Intent Blog

When to Give and When to Stand Your Ground

We all know, or perhaps most of us know, that it is very important to be a good person. When we say that we should be a good person, we mean we must be a giving person, i.e. we must be a person who is concerned with what they are giving or contributing rather than a person who is concerned with what they are taking or getting.

Of course the most common concern people have with this is simple: “I can’t live my life being so giving because if I do the savages will take everything, I will have nothing left.” This concern is understandable but it is based on a misunderstanding of what giving means. Etsko Schuitema argues that giving involves either one of two things, it either requires generosity, or it requires courage. In certain situations, like the situation in which a hungry child asks for some bread, the appropriate thing to do is to give the child bread, i.e. to be generous. In another situation in which perhaps a colleague is trying to swindle a pensioner out of her pension, the appropriate thing to do is to take the person on and blow the whistle, i.e. to be courageous. This goes to show that giving is not about being nice, it is about being appropriate; that is to say, sometimes giving requires softness and kindness and sometimes it requires hardness and bravery.

As Etsko Schuitema argues, if giving involves being appropriate, that is acting with generosity when the situation requires generosity and acting with courage when the situation requires courage, then taking must surely mean getting your logic wrong. That is, taking means acting with so called courage when the situation requires generosity and acting with so called generosity when the situation requires courage. When you act courageously when generosity is required, you are not being courageous, you are being selfish. When you act with so called generosity when the situation requires courage, you are not being generous, you are being cowardly.

The reason I am bringing this whole story up is because I have recently had an experience which indicates that this understanding of giving is very profound. We really are presented with this subtle choice in all situations and it is not always easy to decide what is really the right thing to do. I want to share this experience to highlight the sort of inner confusion that can arise when things are not that clear. What we see in those situations is that we really are presented with a difficult choice between being soft and giving or being harder and standing our ground.




I have a friend who called me this morning saying he needed help. He said he needed to make a delivery of sportswear to a client but he needed to register with a new supplier in order to meet the clients needs. He said the supplier needed a cheque account and he didn’t have one so he needed to use my cheque account and he wanted me to give him my cheque card number and security number and bank details.

My first response was discomfort. I have helped him before with his business stuff but I felt that I should not be required to share my bank information with him. But I was torn. Part of me felt that I should be kind and give him my bank details. Another part of however felt that this was not a reasonable request for him to make of me. What I sat with then was a “inner feeling conflict”. Do I act on the feeling that I should be generous, or do I act on the feeling that this friend of mine is making an unreasonable request, i.e. should I be generous and say yes, or should I be courageous and say no. Sometimes giving requires a generous yes but sometimes it requires a courageous no, the problem in this situation is that I couldn’t make up my mind about which of the two the situation required.

In the end I didn’t help him, he in the end got offended because of my ambivalence and told me to leave it. I have a sneaking suspicion that what I ended up doing was saying no and being selfish, although if I had said yes I might possibly have felt like I had caved to an unreasonable request and been cowardly. Ahh, damned internal conflicts. I am curious, did I do the right thing?

In any case, the point of the story isn’t to show how to figure things out, I have a feeling once again that it is obvious to others that I didn’t do the right thing in this situation. But this story does give an exquisite example of the inner ambiguity that we often have to grapple with when trying to be appropriate. Getting things right is often not easy, even when we are trying to be appropriate, simply because what is best is not always immediately apparent.

This does suggest however that we should be careful of the certainty that we are always doing the right thing. It is easy to stand up and think we are being courageous when we are actually just being selfish and we can easily bend and think we are being generous when we are actually being cowardly. Put simple, we must take ourselves with a pinch of salt because we might not have the right end of the stick.

Assad is busy completing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand. His primary philosophical interests are in the field of virtue ethics and happiness.

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