Systems which make Virtue consist in Benevolenceby Adam Smith
72 The system which makes virtue consist in benevolence is very ancient, but not as ancient as those of the Greeks.
It was the doctrine of most of the Eclectics, after the age of Augustus. They pretended to follow the opinions of Plato and Pythagoras. Thus, they are commonly known as Platonists.
73 According to them in the divine nature, benevolence or love was the sole principle of action which directed all the other attributes. The whole morality of the divine operations was ultimately derived from it. The perfection of the human mind resembled the divine perfections. Actions which flowed from benevolence were alone truly praiseworthy. It was by actions of charity and love only that we could=
- imitate God’s conduct,
- make our own affections resemble His holy attributes=
- by fostering the same divine principle in our own minds, and
- thereby becoming more proper objects of His love and esteem until we arrive at that immediate communication with the Deity.
This is the great object of this philosophy to raise in us.
74 This system was much esteemed by many ancient fathers of the Christian church. After the Reformation, it was adopted by several pious and amiable divines , particularly by=
- Dr. Ralph Cudworth,
- Dr. Henry More, and
- Mr. John Smith of Cambridge.
But the late Dr. Hutcheson was undoubtedly the most=
- acute, distinct, philosophical
- the soberest and most judicious
The Benevolent System of Dr. Hutcheson
75 Human nature often shows that virtue consists in benevolence. Proper benevolence is the most agreeable of all the feelings.
- It is recommended to us by a double sympathy.
- Its tendency is necessarily beneficent.
- It is the proper object of gratitude and reward.
To our natural feeling, benevolence has a superior merit. Even the weakness of benevolence is not very disagreeable, whereas the weakness of other feelings is always extremely disgusting.
But the most excessive indulgence even of partial friendship is not so offensive. Only the benevolent passions can exert themselves without regard to propriety and yet retain something about them which is engaging.
There is something pleasing in the mere instinctive good-will which does good actions without thinking whether those actions are really good or bad. It is not so with the other feelings. They cease to be agreeable the moment they are=
- deserted, and
- unaccompanied by the sense of propriety
76 Benevolence gives a superior beauty to benevolent actions. Actions are ugly if they=
- lack benevolence, and
- have negative benevolence
Pernicious actions are often punishable just because they show a lack of attention to our neighbour’s happiness.
77 Besides all this, Dr. Hutcheson observed that whenever a seemingly-benevolent action was discovered to have another motive, its merit gets reduced according to that other motive. The praise-worthiness of actions proceeding from gratitude or public spirit would be destroyed if they were found to have arisen from=
- an expectation of new favour, or
- the hope of a pecuniary reward
That virtue must consist in pure and disinterested benevolence alone. The mixture of any selfish motive, like that of a baser alloy, totally reduced or removed the action’s merit.
78 On the contrary, when seemingly selfish actions are discovered to have arisen from benevolence, its merit is greatly enhanced. We would love a person more if we found that he tried to advance his own fortune because he wanted to do good and make proper returns to his benefactors.
79 The casuists had disputes on the righteousness of conduct. Dr. Hutcheson observed that they constantly referred to the public good as the standard. He imagined that this was proof of the justness of this benevolence. He thus universally acknowledged that whatever promoted mankind’s happiness was right, laudable, and virtuous. On the contrary, whatever promoted mankind’s sadness was wrong, blamable, and vicious.
There have been recent debates on passive obedience and the right of resistance. Its only controversy was, when privileges were invaded, whether universal submission would produce greater evils than temporary insurrections. He said that it was never a question whether what tended most to mankind’s happiness was also not morally good.
80 Since benevolence was the only motive which could bestow virtue on any action, the greater the benevolence evidenced by any action, the greater its praise.
81 Actions which aimed at the happiness of more people showed a larger benevolence than those which aimed only at the happiness of a few.
Thus, such actions were proportionally more virtuous. Therefore, the most virtuous of all feelings was the action which embraced the happiness of all intelligent beings as its object. The least virtuous was the action which aimed no further than the happiness of an individual, such as a son, brother, or friend.
