October 13, 2010 Personal and Institutional Generosity in Pursuit of the Common Good

By Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology and director of the University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society

A wealth of human experience tells us that achieving the common good requires both well-functioning social institutions and the ongoing exercise of personal virtues by people of character. Neither one alone can sustain a good society. Each needs the other. For example, on the social institutions side, experience tells us that economic markets can contribute greatly to the human good, when they are well governed by legal rights and procedural regulations that protect the good of the persons they are meant to serve. But markets driven by self-interest that are not also bounded and infused by virtues and values driven by particular moral commitments, to the dignity of persons, for example, eventually become broken and destructive.

One crucial personal virtue generating such human values is generosity. Generosity is the disposition toward and practice of giving good things to other people. Economic markets function according to certain constitutive principles—such as competition, self-interest, and differential rewards based on productivity—that differ from principles involved in generosity. But markets still need people in and around them exercising the virtues of generosity in both personal and institutional ways simply for markets to survive and function well in the long term.

I am helping to lead a major initiative at Notre Dame on the Science of Generosity to extend and deepen our social-scientific understanding of the causes, manifestations, and consequences of generosity. We hope that our research and scholarly findings will contribute one significant dimension to the larger goal of this Forum: to promote justice, the good of human persons, and the common good.

Author: Christian Smith

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