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Tension Between Benevolence And Morals

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More importantly, perhaps, is the assertion that true morality stems from benevolence (Hume). Benevolence provides the benchmark for evaluating morality including justice, fairness, honesty, and equality. Humans are endowed with the capacity to assess actions as moral or immoral on the basis of whether such actions reflect the sentiments of humaneness and natural concern for others. Furthermore, these sentiments are closely associated with consonant values, principles, and virtues that may induce or reinforce such sentiments (Carlo & Randall, 2001; Eisenberg et al. , 1991). Hume asserts that benevolence serves an ultimate utilitarian function such that these sentiments foster goodwill towards others, and societal approbation and happiness. In other words, though what is deemed just or fair can depend upon one’s point of view, what is humane and caring (i. e. the benevolence approach) is ultimately what results in the least harm and the greatest benefit for others. For example, if one child hits another child, then the victim of the aggression might deem it only fair to hit back. This judgment of fairness is based on the logical argument that getting hit justifies hitting back (e. g. , “an eye for an eye”). However, hitting that child back still results in harm toward the other child and is not humane—therefore, the benevolence perspective asserts that hitting is immoral.

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Other sociomoral issues can be evaluated on the basis of this distinction. For example, capital punishment can be viewed from a justice-based approach as justifiable in order to apply equal treatment (i. e. death) to someone who has committed murder. However, from a benevolence-based approach, capital punishment is not considered moral because such an action is inhumane and results in great harm (and perhaps suffering) on an individual with little benefit towards others (especially when weighed against other non-capital punishment alternatives). Life imprisonment, for example, provides an alternative that is less harmful but still punishing with benefits for others and society (e. g. , protection and safety).

A final example provides some insight into understanding how previously regarded acceptable social actions can transform over time and result in strong moral evaluations. In the U. S. , cigarette smoking was deemed to be socially acceptable (even desirable) by many individuals, especially because such actions were considered an individual right (a strong justice based rational argument). However, as research accumulated on the negative health problems associated with nicotine, and especially when research demonstrated that second-hand smoking posed equal or greater heath risks, public opinion on cigarette smoking changed. The clear and demonstrated health risks and problems posed by smoking in public places pulled for a benevolence-focused basis such that smoking in public is now considered immoral. In other words, although individuals may have the right to smoke following a rights-based logical argument, the in humaneness and clear health risks of smoking suggest that such behaviors are deemed immoral. In fact, research suggests that individuals who smoke (no matter where they choose to smoke) are generally viewed as immoral rather than moral ( ). In such cases (consider alcohol drinking as well), benevolence-based arguments trump justice-based arguments in moral evaluations, especially as new information and understanding is gathered regarding the harmful or inhumane (relative to the benefits) consequences of such actions.

Of course, adopting a benevolence approach in and of itself does not always lead to easy resolutions of moral dilemmas. As noted earlier, the challenge of difficult moral dilemmas can be attributed most times to the tension between different moral themes (e. g. , issues of justice versus benevolence) or to judgments of the humaneness (or harm) to multiple persons or groups or across time (i. e. , short term versus long term benefits). However, we assert that justice based arguments that are based solely on justice- or rights-based, logical arguments often results in immoral actions that can be easily justified if a benevolence perspective is not considered.

To summarize, a justice-focused approach tends to emphasize the legal, rights- or justice-based aspects of a situation where as a benevolence-approach emphasizes the humaneness of such situations. We assert that the proposed framework significantly extends our understanding of many present days, sociomoral debates by identifying the justice-focused versus benevolence-focused basis of proponents on each side.

18 March 2020

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