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Why Are We Generous?

Is generosity an act of altruism - giving without expecting anything in return - or pure self-interest?

Generosity feels like a good idea - most of us enjoy being generous from time to time and having people be generous to us. But what drives our altruistic tendencies?

From local volunteering to big philanthropic donations, from small acts of kindness to major sacrifices, what does this sort of behaviour say about us as human beings?

Do we really give without expecting something in return, or is there always some element of self- interest?

Joining Bridget Kendall to explore how and why we are generous are evolutionary anthropologist David Sloan Wilson, philosopher Judith Lichtenberg and experimental psychologist Patricia Lockwood.

Photo: Offering Aid after forest fire. Credit Cole Burston AFP Getty Images

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41 minutes

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in the USA. He is widely known for his fundamental contributions to evolutionary science and for explaining evolution to the general public. His books include Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour (with Elliott Sober). One of his key ideas is that the evolutionary theory of group selection favours co-operation and altruism. Co-operative groups lasted more successfully.

Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, UK. She is investigating the mechanisms of social cognition in health and disease. Her research investigates the psychological and neural mechanisms that underpin how we interact with other people. As part of this aim, she examines how our ability to interact with others is affected by factors such as personality, ageing and disorders of social cognition, including psychopathy and autism. Among her interests are the neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy and the anatomy of empathy: Vicarious experience and disorders of social cognition.

Judith Lichtenberg

Judith Lichtenberg is Professor of Philosophy and Affiliate Professor of Government at Georgetown University in the USA. She has written about international and domestic justice, moral psychology, nationalism, war, and higher education. Currently she is thinking about crime, punishment, and mass incarceration, and is teaching an ethics course at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. One of her key thoughts in this discussion is that biological altruism is very different from true altruism.