Smith and Aristotle on Owning and Giving

charity property rights sociality aristotle generosity

 Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

April 10, 2024

Any social system that foments greed at the expense of the generosity is ruining individual human lives and those individuals' communities.
On some accounts, generosity is basically incomprehensible. From the standpoint of Thomas Hobbes’ psychological egoism, for example, there are only two reasons to give, and both are self-directed. In the first, the donor gives not out of a desire to help the beneficiary but as a demonstration of superiority. “Look how rich, successful, or enviable I am,” the donor trumpets, “having accumulated such a surplus of wealth that I can give it to others without suffering harm myself.” The second conceives of giving as an insurance policy. “If I give to this person today,” the donor supposes, “then this person will someday return the favor to me, should I ever find myself in need.” Scratch an altruist and watch an egoist bleed – giving is either a form of self-aggrandizement or the mere payment of an insurance premium.
Happily, two great moral psychologists, Adam Smith and Aristotle, offer different yet in some respects complementary accounts of giving that take generosity far more seriously. For both, giving is a natural expression of a full human life, and communities and societies thrive to a greater extent when their members give to one another. At least implicitly, each regards Hobbes’ psychological egoism as an unnecessarily and ultimately misleadingly stripped-down version of the human psyche that places too much emphasis on fear and greed and fails to take adequate account of our capacity genuinely to delight in seeing one another thrive and making flourishing possible. To see how and why this is so, we should begin with their accounts of private property, which underwrite the most obvious form of generosity.

