The Matter of the Notion of Benevolence


How selfish so ever man be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. (Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments)

That’s what is involved in benevolence. This sentiment like all the other basic passions of human nature is not confined to virtuous and humane people, though they may feel it more intensely than others do. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened criminal, has something of it.

The vast majorities of Philosophers and Psychologists have regarded benevolence as any kind act, but also describes the desire to do nice things to others, giving in to others needs without having personal reward as motive or being nice according to what one needs, not just what is easy or convenient.

Origin and definition

Benevolence comes from the Latin word Benevolentia, Bene meaning well and Volens, to wish. From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Benevolence is the disposition to do good and seek the well being or comfort of others. It is an act of kindness and generosity. It is the desire to alleviate suffering, or to promote happiness. It is love to mankind and kindness of heart or being charitable. Alms giving, beneficence, benignity, bounty, charity, generosity, goodwill, humanity, kindness, liberty, munificence, philanthropy, sympathy, tenderness- are synonymous with benevolence.

Butler says (On Human Nature, Sermon I.) that "there are as real and the same kind of indications in human nature, that we were made for society and to do good to our fellow-creatures, as that we were intended to take care of our own life, and health, and private good." Those principles in our nature by which we are prompted to seek our own good are comprehended under the name of Self-love; those which lead us to seek the good of others are comprehended under the name of Benevolence. He says under this term is comprehended all feelings and affections which lead us to increase the happiness and alleviate the sufferings of others.

The Greatest Happiness theory, resting on the principle that "happiness is the only thing desirable," has passed away from the Egoistic form to the Altruistic, making its maxim the expression of Benevolence—"The Greatest Happiness of the greatest number." The theory either assumes that this maxim ought to supply the rule of life, or makes the practical power of the maxim depend on the consideration that, in seeking the happiness of others, we secure our own."Love is a matter of feeling, not of will or volition, and I cannot love because I will to do so, still less because I ought (I cannot be necessitated to love); hence there is no such thing as a duty to love. Benevolence, however as a mode of action, may be subject to a law of duty “(Kant's Ethics, Abbot).

From Bible it can be quoted that ‘The generous man will be prosperous and he who waters will himself be watered.’ Thiruvalluvar says, it is difficult to obtain another good equal to benevolence either in this world or in that of Gods.Shalom Schwartz who proposed that there are 10 broad value domains that are universal and fairly comprehensive also advocates Benevolence as one of the values. In his book Unrugged Individualism, David Kelley describes how benevolence is not altruism and not simply a response to misfortune in others. It is the active pursuit of enormous value that we get from relationships with other people.

Elements of Benevolence

Livnat (2004), on the nature of benevolence offers a philosophical analysis of Benevolence. It argues that a benevolent act comprises of three elements; the emotive element, the performative element and the cognitive element. The emotive element refers to the benevolent persons’ care and concern for the object of her benevolence and the motivation that such feelings of care and concern induce in the benevolent person to ease the suffering and promote the welfare of such beneficiary. While the emotive element concerns the benevolent persons’ internal world (her feelings and will), the performative element focuses on the impact that the benevolent person has on the world that lies outside of her (the actual physical acts she performs). The performative element deals with the benevolent persons’ sincere attempt to actualize her motivation to do good.

Finally, the cognitive element concerns the cognitive competence a benevolent person must manifest when she actualizes her motivation to do good. Such cognitive competence ensures that her attempt to do good will not only be sincere but also be somewhat rational. In shifting our focus from the elements of a benevolent act to the elements of benevolence as a character trait, we refer to the fairly permanent disposition of the benevolent person to perform benevolent acts. In other words, a benevolent person is a person who tends to care about other human beings, is generally concerned about other peoples’ wellbeing, and is motivated to perform acts which are aimed at doing good (easing peoples’ suffering, promoting their welfare).

Moreover, the general disposition to perform benevolent acts entails going beyond the performance of such acts when opportunities to perform them are obvious. A benevolent person certainly does not turn a blind eye to misfortunes of others and to the possibility of helping them. But moreover, a benevolent person is attentive to misfortunes of others and is therefore disposed to do good in situations in which others might fail to recognize an opportunity to do good altogether.

Furthermore, she is inclined to search actively for opportunities to do good, she possess at least minimal cognitive competence necessary for identifying such opportunities. Her care for others may sometimes also motivate her to increase her cognitive abilities beyond the level at which all human beings function.According to Blum, 1980; Hume, benevolence stems from the care-based processes of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Empathy refers to feeling the same as another—it is a vicarious emotional response that results from apprehending another person’s emotional state (Hoffman, Eisenberg).

Closely related to empathy is sympathy—feelings of sorrow or concern for another’s needy situation. Compassion is defined as thoughts and feelings congruent with another’s distress circumstances. These sentiments are believed to form the core motivational bases for prosocial behaviors (i.e., voluntary acts that benefit others), including, importantly, altruistic behaviors (i.e., voluntary acts primarily intended to benefit others with little or no regard for self rewards, often high cost action).

According to scholars who emphasize the care-oriented nature of humans, benevolence is a natural occurring, intrinsically-based motive that permeates all humans (Hume). Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are evolutionarily adaptive and deeply rooted in biological structures and mechanisms including genes and neurotransmitters e.g., oxytocin, vasopressin (Eisenberg et al., 2006). Indeed, research demonstrates that benevolent traits are present early in life, present across several social animal species, and there are relatively stable individual differences in these traits across time and space (Carlo, 2006; Eisenberg et al., 2006).

Moreover, sociocognitive (e.g., perspective taking skills) and socialization (e.g., warm parenting, parental inductions) mechanisms have been theorized to facilitate the expression of these benevolent traits and actions, which result in individual differences. Although there is ample evidence on the predisposition to act in benevolent ways, there is also ample evidence on the existence of selfishly-motivated sentiments (e.g., anger) and traits (e.g., aggression; Dodge). Those both selfish and selfless motives dynamically co-exist no doubt results in moral dilemmas and in developmental and individual differences in associated moral behaviors (Carlo, 2006).

03 December 2019
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