its author's acute observations about the morally draining effects of the welfare state (esp., M, p. 87). Commendable, too, is his measured tone, a model of reserve and politeness in speaking to the opposition, even when Machan is invoking the horrors of twentieth-century collectivism "gone awry" (M, p. 59). Perhaps Machan is observing toward his opponents the undoubtable virtue of practicing what he preaches-being generous.

And perhaps it is excess of generosity toward his welfarist opponents that leads Machan to suggest an oddly discordant doctrine. He says that government should be strictly impartial as between citizens, for otherwise they run "serious danger to the integrity of [the] legal administration" (M, p. 61). "Any special treatment would very likely imply using for some citizens resources that would be taken from all citizens," he writes (M, p. 62). Both statements seem unexceptionable.

Strangely, then, Machan would allow government officials to be generous in their capacity as civil servants if they can do so temporarily, without neglecting their duties, and not as an invitation to welfare. They might be frugal and set aside funds for emergencies without having to raise additional or special money from the citizens, for example (M, pp. 62-63). "Just as a police officer would help an elderly person who has fallen down-though not, perhaps, if it were to interfere with his duty to stop a crime being committed-so a government could extend itself, temporarily, for purposes of assisting someone or some group in dire need" (M, p. 63).

But the policeman exercised his judgment to go "off duty," in effect, and render aid as one person helping another. His time "off duty" is minimal and therefore need not be approved or made up by the officer. However, if he were to take more time off to help another, person to person, it would have to be approved and made up. Thus, the principle that he cannot go outside his official duties in his official capacity remains.

Two final points: (1) Would not the funding of emergency services use "for some citizens resources that would be taken from all citizens"? (2) Though officials might not be directly coercing some citizens into being generous to others in emergencies, surely the officials would be "usurping" moral space for virtue. Thus, the full exercise of the virtue of generosity would seem to be undermined by any taking of more than what is required to secure the full complement of proper negative rights for every citizen. Machan appears to intend his remarks here as merely exploratory (cf. M, p. 61), but they nonetheless seem a major, contradictory exception to his whole libertarian thrust.

Fred Groh is the author of  Due Respect: The Morality of the Welfare State (Ashgate, 1998). For seven years, he was the associate editor of a Los Angeles newspaper.