Smith regards private property as a condition of economic prosperity. If people do not believe that property rights are secure, they will be less likely to make the kinds of investments of time and effort that prosperity requires. Why would anyone invest weeks, months, or years of labor in clearing a plot of land, constructing a house, or building a business if they thought that someone would just come along and seize it by force? Smith argues that we are united by a deep sense of justice that recoils at the mere sight of thieves taking what is not properly theirs, and governments are necessary not to create this sense of justice but to ensure that it is served – that people are able to keep what is properly theirs, and what amounts to the same thing, that contracts are enforced. The person who on contract clears land, constructs a house, or builds a business deserves to be paid.
In a world where such property rights are not protected, the level of prosperity will be diminished, since no one will possess more than they could build up over the course of two or three days’ labor. To invest more time and effort without reasonable assurance of the security of such “excess” property would be foolhardy. But once civil government is in place and enforcing property rights and contracts, greater investments become feasible, leading to material improvements in the conditions of life. Instead of hunting and gathering, human beings become agriculturalists. Instead of living in caves, they begin to build houses. And most importantly of all, the division of labor appears, leading to dramatic increases in productivity. Where property is secure, standards of living naturally tend to rise.
It needs to be emphasized that Smith’s account of private property is grounded in justice. We call what we have earned ours precisely because we feel in the marrow of our bones that people have a right to what they have earned, and because of the deep sense of wrong we feel when someone else attempts to take it from them. Theft and robbery evoke a sense of outrage, whether the perpetrator happens to be an individual, a tribe, or even the civil authority itself. Suppose, for example, that a government invokes the prerogative of eminent domain in unjustly seizing a citizen’s property. If witnesses to such a seizure see themselves in the victim, they are likely to take offense. Taking someone’s property without their consent represents a great offense against justice.
Smith largely follows John Locke, one of the great theorists of property, who argues that property rights precede civil government. We do not have property because we have government. In Locke’s “state of nature,” a conceit that Hobbes previously invoked, individuals in a society without civil government already have property and property rights, because they have mixed their labor with the fruits of the earth, as by picking an apple from a tree. If others come along and take that apple, whether by stealth, chicanery, or force, they have committed an offense against the right of property, which the victim is perfectly right to defend against. Civil government reduces violence and promotes a more peaceable community by establishing the expectation that property rights will be enforced.
If you want to lift a group of people from the lowest levels of poverty to the highest reaches of security and comfort, your first concern should be to provide for the administration of justice. This means a legal system that protects private property from seizure and ensures that legitimate contracts are enforced, including the payment of debts. This is both the reason that civil governments exist in the first place and the condition under which any civil government can rightly continue. Once a government ceases to respect property rights and distorts the administration of justice, its reason for being is undone, and at some point, whether sooner or later, it will disintegrate. It is in the interest of its citizens that it be replaced by a more just government.
In effect, the protection and promotion of justice places society and its members on a longer time horizon. So long as I can keep only what I can protect myself, my horizon is two or three days, and everyone lives out of a sack or a suitcase. But as trust in the enforcement of property rights grows, it begins to make sense to plant and tend crops that might take months to harvest, to construct a house with the expectation of living in it for many years, and to build a business secure in the knowledge that years or even decades of work will not have been wasted. In the form of birthrights and inheritances, we soon begin thinking trans-generationally, expecting to pass on what our have accumulated to our offspring. Planning on such time horizons underwrites substantial long-term increases in wealth.
In short, for Smith, property expands the incentive for work, creating a secure connection between what people sow and reap. Without it, we would still be living in the stone age, or what amounts to much the same thing, under a tyranny of the strong over the weak. But because people enjoy the secure and peaceable possession of their property, human life is immensely safer, longer, more comfortable, and more interesting. For once we have accumulated more than we need to survive and secure our possessions, we can begin to think beyond what is good for ourselves to what is good for others outside the circle of our own clan. When we begin to plan in these terms, the possibility of generosity, or as Smith often refers to it, charity, enters the picture.
From Hobbes’ egoistical perspective, generosity – at least the genuine kind – seems non-sensical. Why would someone do something just to help someone else? If all of us are truly concerned only with ourselves, giving to others must represent a form of error. But Smith sees matters otherwise, grounding generosity in a psychological observation with which he opens his greatest work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” In other words, we sincerely care about the happiness of others and derive real happiness from it. We are not solitary brutes but inherently social creatures with a tendency to care about and for one another.
Put simply, we have sympathy and moral imaginations. We can and do imagine how we would feel in another person’s place, and while civil governments are necessary to enforce property rights, acts of enforcement are necessary only on an occasional basis. The reason lies in the fact that we can imagine what it would be like to suffer the unjust seizure of our property, and because we bear this sympathy toward others, we are unlikely to steal. To be sure, some people are not so animated by fellow feeling and may, at least under certain circumstances, still commit theft, fraud, or robbery. It is not the tendency toward self-regard but regard for others that laws and mores need to reinforce, but it would be a mistake to forget that sympathy is an essential aspect of human nature.
Smith argues that this fellow feeling, combined with the capacity to recognize when we have enough, or perhaps more than enough, makes generosity possible. To keep accumulating beyond the point at which it is burdensome or even impossible to enjoy what we have in any meaningful sense is nothing more than the vice of greed. People who, no matter how much they have, always want more lack self-understanding. In fact, they are blind, at least in the sense that they fail to recognize that heaping up more does no one, not even the miser, any good. This psychology of greed is well-parodied in the Gospel of Luke’s parable of the rich fool, in which a man is so obsessed with getting more that, when a bountiful harvest falls into his lap, he can think of nothing to do but build larger siloes for himself.
Also moderating egoism, according to Smith, is self-command, the capacity to bend and moderate selfish desires through sensitivity to the feelings of others. Specifically, we wish to lead lives that are not only well-provisioned but to some degree admirable. And to be worthy of admiration, we must take a sincere interest in the welfare of others. This stems from a difference between envy and admiration. We might envy others their wealth and good fortune, but we admire others for their character. To be admirable is to be a good person, and we understand that a person of genuinely good character, who not only wishes to be seen as deserving admiration but actually deserves it, is someone who takes an interest in others. Generosity springs from such an interest.
Writes Smith,
Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, and all the social and benevolent affections, when express in the countenance or behavior, even towards those who are not particularly connected with ourselves, please the indifferent spectator upon almost every occasion.
We are naturally pleased when we see a person of means take an interest in and lend aid to a person in need. We delight in both the generosity of the benefactor and the gratitude of the recipient. Seeing someone do a good turn fills us with good feelings, and this is a sign that we are witnessing something good. To be sure, beneficiaries may derive many practical benefits, such as food to eat, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare, which may not only sustain them but also render them more comfortable. They may even, by virtue of such gifts, develop the capacity to contribute on their own. Likewise, the benefactor may derive all sorts of benefits in humane feelings and reputation. But the good feeling alone, the moral sentiment of pleasure, indicates that we are witnessing something good.

