Friday, November 15, 2019

Exercise and posession of virtue

The exercise of generosity is good to have. So is its possession. How do the two compare?

One might think the possession of generosity only has value as an instrument towards generous activity. But that seems wrong. It is bad for one to be deficient in generosity even if one will never again have the opportunity to practice generosity (say, because there is no afterlife and one has been marooned on a desert island).

But at the same time, it seems to me that the possession of generosity is of fairly low value as compared to the exercise of it. Suppose I am going to be a coma for the rest of my life and there is no life after death, and I have a choice between two actions, one of which will be generous and the other will increase my generosity (e.g., I have a choice whether I should give some money to a hungry person or to spend it on neurosurgery to eliminate something that blocks me from having much of a virtue of generosity). It seems plausible that I should do the generous deed: living (even in a coma) with generosity is better than living without it, but not by much. Similarly, if I am going to be in a coma for the rest of my life, and I have the opportunity to have one last look at a beautiful landscape, that seems worth doing, even if the price of that look is that I will lose my eyes. It is better to have eyes than not, but if the eyes aren’t going to ever get used, the value of merely having them seems small.

Perhaps, though, in a full Christian picture of life that includes the afterlife, there aren’t going to be cases where one is choosing between the exercise and the possession of generosity. If before the coma I don’t do the generous deed, then maybe I am like the guy who buried his talent, and the generosity will be taken away from me in the next life. Or at least it won’t be increased a hundredfold. I am inclined to say that given the full Christian picture, the exercise of generosity (and other virtues) should generally be chosen over the immediate possession of generosity, but will tend to result in greater possession of generosity.

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