Generosity is More Than Action

Following on from my musings on why empathy is not enough, I wanted to spend some time addressing why generosity is not enough — at least in the common understanding of the word that refers to the act of giving stuff like money, goods, physical assistance, etc.

To be generous means showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected. The something that I want to talk about is generosity of thought.

What is it?

To me there are (at least) two aspects of being generous with our thinking:

  1. Giving the benefit of the doubt to someone, even when we think they don’t deserve it.
  2. Giving the best interpretation of someone’s argument, even though to us it seems there are obvious flaws with it.

With respect to (1), the thing that pops into my mind is the fundamental attribution error. It is a term in social psychology that refers to our tendency to place greater weight on a person’s internal characteristics, rather than the external circumstances, to explain that person’s behaviour. We don’t apply this weighting to ourselves since we are more cognisant of our own situation.

For example, when someone doesn’t return our message, it’s easy to feel frustrated and conclude that they’re unreliable or trying to screw you over in some way. But maybe they’re having a busy day? Maybe they left their phone in their bag and didn’t hear the notification? There are many ways we can justify to ourselves and others why we did (or did not do) something that had nothing to do with our own incompetence or malice. I think we should extend that courtesy to others.

It doesn’t mean being naive or unduly trusting of others. It means making that courtesy the starting rebuttable proposition, rather than taking things personally or rushing to pass judgment/condemnation.

With respect to (2), I think the guiding principle for any debate — political, scientific, religious, personal taste, whatever — is how do we make it constructive. In an age of short attention spans, plentiful distractions and easy outlets for manufactured outrage, having a constructive debate is hard. Don’t contribute to the madness. Whether you agree or disagree with what you’re presented with, stop and think:

  • Where is this person coming from?
  • Why do they think this way?
  • What evidence have they put forth?
  • Is it convincing? Why or why not?
  • What assumptions are they operating under?
  • If I grant those assumptions and understand where they are coming from, does their argument now make more sense or less?

Get to know your logical fallacies. Consider the argument as a whole, rather than focusing on the person or nitpicking the individual elements. Again, this isn’t a call for being naive. It’s not a call for false balance. If we are fairly sure — after attempting to engage in honest and constructive debate — that someone is not arguing in good faith, then it is legitimate to stop taking them seriously and stop giving them attention.

Why is it hard?

The glib answer is that going with the flow is easy. Our natural tendency is to judge, to jump to conclusions and to dismiss people we don’t agree with.

At a higher level, I think generosity of thought is hard because of two fundamental human traits that complicate and undermine our interactions with one another: fear and pride.

Fear — We don’t want to face up to things that might disturb our identity and beliefs. We don’t want to get offside with our in-group by entertaining (or, heaven forbid, accepting) ideas and arguments that are proposed by an out-group.

Pride — We don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to admit mistakes, we don’t want to get “tricked”. It feels good to think that we are on the right side, the better side. It feels good and empowering to kick others when they are down.

However, as the saying goes, nothing easy is ever worth doing. I’m writing this for myself as much as for you. Let’s not coast through life. We can make the world a better place in more ways than simply giving our resources and time.

How do we get it?

1. Generosity of thought requires humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that you are not as good as you think, and other people are not as bad as you think. You are not proud or pompous.

2. It requires being comfortable with admitting that. You are not fearful or insecure.

3. It requires empathy — the ability and willingness to step into another person’s shoes.

4. It requires an understanding that we are more alike than we are different. We all have similar dreams, hopes and fears. We have the same cognitive biases. We have the same need for belonging and approval.

Know that you are swimming against the tide. Our modern society doesn’t reward humility. It creates insecurities and then offers shallow solutions for them. It venerates competition and self-interest. It doesn’t want you to think too hard. Just go with the flow.

But let’s not do that. Let’s be generous with our thoughts. It is not strictly necessary or expected, but that’s kinda the point.