Aristotle almost inverts Smith’s account by suggesting that we need private property not in order to incentivize economic activity but to provide the means required to be generous. His perspective is based on the view that human beings seek naturally to thrive, and that to thrive as human beings, it is necessary to excel at distinctively human activities, or to put the matter another way, to live excellently. This means exhibiting characteristic human virtues, among which he numbers courage, moderation, and generosity or liberality. Those who merely eat, sleep, and amuse themselves are not really living, while those who embody and act on such excellences of character are living well. To put the matter somewhat differently, it is in expressing such virtues that we lead our best possible lives.
Consider someone who acts generously. This means not someone who merely gives or even gives a lot but someone who gives the appropriate thing in the appropriate amount to the appropriate person at the appropriate time in the appropriate way and for the appropriate reason. In some cases, the best course of action might be to give a large sum of money, but in other cases a simple handwritten thank-you note or simple of encouragement might be far more appropriate. The key thing is this – we must give not with some secondary or ulterior motive in mind, but sincerely intending the good of the person to whom we give. Giving for the wrong reason can be as bad or even worse than not giving at all.
When giving is done well, meaning that the excellence of character we call generosity is expressed, it brings pleasure. When we care about someone, we naturally want to help them, and the opportunity to do so is pleasing. In fact, taking pleasure in giving in no way undermines the genuineness of a gift but instead serves to indicate that the person doing the giving is truly acting generously. Gifts given grudgingly are not true acts of generosity at all. Moreover, when giving is done well, it tends to foster relationships, such as friendship and neighborliness. For Aristotle, if people lack private property, they will also lack the means to be generous and therefore be deprived of one of the essential excellences of a life well lived.
Aristotle considers a community in which all property is held in common, drawing from the “city in thought” portrayed in Plato’s Republic. In such a place, all things, including even spouses and children, as well as material possessions, are the property of all, which is much the same as saying they belong to no one. Among the problems with such a community is the fact that members would much less likely to treat its resources responsibly and thus less likely to work hard. But above all, he asserts, “No one will appear to be generous or ever perform a generous action, since generosity depends on the use of one’s own property.” When people lack the material means to be generous – that is, tangible resources we can call our own – when will not think, feel, or act generously.
To put the point somewhat more broadly, if people have nothing we can call our own, then we lack the means to be generous. This concept of ownership applies most obviously to private property, but it applies to other resources in life, as well. A poor person may lack material goods to give, but even someone without a coin to their name still has resources that can be shared – among them time, attention, and well wishes. The world’s richest person gets the same 24 hours in a day as a poor person, and no amount of money can buy an additional second. Likewise, rich and poor enjoy the same ability to direct their attention. Both can listen to another person attentively or ignore them. Finally, both are equally capable of wishing another person well or ill. It costs nothing to level a curse or bestow a blessing.
Of course, the rich and poor do differ in important respects. For example, a poor person might need to devote most every waking hour to the challenge of merely surviving, while a rich person might enjoy considerable leisure and the greater freedom that comes with it. The rich person might, thanks to greater leisure, be able to devote more time to imagining what sort of gift might offer the greatest benefit. Moreover, the poor person might not enjoy the same level of education, range of life experiences, and worry-free existence, which might impose some limits on philanthropic imagination. Yet on the other hand, rich people might find themselves more out of touch with the real-life conditions of the persons they want to help, while the poor might be able to empathize more effectively.
Aristotle’s ethics famously ends with an invitation to read his politics, reflecting his conviction that excellences of character are most likely to be cultivated in a thriving society, while societies are most likely to thrive when they are composed of people of the best character. If the society of the individuals who comprise it deteriorates in either of these senses, the other is likely to follow quickly. Hence communities need to be organized along lines that protect and promote opportunities for members to become more generous, and generous citizens need to play an active life in the life of the community, to ensure that it continues to foster, or least not to undermine, excellences of character. Citizens who take no interest in politics and politicians who take no interest in character formation are both on the road to ruin.
A key distinction for Aristotle should be drawn between generosity and justice. Generosity means giving freely with the intention to benefit someone else, while justice means giving people what they deserve and have a legitimate claim to. If we deprive people of a gift, we may have foregone an opportunity to make a difference in their lives, but if we fail to give them what justice demands, we have done them a positive wrong. Yet even a perfectly just society would not eliminate generosity, since good people will still want to benefit one another. It is essential to the nature of friendship that friends want to do good things for one another, and even the highest level of justice does not preclude the possibility of such relationships.
In fact, when Aristotle thinks of generosity, he is not primarily focused on what we might call charity or almsgiving. When he talks about one person acting generously toward another, he is generally thinking less about highly unequal people than people in relatively similar stations of life. Aristotle seems not to regard generosity as the best means of meeting the needs of the destitute, suggesting instead that they are likely victims of injustice and that everyone should be guaranteed at least a basic level of sustenance. Before we can lead good lives, we must first be alive, and people living under constant threat of starvation and the like will generally be unable to live well. No more than Smith would Aristotle countenance a community in which large numbers of people are barely clinging to life or being exploited by the wealthy.

Smith and Aristotle
Both Smith and Aristotle offer an anthropology that condemns greed. Both recognize that some form of self-interest is both natural and appropriate, but neither believes that anyone should want or seek to acquire so much that others have nothing, or less than they need to get by. Both presume that a good person naturally cares about others, and that a good person will take pleasure in doing good for others, even at their own expense. Our most basic instincts might tend toward self-preservation and self-enrichment, which is why no person or group needs to be encouraged to think more about themselves. Yet we also carry within us a natural tendency to want to build relationships and to feel that we are making a difference in the lives of others, and this is precisely the impulse that a good community will cultivate. Any social system that, whether by law or by custom, would foment greed at the expense of the generosity of its members is, in a sense, ruining human life at both the individual and communal levels.