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Liberality, Virtue of


Liberality is the virtue disposing a person to the observance of a reasonable mean between the opposite extremes of prodigality and stinginess in making expenditures intended for the benefit of others. Although liberality is the virtue that regulates and controls the appetite for external goods, the desire and use of these goods to the benefit of others enters prominently into its concept, and indeed constitutes its principal concern. Generally speaking, men are sufficiently disposed by nature to seek and use such goods to their own pleasure and advantage, and so need no virtue to equip them for this. Moreover, what they spend upon themselves is often spent in the exchange of one kind of possession for another and thus involves no real outlay. What a man needs to be strengthened to is a readiness to use these goods to the benefit of others besides himself. Liberality differs from justice because what is given is not strictly owed; from mercy, because it is not evoked by the need of the beneficiary; from gratitude, because its gifts are not viewed as a return for favors received. Although it differs from charity in that its proximate motive is the inherent fitness of a spirit of generosity in human relationships, it may well be activated at the command of charity, and it is a disposition that lends itself readily to the service of that virtue.

It is characteristic of the liberal man to be generous in giving to others, but his generosity should not be out of proportion to his means, nor should a man let it render him incapable of satisfying the demands of justice, piety, or charity, nor should it entail the sacrifice of other virtuous good. Excess in liberality is the sin of prodigality, but generosity, prudently moderated, becomes the socially developed man and the Christian, and therefore St. Paul urged the Ephesians to labor, working with their hands, that they might have something to share with their neighbors (Eph 4.28). The virtue of liberality in a man is not necessarily measured by the actual quantity of his benefactions, but often depends more upon the disposition with which he gives (Mk 12.4144).

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, 117119. b. h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis, 3 v. (Paris 1949) 2:840842.

[p. k. meagher]

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