Generous people often speak of having their generosity abused. They feel taken advantage of, sometimes to the point of being hurt or harmed. This vulnerability is sometimes a consequence of their own confusion, between two different types of generosity: reciprocal versus unconditional. When we become clear within ourselves about such things, we can protect ourselves while still living according to our better values.
This reflection, like many of them, is based on what I see in my counselling work.
"Reciprocal generosity" is generosity practised as a way of creating a good, shared life. You are generous because you value generosity, but part of what you value is that your generosity will be returned in kind - will be reciprocated. That may sound like a base motive - that you are selfishly seeking a reward - but fear not, you would be wrong to assume this. Rather, through reciprocal generosity you are participating in the creation of a good togetherness, a good communal life. Much of the generosity in families, friendships, and community groups takes this form. It brings both security and joy to our lives, and binds us together in wonderful and healthy ways.
"Unconditional generosity" on the other hand, is generosity performed with no expectation of return. You believe in generosity, in goodness, no matter what - it has an unconditional value. That is, its value is not conditional on how others behave. You do it regardless of how others behave. In fact you are generous even when there is no possibility of return, and even when you know you may be hated or harmed in return! People practise this kind of generosity because they believe that it gives life greater meaning. And they are right. Properly practised, it gives life value regardless of what other people do.
While the first kind of generosity is common, many of us value the second sort also. Many people who value the second don't even realise they do, but their actions show it. So many of us practice both kinds of generosity at different times. Most people do not recognise the difference until somebody like myself points it out to them. Which is an issue, because problems tend to occur through a lack of such recognition. For example we feel abused and become depressed
When people do not clearly distinguish reciprocal and unconditional generosity, they may act according to both of them at once. Or they act according to one motivation - say reciprocal - while naming it to themselves as the other - unconditional. Here is a common example of what then happens: in both cases a person feels taken advantage of through this confusion, for example because they are actually motivated by reciprocal motivation, while wrongly telling themselves that they are acting according to the unconditional sort. Because they are acting according to a reciprocal generosity they become angry when it is not returned. But because they believe their motivation is unconditional, they refuse to recognise or accept their anger, and so they turn it on themselves. Anger turned inward is depression.
What we need is to be clear with ourselves about the form of generosity we are practising. We also have to realise that if we carry both motivations, and our goodness is betrayed, that our suffering will be a tangle involving these two different forms. We need to be able to untangle them. Then we can recognise the legitimacy of our grievance, while placing it alongside the assertion of our unconditional ethic, an assertion which says, "Well I choose to live this way regardless, I did that action without seeking a return." That attitude attracts a different reaction when it is abused, beyond anger or depression. This increases our peace. It enables us to recognise what the greatest philosophers have always said: that a life constituted by absolute values, such as unconditional generosity, is a truly good life to reach for, and that those who do not care for it are not only missing out on greater meaning in life, they are more vulnerable to misery. An unconditional ethic does not always make life easier, indeed it may make life harder at times, but generally it gives us greater peace, resilience, and makes our lives more coherent and worthwhile. Clarity about our values and how we live them is secondary to action, but nonetheless it is vital for achieving this.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Artwork: Rosemarie Adcock