Aristotle on Being Liberal with Money

In the opening section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the first of the moral virtues that concern money. This, potentially, has clear relevance to the issue of taxes and tax resistance, so I’ll pay close attention.

As you can see in the following table, the various translators I’ve been referring to have come up with a number of terms to describe the vice of deficiency in liberality, but are pretty settled on the other vice and the virtue.

Various translations of the first virtue and vices concerning money
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess

The most popular renderings are illiberality, liberality, and prodigality. Unfortunately, these terms are today uncommonly used, or, in the case of “liberality” and “illiberality,” uncommonly used at least in the sense that Aristotle is using them.

Someone who is prodigal squanders resources, spends unwisely and to excess, and even if he or she has some liberal instincts, gives money away so haphazardly that there isn’t much left to give wisely and well.

Someone who is liberal, on the other hand, is generous, almost to a fault, but gives properly and to the right people and spends for the right reasons.

Someone who is illiberal is stingy and clings to money and is described well by those various other translations in the table above (“sordid” has a now-uncommon definition of “meanly avaricious; covetous; niggardly”).

There are a couple of parts of this section that caught my interest that I’ll address before I start rooting out the tax resistance angle.

First, there’s this quote: “[I]t is more characteristic of virtue… to do what is noble than not to do what is base.” This is another contrast between Aristotle’s ethics and the various “thou shalt not” varieties; Aristotle’s is more positive, affirmative, and active — a pursuit of virtue rather than a shunning of sin.

Second are these passages:

Now virtuous actions are noble and done for the sake of the noble. Therefore the liberal man, like other virtuous men, will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for he will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving… But he who gives to the wrong people or not for the sake of the noble but for some other cause, will be called not liberal but by some other name.

The form of these statements seem to me to be very similar to the ones that caused us so much trouble in one of the chapters about the virtue of courage. In that chapter, I went along with what seemed to be the consensus of the translators that when Aristotle said that the brave man does courageous things from motives of honor that this meant courageousness itself was honorable. A dissenting opinion said that this meant that the only things that can be said to be courageous are those things that are done for honorable goals.

But in this chapter, Aristotle seems to be unambiguously taking the second, minority position, at least concerning the virtue of liberality.

How do the other translators tackle this passage? I’ll look particularly at the ones who most explicitly translated the courage passage in what I took to be the majority opinion (Chase, Hatch, Stewart, Moore, & Peters):

  • “[A]ll the actions done in accordance with virtue are noble, and done from noble motives; and the Liberal man, therefore, will give from a noble motive, and will give rightly; I mean, to proper persons, in right proportion, at right times, and whatever is included in the term ‘right giving’… But the man who gives to improper people, or not from a motive of honour, but from some other cause, shall be called not Liberal, but something else.” (Chase)
  • “[A]ll actions that are conformable to virtue have in themselves a noble effect and are inspired by a noble motive. If, therefore, a man has the virtue of charity, he will give from a noble motive, and his gifts will have a noble effect. Those to whom he gives will be deserving recipients of his bounty; and both the amount and the occasion of his bounty will be equally suitable and appropriate. He will invariably observe the conditions requisite to rightful giving… If a man fail to meet these tests — if he gives to unworthy objects, or if he gives without any reference to a virtuous ideal, but to satisfy some lower aim, he is not a charitable man, but must be styled by some other name.” (Hatch)
  • (I didn’t find anything in Stewart to address this)
  • “[A]s all virtue has a noble end in view, mere giving freely is not enough to constitute Liberality. Regard must be had to certain conditions, [which include] 1. A noble motive. 2. Due consideration of the recipients, the amount, and the occasion of the gift…” (Moore)
  • “[V]irtuous acts, we said, are noble, and are done for the sake of that which is noble. The liberal man, therefore, like the others, will give with a view to, or for the sake of, that which is noble, and give rightly; i.e. he will give the right things to the right persons at the right times — in short, his giving will have all the characteristics of right giving… He who gives to the wrong persons, or gives from some other motive than desire for that which is noble, is not liberal, but must be called by some other name.” (Peters)

So in this case, clearly, the noble motive of liberality for the sake of liberality is not enough to make an action virtuous — the liberality must be done correctly by some standard, aimed in the right direction. I wonder what it was about the way the courage section was worded that made the translators so reluctant to draw the same conclusion there. Or maybe I’m just being obtuse. Aristotle did qualify his section on courage by saying

The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs.