82 The perfection of virtue consisted in=
- directing all our actions to promote the greatest possible good
- submitting all inferior affections to the desire of mankind’s general happiness
- regarding one’s self but as one of the many
One’s prosperity was to be pursued no further than was consistent with, or conducive to, that of the whole.
83 Self-love can never be virtuous. It is vicious whenever it obstructed the general good. When it had no other effect than to make the individual take care of his own happiness, it was merely innocent.
It deserved no praise but it did not incur any blame. Those benevolent actions which were performed, despite some strong motive from self-interest, were the more virtuous on that account. They demonstrated the strength and vigour of the benevolent principle.
84 Dr. Hutcheson totally prevented self-love from being a motive of virtuous actions in any case. A benevolent action’s merit was reduced by a regard to=
- the pleasure of self-approbation, and
- the comfortable applause of our own consciences.
He thought that=
- this was a selfish motive, and
- It demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence.
- only benevolence could stamp virtue on man’s conduct.
However, in mankind’s common judgments, this regard to the approbation of our own minds is so far from being considered as something that can reduce the virtue of any action. It is rather looked on as the sole motive which deserves to be called virtuous.
85 Such is the account given of the nature of virtue in this amiable system. This system has a peculiar tendency to=
- nourish and support the noblest and the most agreeable of all feelings,
- check the injustice of self-love, and
- somewhat discourage self-love by representing it as something that could never be honourable.
The Spiritual system focuses on the cause but disregards the effect, just as the Selfish system focuses on the effect but disregarded the cause
86 Beneficence is the supreme virtue. Prudence, vigilance, circumspection, temperance, constancy, and firmness are inferior virtues.
Some of the other systems I have mentioned do not explain where the excellency of beneficence comes from. This amiable system has the contrary defect of not explaining where our approbation of these inferior virtues comes from. It only attends to the view and aim of our feelings. It totally disregarded their=
- beneficent and hurtful effects,
- propriety and impropriety, and
- suitableness and unsuitableness to the cause which excites them.
87 Regard to our own private happiness and interest often appear as very laudable motives. The praise-worthy habits of oeconomy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought are supposed to come from self-interested motives.
It is true that the mixture of ego often sullies the beauty of benevolent actions. However, this is not because ego can never be the motive of a virtuous action. It is because benevolence in this case appears weak and unsuitable to its object. This makes the person deserve blame for lacking ego, rather than praise for loving others.
Ego is very common. The motive of self-preservation prompts anyone to take care of one’s health, life, or wealth. If a person only takes care of his health from a benevolent regard to his family and friends, then we will see him as an amiable failure. We would pity him instead of hating him. His lack of ego would reduce his dignity. Carelessness and poverty are universally disapproved of because it shows a lack of attention to the ego, and not because it shows a lack of benevolence
88 Casuists frequently used an action’s tendency towards a society’s welfare as the standard to determine right or wrong. It does not follow that a regard to the society’s welfare should be the sole virtuous motive of action. It should only cast the balance against all other motives, in any competition.
89 Benevolence might be the sole principle of action in the Deity as it is not easy to conceive what other motive an all-perfect Being can act from.
90 Those three systems place virtue in propriety, prudence, and benevolence.
91 The system which places virtue in the obedience to the Deity’s will, may be counted among those systems which make it consist in prudence or propriety.
The question of why we should obey the Deity’s will is an impious and most absurd question. It can have two answers=
- Because he is a Being of infinite power.
- He will reward us eternally if we do so.
- He will punish us eternally if we do otherwise.
- If this is the proper answer, virtue consists in prudence
- It is proper for a creature to obey its creator, independent of any regard to our happiness, rewards, and punishments
- If this is the proper answer, virtue consists in propriety
92 The system which places virtue in utility also coincides with the system that makes virtue consist in propriety. According to this system, all the agreeable mental qualities are virtuous, while the disagreeable are vicious. But the agreeableness or utility of any feeling depends on certain limits. Every feeling is useful when it is in moderation. Every feeling is disadvantageous when it exceeds the proper bounds.
According to this system therefore, virtue does not consist in any single feeling, but in the proper degree of all the feelings. Its only difference from my system is that it makes utility, not sympathy, the natural measure of this proper degree.