The Futility of Coerced Benevolence

Tibor Machan’s Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society provides a fascinating and thorough treatment of the role of virtue in a society characterized by limited government, freedom of association, and economic liberty. Its thesis, according to Machan, is that “Generosity is a moral virtue that cannot flourish in a welfare state or in any sort of command economy, because to be generous is to voluntarily help others in certain ways. It will flourish in a free society.” Generosity and virtue cannot flourish without fully embracing economic, political, and personal liberty. As an example, Machan notes the importance of private property for magnanimous action. Generosity will not flourish in societies that do not respect private property because people cannot give away what is not theirs.

This slender volume is notable for the author’s recognition of three essential distinctions that mark a significant conceptual development for many free-market advocates: the possibility of an individual transcending mere self-interest in virtuous behavior, the dangers associated with legally mandating virtuous behavior, and strong commitment to the inherent social nature of the human person and the importance of this affirmation for social analysis.

Virtue Transcends Self-Interest

Machan’s first key insight, shared by Christian personalists, is that virtue is the rational habit of choosing the good in order to promote or preserve shared values. Virtue is not blind habit, unconscious behavior, or rigid obedience to perceived duty. Virtue, including generosity, is the rational component of a well-formed character, where people elect to give of themselves or their property to aid another. The underlying motivation for acts of generosity is not to increase one’s own happiness or even to flatter oneself through morally praiseworthy acts. Virtue is motivated by a rational recognition of an opportunity to do good for another and for oneself.

The differences are subtle but fundamental. While speaking of virtue in these terms, Machan and others who subscribe to this understanding admit to the ability of persons to transcend their own entrenched self-interests. According to Machan’s theory of virtue, we are not stuck within ourselves, always needing to explain human behavior as motivated by self-interest or duty for duty’s sake. He acknowledges that even enlightened self-interest cannot adequately explain all human action.

In the chapter titled “Generosity: A Benevolent Virtue,” Machan argues against a flawed description of generosity that accounts for magnanimity as being due, ultimately, to self-benefit through enhancement of one’s own happiness or well-being. This understanding rules out the possibility of transcending self-interest and actually disposing of our talents, property, and time for others as motivated by love. Does a mother feed her children as a result of some complex and, perhaps, even unconscious calculus of costs and benefits to herself and her children? Does she consent to an early morning feeding because she rationally determines that by feeding her child her own happiness will thereby increase? Of course not. Most of us would consider a women who analyzed her behavior toward her children in purely utilitarian terms to be unfit for motherhood.

Machan’s recognition of this aspect of human behavior is not only accurate but refreshing. Far too many advocates of political and economic liberty contend that the sole motivation of human behavior is self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. Machan’s careful analysis of generosity concedes that there exist moments when human beings are so enraptured by the beauty, preciousness, and value of another person that they give of themselves in love, not because this may lead to their own happiness but because it is right and fitting to do so. Their own happiness is a by-product of the act, but not its motivation.

Resisting Statist Paternalism

Machan’s second pivotal insight involves the relationship between law and morality. Using the example of generosity, Machan teases out the importance of freedom, both personal and political, for this, or any other virtue to flourish. We discern the importance of freedom in his treatment of Robert George’s work on law and morality. George, author of Making Men Moral, argues that positive law is not only instructive, but also useful for making men moral. The state, according to George, can be used for “soulcraft,” that is, by requiring good behavior through law, one can force virtue into the human character. This approach closely resembles the dynamic of child-raising; indeed, for George, the state is akin to a parent who uses the force of law to instruct and mold its children.

Machan deftly points out that this legal paternalism is not only imprudent, but also dangerous to both liberty and virtue. Machan states that simply because something is morally praiseworthy does not imply that it ought to be legally mandated. However, the inverse also applies: To reason that something is morally blameworthy does not imply that it ought to be legally prohibited. For example, laws against blasphemy are counterproductive. Surely, blasphemy is a terrible sin. Condemning it as a sin, however, does not require enacting legislation. How would we enforce blasphemy laws? Who will define what blasphemy is? How would religious freedom be preserved under such laws?

Conflating the natural moral law and positive human law must be resisted. Not everything in the moral law neither should be, nor can be, present in the positive law. The tendency to demand that human law adequately reflect the moral law is a good and noble sentiment, yet prudence–the key political virtue–must be exercised or else coercion will result. This point is seen clearly in Machan’s consideration of forced generosity: “Generosity is morally virtuous because we are essentially social beings with the prospect of intimate relationships enhancing our lives, and because we can ennoble ourselves by supporting others. Yet if generous behavior were not freely chosen, but instead coerced by law, its moral import would vanish; it would amount to regimented conduct, something for which moral credit cannot be due, especially to the regimented. It would cease to be generous.”

The Human Person in Community

Machan’s third insight builds upon the first two. Human beings are inherently social creatures. “They [humans] are indeed social animals, yet their sociality is to be understood as involving critical selections from among alternative social arrangements.” Machan acknowledges that the human individual is the fundamental building block of society–the proper bearer of human rights. Such a recognition helps avoid problems of overstatement. There is a tendency within political theory to pit individualism against collectivism, the solitary individual standing over and against the community. This is a false dichotomy. By affirming the social nature of the person, we acknowledge the fundamental fact of human individuality, yet we also recognize that this individuality can only exist and flourish in community. The question for humans is not whether to form a community, but rather what kind of community. An individualism that denies this inherent social capacity becomes arid and brittle. Collectivism, however, becomes vicious as Roussean political schemes sacrifice individuals for the good of the community. Without some form of balanced individualism in political theory, human beings become cold calculating tyrants of one stripe or another.

The Fullness of the Christian Tradition

If any flaw can be found in Machan’s work, it stems from a failure to appreciate the insight and wisdom of the Christian moral tradition. A full and honest picture of human nature and the human condition is gained through the eyes of faith. A cosmology and anthropology that includes original sin, grace, love, and God’s redemptive work provides a rich framework from which to do moral and social analysis. Machan’s work, although approximating many of these insights, still fails to contain them in their fullest expressions. This deficiency does not invalidate his important contribution to virtue ethics and the role of morality in a free society, but it does demonstrate his lack of appreciation for theological anthropology, which is an essential insight for understanding the key issues of virtue, freedom, and a just social order.