The Seven Virtues #1: Liberality

The Gates Foundation, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates, launched in 2000, is said to be the largest private foundation in the US, holding $38 billion in assets, with the primary aims to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty.

In 2007, its founders were ranked as the second most generous philanthropists in America and by 2013, Bill Gates had donated US$28 billion to the foundation. Warren Buffett, another contributor, is the first most generous.

It is probably the largest ever example of individuals giving to the voluntary sector, probably the greatest ever example of liberality.

While we think of liberality more often in the sense of being open to new ideas, as the antonym to greed (which is the purpose of these pieces) it is the quality of giving or spending freely that will be my focus.

David Cameron decided, even in a period of austerity, that the UK would donate 0.7% of Gross National Income to overseas aid. In terms of donations as a proportion of national income, the UK is in the top five in the world. In the absolute, the UK gives more in international aid than any other developed country apart from the United States, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In a speech to the UN general assembly David Cameron said it was a moral obligation that better-off countries must tackle poverty in a world where more than 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. He argued it was also in everyone’s interests to build a more prosperous world otherwise, the problems of conflict, mass migration and uncontrollable climate change will come and visit us at home.

The 0.7% target is now embedded in UK law as a budgeting requirement but ever since it has been questioned and debated.

One of the arguments against this policy is that it is fine to give to aid but not during austerity when there are problems on our doorstep. Many have said that the money would be better spent on hospitals, flood barriers, and the underprivileged in the UK.

From all the debate you would think that the British don’t give easily to charity. Far from it.

Income from individuals to the civic and voluntary sector, in the UK, in 2015 increased by nearly £0.8bn from 2014 to £20.8bn. Voluntary organisations received £10.1bn from individual donations and legacies. (

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the people of the UK have been incredibly generous and there is no criticism at all for what they have done. Quite the opposite. I have nothing but praise but compare it to this story of Mother Teresa.

A reporter watched as she cleaned infected and weeping sores of a man.  ‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,’ the reporter said.  ‘Neither would I,’ Mother Teresa said. I hadn’t realised that sarcasm was in her skill set.

It is so much easier to give £10 to the poor and homeless when there is a £100 in your wallet. Much harder when it is your last £10.

From Aristotle onwards, liberality has been the subject of a great deal of philosophical discussion, much of course from the religious community where giving is often at the core of the faith.

I am no expert in philosophy, but Aristotle seems to concentrate on the opposite extremes of wastefulness and meanness. His approach was to define the virtue as knowing how to use money: giving to the right people, the right amount at the right time. He went out of his way to emphasise that generosity is not a virtue associated with making money because a virtuous person is normally someone who causes beautiful things.

He adds that it might seem that it is better to be wasteful than mean. A wasteful person is cured by age, and eventually by just going broke. They are more foolish rather than spiteful. Meanness is worse.

I can understand. We can be frustrated when we watch money being wasted but as with Scrooge, we despise the mean.

Of course, there has also been a strong word from religious philosophers. In the way that we celebrate Mother Teresa and wandering Buddhist monks, liberality is at the core of many a faith.

In the thirteenth century, as he always did, Thomas Aquinas had a word or two on the subject. (As an aside if you ever need a quote on morals, virtues or values in a faith-based context then check what Thomas said. There is always a Thomas Aquinas quote somewhere.)

Even poor men may be liberal, he said, because the virtue is not in the multitude of gifts given, but in the habit of the giver. To be liberal is to be ready to give.

Finally, let’s bring the discussion back home.

My Mum, as she will tell you anytime you ask, is 90. After her teens, she has had a good and comfortable life, but at 15, she lost both her parents. It was a traumatic time in her life and it has shaped much of her behaviours since. She is forever grateful to those who looked after her and gave her all the help and support in difficult years to the point and after she met my father.

She doesn’t talk about repaying a debt, but she understands how liberality can change a future and now she is a real and committed supporter of local and international charities. She supports avidly local youth schemes and knits scarves and gloves, at the rate of one or two a week, for orphans in Romania. Her liberality is in her nature bred by the same liberality she received.

This has been a difficult piece to write as it has caused me to think about my own attitudes. How much of the virtue of liberality is in my soul? Where on the spectrum from Bill Gates to Mother Teresa do I sit?

It was in mid-December when I wrote about Greed, the first of seven deadly sins, and I remember the promises I made on how, if I had won, I would give the bulk of a Euro Millionaires jackpot to my family and a wide range of charities. I didn’t win and so my liberality has not been tested.

It is easy to give when you have a lot. That was my plan if I had won the lottery.  My plan was to share because I had more than any needs I could define, but the real virtue in liberality is giving when you don’t have anything. That is much harder to do.