Adopting roles: Generosity and Presumptuousness

Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 77:141-161 (2015)
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Generosity is not the same thing as kindness or self-sacrifice. Presumptuousness is incompatible with generosity, but not with kindness or self-sacrifice. I consider a kind but interfering neighbour who inappropriately takes over the role of mother to my daughter; her behaviour is not generous. Presumptuousness is the improper exercise of a disposition to adopt a role that one does not have. With this in mind I explore the idea that generosity is the proper exercise of the disposition to adopt a role that one does not have. It is a mean between meanness on the one hand (where that disposition is not exercised when it should be) and presumptuousness on the other hand (where that disposition is exercised when it should not be). Adopting a role is being motivated by the considerations that should motivate someone who actually has that role. The disposition to adopt roles you do not have is important in social situations where there is a need for a role that nobody is filling. It is also the basis of developing relationships like friendship; you have to act as if you are a friend before you become a friend. This model fits the parable of the Good Samaritan in an obvious way. It also explains charity and forgiveness. I suggest that forgiveness is demanded by a certain relationship – call it love. What makes forgiveness optional after someone has wronged you is that love itself may be optional after someone has wronged you. There is nothing generous about forgiving someone you love, though loving them may be generous. Forgiveness only counts as generous when you don’t love the person, and even then it can fail to be generous if it is presumptuous.

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Rowland Stout
University College Dublin


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