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Virtue of Benevolence

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Morality requires us to act for the good of others. And this disposition to do good deeds is fundamental to the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Schopenhauer and others. At the same time, ethical egoists, Nietzsche and some others did not have much faith in the idea of benevolence as a source of moral motivation.

Kant explicitly warned against relying on benevolence as a source of ethical motivation because, like other feelings, it is unpredictable and erratic. Kant denies the importance of benevolence partly because he believes that ethics requires that reason should dominate over feelings. Those who give benevolence a vital place in ethics do so on the ground that the ultimate source of ethics is feelings, and the role of reason is merely to prevent emotions from running amok.

Benevolence consists of emotive, cognitive, and motivational elements. Among the three, the emotional element dominates because the fundamental source of benevolence is the feeling that leads individuals to care about the good of others. It is just a fact about human beings that they are inclined to care about the welfare of others. But benevolent feelings need to be controlled and directed, and that is the task of the cognitive component. It directs the feelings toward appropriate objects, and it controls the actions benevolence prompts. The last is the motivational component that drives the disposition to act to increase the welfare or decrease the sufferings of others.

Hume believed benevolence to be a natural virtue, as to be benevolent is one of the essential elements of human nature.

Michael W. Martin, in his book Everyday Morality: An Introduction to Applied Ethics, observes, “Hume makes [benevolence] the supreme virtue, and of all virtue ethicists, Hume most deserves to be called the philosopher of benevolence.”

From a political and public policy perspective, the welfare state institutionalizes benevolence by launching state-sponsored programs such as mid-day meals, maternity benefits, etc.

In short, benevolence is an intentional disposition to perform good deeds or charitable acts.

Some notable quotes on benevolence:

“No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others.”

David Hume

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.” Adam Smith

“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Martin Luther King Jr.

“The term [benevolence] stands for a positive reaction to other people’s desire and satisfactions, which the benevolent person has only because they are the desires and satisfactions of others.” Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy


Virtue Ethics, Contributions of Moral Thinkers & Philosophers

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