Underrated virtues: Generosity - Australian Financial Review

The Australian Financial Review has put together an end-of-year feature on underrated virtues - here's my contribution:


Some years ago, William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University, decided to study the productivity of chickens. The control group was an average flock of chickens, which Muir simply left to breed and produce eggs as usual.

His treatment group were specially selected, by taking the top performers each generation. These chickens were then bred, and the process repeated to create a race of ‘superchickens’.

After six generations had gone by, the control group were happy, healthy, and reasonably productive. In the treatment group, six of the nine superchickens had been murdered. The remaining three had pecked each other so brutally that they were nearly featherless.

Writer Margaret Heffernan has told this story to dozens of audiences. Many tell her: ‘That superflock, that’s my company.’

A toxic workplace culture is what economists think of as a negative externality – a by-product of individuals spending all their energies focusing on their own careers rather than the interests of the organisation. Like a car parked on the footpath or factory effluent dumped into a river, an overly aggressive workplace puts individual interest ahead of the public good.

We all know that we should be kind to those around us, but life sometimes gets in the way. Traffic. Kids. Mortgage. Email. Sleeplessness. Even an altruistic soul can be tested by a workplace that judges people relative to one another, rather than by an absolute benchmark. We know that generosity is a valuable virtue, but we have to work hard to make it happen.

Yet while it can be tempting to strive for the next prize or the next title, deep satisfaction can come only from living an ethical life. An unexpected act of generosity has the capacity to simultaneously touch three people: the giver, the recipient, and the onlooker. When Australians think of runner John Landy, the image that comes to mind is not his quickest time, but the moment in 1956 when he reached back to assist fallen runner Ron Clarke. My favourite colleagues in parliament are those who are reflective and undogmatic – people whose demeanour conveys to those around them that they don’t believe anyone is unimportant.

A sense of empathy towards those around us may be hard to maintain, but it’s worth striving for more than ever. As Adam Smith noted in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: ‘Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely’. If even an economist can recognise the virtue of generosity, perhaps there’s hope for the world after all.

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