As another holiday season of shopping and gift-giving draws to its close, ask yourself which you enjoyed more: getting presents or giving them?
If you’re like most people, you’ll say giving is more pleasurable. That’s the right answer. It’s consistent with most brain science, with most ethical reasoning, and with the precepts of most of the world’s religions (see Acts 20:35 for more information).
These facts are entirely consistent with the self-oriented nature of human action. Unless you are a saint, you probably feel stronger motivations to give, and greater satisfaction afterward, when the recipients are closer to you emotionally or physically. Generosity to your immediate family produces the strongest effect, followed by extended family and friends, then acquaintances, then strangers who live in your community.
That doesn’t mean we’re indifferent to strangers who live far away. Indeed, we are often genuinely touched by the good or bad things that happen to them, and may even be moved to take action in response to the latter.
In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith famously offered the example of two calamities. First, what if the entire empire of China was swallowed by an earthquake? Smith argues that the average European would “express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people.” But “when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.”
If, on the other hand, that same man accidentally cut off his own finger, the calamity would occupy his mind for months or years afterward. Does that really mean that one’s little finger is worth more, in a moral sense, than the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese? Of course not, Smith argued. But what it does mean is that human beings have a nature, and if we are to engage in moral behavior, we can’t simply ignore it.
Instead, Smith concluded, we should structure our ethical codes, social obligations, and social institutions to produce as much moral behavior as possible. Three key virtues are required, in order: prudence, justice, and benevolence.
First, we should prudently take care of our households, families, and surroundings, satisfying immediate needs and ensuring that we do not become a burden on others. Second, we should strive for justice, defined as respecting the rights of others to make their own decisions based on their own prudent judgment, while neither injuring them nor taking their property and defending their rights against encroachment.
Finally, we should strive to be benevolent, although it’s harder to do this well than it is to be prudent and just. Smith compared the rules of justice to the rules of grammar, while arguing that the rules of benevolence are more like the practices that produce art. The rules of justice are “precise, accurate, and indispensable,” Smith wrote, while the rules of benevolence are “loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfect we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it.”
If you are engaged in charitable work, the interaction between human nature and generosity is especially important. Here’s one straightforward application: if you want to encourage donations, don’t just talk about benefits to recipients. Talk about the benefits the donor will feel from aiding your cause.
Researchers documented this “warm glow” effect in a recent study of a large-scale donation program in Alaska. Some Alaskans received a postcard with the theme “Make Alaska Better for Everyone.” Others received a postcard with the theme “Warm Your Heart.” Both messages boosted the propensity to give, when compared to a control group, but the average gift was largest among those receiving the “warm glow” postcard.
Harnessing human nature can be a bit like sailing upwind. Yelling at the wind to change its direction won’t work. But tacking does.