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Generosity Is Not Justice

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, and Society

“Making distinctions” is “the method of philosophy,” so you must forgive me for complaining about this. I am awash in ethics debates this semester, and people keep confusing generosity with justice. That’s just no good. No good at all.

Justice and generosity* are both virtues. And both boil down to giving good things to other people.** There is a difference, though, and I insist you acknowledge it. I insist!

  • Justice: When you have something good, and give it to a person who deserves it.

This is what bosses are supposed to do for employees (via their paychecks) and teachers are supposed to do for students (via their grades). It is justice to give them what they have earned.

  • Generosity: When you have something good, and give it to a person who doesn’t deserve it.**

This is what you do for the homeless people on the sidewalk who are asking for change, or for starving children in other countries. You are not paying them back for their services. They haven’t done anything to earn the money you give them. Generosity is not an exchange. But when you are being generous, you are still doing what you should do.

In both justice and generosity, therefore, you are obligated. But (1) you are obligated to be just because the other person has a right to justice, while (2) you are obligated to be generous just because generosity is part of being a good person. There is no right, but there is an obligation, to generosity.


*(Or “liberality,” in this translation)

**(Well, “social” or “distributive” justice is about giving good things. “Criminal” or “retributive” justice sometimes is about punishment.)

***(Or, more accurately, when you have something good, and you give the amount you should give to a person who doesn’t deserve it, you are being generous. As Aristotle points out, generosity is like all the other moral virtues: it is possible to give too much, too little, or the right amount.)

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