Chapter 1

Comparison of Justice and Beneficence

by Adam Smith Icon

Beneficence cannot be extorted by force, but justice can

1 Only beneficent actions from proper motives seem to require reward because only such actions:

  • are the approved objects of gratitude, or
  • excite the observer’s sympathetic gratitude.

2 Only hurtful actions from improper motives seem to deserve punishment because only such actions:

  • are the approved objects of resentment, or
  • excite the observer’s sympathetic resentment.

3 Beneficence is always free. It cannot be extorted by force. A lack of beneficence might be disliked or resented, but it is not punished because it does not create a new evil.

A man has ingratitude if he does not help his benefactor when his benefactor needs it. We lose sympathy with his selfish motives.

It would be more improper if he were forced to help his benefactor who would then dishonour himself if the help was forced. It would be rude for a third person, who was not either’s superior, to intermeddle.

Of all the duties of beneficence, the duties of gratitude are the closest to a ‘perfect and complete obligation’ and are universally approved. It is more free and can less be extorted by force than:

  • friendship
  • generosity
  • charity

We talk of the debt of gratitude, but not of a debt of friendship, debt of charity, or debt of generosity.

4 Resentment seems to have been given us by nature only for defence. It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence. It prompts us to:

  • beat off the mischief attempted on us
  • retaliate that which is already done so that:
    • the offender will repent
    • others, through fear of similar punishment, may be terrified from doing the same

Thus, resentment should only be used for these purposes.

5 However, there is another virtue called justice which is not left to our own wills. It may be extorted by force. Its violation exposes to resentment, and consequently to punishment.

The violation of justice is injury – it does new and real hurt from motives disapproved of. Injusty therefore is the proper object of resentment and punishment, which is the natural consequence of resentment.

Mankind approves of the violence used to avenge the hurt from injustice. The person who plans an injustice knows this. He feels that force may properly be used by:

  • the person whom he is about to injure
  • others, to:
    • obstruct the execution of his crime, or
    • punish him when he has executed it.

Upon this is founded that remarkable distinction between justice and all the other social virtues.

Lord Kames, a very great and original genius, insisted on this:

we feel to be under a stricter obligation to act according to justice, than to friendship, charity, or generosity.. the practice of these three virtues seems to be left to our own choice.. somehow we feel tied, bound, and obliged to observe justice. We feel that force may properly be used to constrain us to observe the rules of the one, but not to follow the precepts of the other.

6 However, we must always carefully distinguish what is only blamable from what is punishable.

  • An action is blamable if it falls short of the ordinary beneficence which we expect from equals. A praise-worthy person is someone who surprises us by extraordinary and unexpected kindness.
  • An action is praise-worthy if it goes beyond the expected ordinary beneficence from equals. A blamable person is someone who surprises us by extraordinary and unexpected unkindness.

The ordinary degree itself is neither blamable nor praise-worthy.

7 However, even ordinary kindness cannot be extorted by force.

Before the creation of governments, each individual has a natural right to:

  • defend himself from injuries and
  • punish others for injuries that they inflict

Every generous observer approves of this and has sympathy with him, that he is often willing to assist.

Everybody blames:

  • a father who fails to have parental affection towards a son,
  • a son who lacks that filial reverence for his father,
  • brothers who do not have the usual brotherly affection, and
  • a man who lacks compassion and refuses to relieve the hunger of others when he can do so easily.

But nobody thinks that the unloved son or the hungry people have any right to extort compassion by force. The sufferers can only complain. The observer can only intermeddle by advice and persuasion.

Kindness Can be Imposed by the State

8 A superior can oblige those under him to behave properly with each another.

The laws of civilized nations oblige:

  • parents to maintain their children, and
  • children to maintain their parents.

They impose many other duties of beneficence on men. The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power of:

  • preserving the public peace by restraining injustice, and
  • promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth by:
    • establishing good discipline, and
    • discouraging every vice and impropriety.

He may prescribe rules which:

  • prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, and
  • command mutual good offices.

The sovereign can punish not doing what was previously indifferent and not blamable. This makes those acts that actually require obedience to be even more punishable.

Of all the lawgiver’s duties, this requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to properly execute.

  • If neglected, it exposes the commonwealth to gross disorders.
  • If too far, it destroys liberty, security, and justice.

9 The lack of beneficence seems to merit no punishment, but the greater exertions of beneficence appear to deserve the highest reward.

On the contrary, the observance of justice seems not to deserve any reward. It is proper to practice justice. But since it does no real, new good, it is entitled to very little gratitude.

Usually, justice is just a negative virtue which hinders us from hurting others. The man who barely abstains from hurting another surely has very little merit. However, he fulfils all the rules of justice. We may often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting and doing nothing.

10 Retaliation is the great law dictated to us by Nature.

The violator of justice should be made to feel the evil he has done. If he has no regard to the sufferings of others, then he might be over-awed by his own sufferings.

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