What is Generosity

I stumbled upon a website today based at the University of Notre Dame. Christian Smith, a professor and researcher there, received a $5 million grant to conduct research in the area of generosity. The generosity research website may not be too interesting at present given the grant was just given this year, but I expect to see some very interesting research come out of this initiative.

What I did find interesting is this page from their website written about the history of the word generosity and how that may shape our understanding of generosity today.

What is Generosity?

Etymology of Generosity

The modern English word “generosity” derives from the Latin word generasus, which means “of noble birth,” which itself was passed down to English through the Old French word generous.


  • The Latin stem gener– is the declensional stem of genus, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race,” or “stock,” with the root Indo–European meaning of gen being “to beget. “
  • The same root gives us the words genesis, gentry, gender, genital, gentile, genealogy, and genius, among others.
  • Most recorded English uses of the word “generous” up to and during the Sixteenth Century reflect an aristocratic sense of being of noble lineage or high birth. To be generous was literally a way of saying “to belong to nobility.”


During the 17th Century, however, the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity came increasingly to identify not literal family heritage but a nobility of spirit thought to be associated with high birth— that is, with various admirable qualities that could now vary from person to person, depending not on family history but on whether a person actually possessed the qualities.


  • In this way generosity increasingly came in the 17th Century to signify a variety of traits of character and action historically associated (whether accurately or not) with the ideals of actual nobility: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness.
  • In addition to describing these diverse human qualities, “generous “became a word during this period used to describe fertile land, the strength of animal breeds, abundant provisions of food, vibrancy of colors, the strength of liquor, and the potency of medicine.


Then, during the 18th Century, the meaning of “generosity” continued to evolve in directions denoting the more specific, contemporary meaning of munificence, open–handedness, and liberality in the giving of money and possessions to others.


  • This more specific meaning came to dominate English usage by the 19th Century.
  • Over the last five centuries in the English speaking world, “generosity” developed from being primarily the description of an ascribed status pertaining to the elite nobility to being an achieved mark of admirable personal quality and action capable of being exercised in theory by any person who had learned virtue and noble character.


Modern Usage of the Word

This etymological genealogy tells us that the word “generosity” that we inherit and use today entails certain historical associations which may still inform, however faintly, our contemporary cultural sensibilities on the matter.


  • Generosity has not long been viewed as a normal trait of ordinary, or of all people, but rather one expected to be practiced by those of higher quality or greater goodness.
  • Generosity— unlike, say, truth telling or not stealing— is more an ideal toward which the best may aspire and achieve than a “democratic” obligation that is the duty of all to practice.
  • Generosity may thus, on the positive side, properly call any given person to a higher standard.


Yet simultaneously (and more problematically), this two–tier understanding may have the effect “excusing” the majority from practicing generosity because of their more ordinary perceived status. We learn from this historical review that the meanings of words can and do evolve, and often do so in response to changing macro social conditions—such as long–term transitions from aristocratic to more democratic societies and cultures.

The Science of Generosity Project Usage


    For our purposes, by generosity we mean the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.

  • Generosity thus conceived is a learned character trait that involves both attitude and action—entailing as a virtue both an inclination or predilection to give liberally and an actual practice of giving liberally.
  • Generosity is therefore not a random idea or haphazard behavior but rather, in its mature form, a basic, personal, moral orientation to life. Furthermore, in a world of moral contrasts, generosity entails not only the moral good expressed but also many vices rejected (selfishness, greed, fear, meanness).
  • Generosity also involves giving to others not simply anything in abundance but rather giving those things that are good for others. Generosity always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of those to whom it gives.
  • What exactly generosity gives can be various things: money, possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, emotional availability, and more.
  • Generosity, to be clear, is not identical to pure altruism, since people can be authentically generous in part for reasons that serve their own interests as well as those of others. Indeed, insofar as generosity is a virtue, to practice it for the good of others also necessarily means that doing so achieves one’s own true, long–term good as well.
  • And so generosity, like all of the virtues, is in people’s genuine enlightened self-interest to learn and practice.