The Science of Generosity

Posted on 12 January 2018

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."

In December, as part of its Voices Off programme, The Old Vic  and Mishcon de Reya explored The Science of Generosity at a panel event hosted at The Old Vic. The Voices Off Programme, conceived in September 2015 at the start of Matthew Warchus’ inaugural season as Artistic Director, is a series of talks, conversations, debates and workshops examining the themes raised by the productions on the main stage – in this case, A Christmas Carol. 

The panel, chaired by Mishcon de Reya's Executive Partner James Libson, comprised Dr Oliver Scott Curry, Director of the Oxford Morals Project; Dr Nichola Raihani, Professor of Evolution and Behaviour at UCL; Giles Fraser, Guardian columnist, Church of England priest and panellist on The Moral Maze; and Dr Michael Muthukrishna, Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology at LSE and Research Associate in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. The debate was lively, touching on why our evolution might influence the way we work together, how we may benefit from generosity and if, in trying to dissect the motivations behind our generosity, we risk undermining it completely.

A Christmas Carol, directed by Matthew Warchus and featuring Rhys Ifans as Ebenezer Scrooge, will be at The Old Vic until 20 January.

Mishcon Thinks: The Science of Generosity
Voices Off The Old Vic

James Libson
Executive Partner, Mishcon de Reya

We are at The Old Vic, and The Old Vic at the moment is showing A Christmas Carol.  It touches on issues of generosity, kindness and those sorts of things and there is an amazing audience reaction so we are here to talk about the science of philanthropy and it’s going to be a very interesting discussion, I hope. 

Kate Varah
Executive Director, The Old Vic

This is a new and diverse programme aimed at opening up our work to a broader audience.  Mishcon de Reya and The Old Vic are, on the face of it, two very different partners but we have a very similar objective which is to spark debate and conversation so we are two different thought leaders coming together to create a programme that really allows the thoughts and the themes of the main productions to resonate and reach beyond the main stage.

Dr Nichola Raihani
Professor of Evolution and Social Behaviour, UCL

The discussion was lively and I think it was good actually that we had people who had some quite different viewpoints on the panel.

Dr Michael Muthukrishna
Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology, LSE

There was a lot of interesting things going on, I think one of the most interesting things was the discussion about whether actually unravelling the science of generosity itself undermines generosity and I think there might be some truth to that, actually. 

Dr Oliver Scott Curry
University of Oxford

Evolution has equipped us with a range of social, co-operative and altruistic dispositions and this explains why we’re nice to our families, nice to our friends, why we support our teammates, but it could also explain why we’re nice to strangers, why we’re kind to strangers. 

Dr Nichola Raihani
Professor of Evolution and Social Behaviour, UCL

Are we genuinely altruistic?  Do we do this we really care about other people and there’s no self-interest whatsoever, or is it just self-interested?  And our evolutionary perspective would say you can have both things.  You can think what you are doing is perfectly, purely altruistic, and it is from your psychological perspective but from an evolutionary point of view you’re descendants of people who have, on average, been nice in the past, and that is a selected trait. 

Dr Oliver Scott Curry
University of Oxford

Humans are social animals, they have lived in social groups for fifty million years and during that time other people have been our life support system so making sure we are plugged in to that and we maintain those relationships is one of the most important things that we can do. 

Dr Giles Fraser
Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, journalist and broadcaster

I have a problem with explaining generosity in terms of one’s own self-interest so it doesn’t seem like generosity to me and it doesn’t seem like altruism to say that actually you get, you know, ultimately biologically or whatever you get something out of it.  I quite like the old-fashioned, simple idea, that we are able to be selfless. 

Dr Michael Muthukrishna
Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology, LSE

One of the thinks I realised is that altruism is really about co-operation and it applies across the animal kingdom.  I mean, you yourself are more, I mean, you are an altruistic person I’m sure but you are also a bunch of, you are an ecosystem, you are a whole bunch of different organisms that are co-operating with each other to make you work.

Dr Oliver Scott Curry
University of Oxford

Another general question was, well what’s the relationship between co-operation on the one hand and morality on the other and my view is that they’re not really two separate things; morality is just the label we give to different types of co-operative behaviour.

Dr Nichola Raihani
Professor of Evolution and Social Behaviour, UCL

We spent quite a bit of time talking about morality and whether we ought to be thinking about morality in terms of enlightened self-interest or whether that is actually taking the altruism out of altruism.

Kate Varah
Executive Director, The Old Vic

Voices Off is a programme of talks, debates, conversations, workshops with leading voices in the arts, the media, science and politics really aimed to animate the themes of the production on the main stage.