More or Less: Some Insights from Aristotle

Jeff Shinabarger’s More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity reminded me of two philosophers, Aristotle and Peter Singer and how they addressed the idea of generosity. Today, I want to focus on Aristotle.


Aristotle directly addresses the idea of generosity in his Ethics. Generosity is a virtue for Aristotle and as such it is the middle point between a deficiency and an excess. Both the deficiency and the excess, in this case, are vices.

The key to generosity for Aristotle is giving the right amount to the right people. One thing to keep in mind, is that for Aristotle when we discuss generosity the category we are analyzing is not generosity but rather we are analyzing how we use our money. The virtue is generosity. The excessive vice is not excessive generosity. Very rarely is the case the we give too much money to the right people. Instead, we are more likely to put out money towards things which bring ourselves shallow pleasure.

Aristotle labeled the excessive vice as being prodigal. When being prodigal, we are very free with our money…in that we are very free with it as we spend it all on high priced fashions, expensive meals, and excessive iTunes purchases. The examples of prodigal are endless, but each of us does it in our own way. You know how this vice plays a role your life.

So, if we are being generous, we are giving the right amount to the right people. Who are the right people? Aristotle, from my reading, is not talking about who deserves our generosity. Instead, in order for our giving to be viewed as generous such giving should be targeted towards those who are needy.

We sometimes seem to be concerned about over giving to the poor. Since we rarely over give to the needy, this is an imagined crisis. Living a life of excessive generosity,as outlined by Shinabarger, is one of excessive virtue and not a vice. Do not worry about being overly generous. Instead, get cracking at being generous. If you feel that you are too generous, you likely need to get over yourself.

The deficiency vice in relation to how we spend our money is stinginess and we might normally view this as the opposite of generosity. It is. However, this is not a dichotomy and expensive vehicles and grandiose homes are as much a sign of vice as is the mere lack of giving.

Categories: Culture, Philosophy

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