So maybe when some of the translators said that the courageous person is courageous for the sake of courageousness, this same sort of thing — courage done correctly by some standard, aimed in the right direction — was just implicitly imported into the definition of courageousness. If so, though, I wonder why many of the translators left the comment open to misinterpretation, and why many of the others seemed to want to caricature or exaggerate Aristotle’s viewpoint.

This segues well into a discussion of conscientious tax resistance, since this question has everything to do with spending money “for the sake of the noble, and rightly” and making sure to give your money “to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving.”

Unfortunately, Aristotle seemed to feel it was outside of the scope of his argument to specify more precisely how you go about deciding who the right people are, what the right amounts are, when the right time is, and what these other qualifications are (or perhaps he did this elsewhere and I just haven’t gotten to it yet).

Whether or not tax resistance itself is part of the virtue of liberality depends on your answer to the question of whether paying taxes is giving money to the right people, in the right amounts, at the right time, and in the right way, and Aristotle doesn’t give us enough to go on (here) to indicate what his answers would be. I’ve got my own answers to those questions, so for me anyway, that aspect of the virtue is satisfied.

But certainly even if you are practicing tax resistance for the right reasons, liberality-wise, you can practice tax resistance in a more-or-less liberal manner. Someone who lives a life of poverty or gives away everything they own in order to resist taxes, and who thereby becomes a burden to others, could be said to be practicing tax resistance prodigally. Similarly, perhaps, someone who withholds taxes from the government and then donates an equivalent amount to charity, who then becomes penniless when the government seizes the back taxes, could be faulted for prodigiality in the way they resist.

On the other side of the scale, there are those who practice tax resistance but who don’t really put their money to much better use than the government does, but who hoard it or use it to buy mountains of consumer baubles for themselves. They could be said to be resisting taxes in an illiberal fashion. Aristotle suggests that virtue is more shown by doing the right thing than in not doing the wrong thing, and that the liberal person “is more annoyed if he has not spent something that he ought than pained if he has spent something that he ought not” so someone who concentrates more on resisting taxes than on better uses for the resources not being given to the government might also be said not to be resisting liberally.

More vexing is this idea that the motivation for being liberal should be your love of the virtue of liberality and, in general, of virtue and things that are noble. Most conscientious tax resisters I know of seem to have more complicated motives than this: a desire not to be complicit in evil, an eagerness to protest wrongs via an act of civil disobedience, a feeling that the tax system and the government it supports are unjust and unworthy of support. These, I suppose, could all be considered evaluations of the “right people, right amounts, right time, right way” part of the equation, and could still be subsumed under a liberal virtue that is motivated primarily by the love of nobility and the desire to be a flourishing person, where a liberally-practiced tax resistance is just one manifestation of this virtue.

What about taxpaying? Is this something that can be done in a liberal manner? Maybe it can. If you are paying taxes because you think your tax bill is the right amount, being spent at the right time and in the right way, and going to the right people; and if you are doing so not grudgingly because it’s the law or from fear of the consequences of being caught evading taxes, but gladly because your love of noble virtue motivates you to be generous with your money in that way, then perhaps you are being a liberal taxpayer. Occasionally you do run across someone who at least professes to be behaving this way. I think, though, that those who do are acting from (likely willful) ignorance of how the government is using their tax money in ways that aren’t “right” by any reasonable standard, and as Aristotle has told us that willful ignorance is no excuse for vice, this is a hurdle the prospective liberal taxpayer will find it hard to clear.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics