Chap. 1: Comparison of Justice and Beneficence

2.2.1. 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.


2.2.2. 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.


2.2.3. Beneficence is always free.

  • It cannot be extorted by force.
  • Its mere want exposes to no punishment.
    • Because the mere want of beneficence does no real positive evil.
  • It may disappoint of the expected good.
    • It might justly excite dislike and disapprobation.
    • However, it cannot provoke any resentment which mankind will go along with.
  • A man has the blackest ingratitude if he does not recompense his benefactor when his benefactor needs his assistance .
    • The heart of every impartial observer rejects all fellow-feeling with his selfish motives.
    • He is the proper object of the highest disapprobation.
      • But still he does not hurt anybody.
      • He only does not do that good which in propriety he should have done.
      • He is the object of hatred.
        • Hatred is naturally excited by the impropriety of sentiment and behaviour.
      • He is not the object of resentment.
        • Resentment is only properly called forth by actions which really hurt some persons.
      • Therefore, his lack of gratitude cannot be punished.
        • It would be more improper if he were forced to do what he should do in gratitude than if he neglected to do it.
        • His benefactor would dishonour himself if he attempted by violence to constrain him to gratitude.
        • It would be impertinent for any third person, who was not either’s superior, to intermeddle.
        • But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what is called a perfect and complete obligation.
  • What friendship, generosity, charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still less be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude?
  • When friendship is mere esteem and has not been enhanced and complicated with gratitude for good offices, we talk of the debt of gratitude, not of:
    • charity or generosity, nor
    • friendship


2.2.4. 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 may be made to repent of his injustice
      • others, through fear of the like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence
  • It must be reserved therefore for these purposes.
    • The spectator can never go along with it when it is exerted for any other.
  • But the mere want of the beneficent virtues may disappoint us of the good which we might reasonably expect,
    • It does not do any mischief.


2.2.5. However, there is another virtue called justice of which the observance is not left to the freedom of 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 real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of.
    • It is, therefore, the proper object of:
      • resentment
      • punishment
        • This is the natural consequence of resentment.
  • As mankind go along with, and approve of the violence employed to avenge the hurt done by injustice, so they much more go along with, and approve of, that which is employed to:
    • prevent and beat off the injury
    • restrain the offender from hurting his neighbours
  • The person himself who meditates an injustice is sensible of this.
    • He feels that force may, with the utmost propriety, 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.
  • This has recently been insisted on by Lord Kames, a very great and original genius.
    • That we feel ourselves to be under a stricter obligation to act according to justice, than to friendship, charity, or generosity.
      • That the practice of these three virtues seems to be left to our own choice.
    • That somehow we feel in a tied, bound, and obliged to observe justice.
    • We feel that force may, with the utmost propriety, and with the approbation of all mankind, be used to constrain us to observe the rules of the one, but not to follow the precepts of the other.


2.2.6. However, we must always carefully distinguish what is only blamable from what is punishable or preventable.

  • Something blamable falls short of that ordinary degree of proper beneficence which experience teaches us to expect of everybody.
  • On the contrary, something praise-worthy goes beyond it.
  • The ordinary degree itself seems neither blamable nor praise-worthy.
  • A father, son, or brother, who behaves to the correspondent relation neither better nor worse than most men commonly do, seems properly not to deserve praise nor blame.
    • A praise-worthy person is someone who surprises us by extraordinary and unexpected, proper and suitable kindness
    • A blamable person is someone who surprises us by extraordinary and unexpected, unsuitable unkindness.


2.2.7. However, even the most ordinary degree of kindness or beneficence among equals,  cannot be extorted by force.

  • Among equals, each individual naturally, and prior to the institution of civil government, has a right to:
    • defend himself from injuries, and
    • exact a punishment for injuries done to him.
  • Every generous observer:
    • approves of his conduct when he does this, and
    • enters so far into his sentiments that he is often willing to assist him.
  • When one man attacks, robs, attempts to murder another, all the neighbours:
    • take the alarm, and
    • think that they do right when they:
      • revenge the injured person, or
      • defend him.
  • Everybody blames the conduct of the following:
    • a father fails in the ordinary parental affection towards a son,
    • a son lacks that filial reverence expected for his father,
    • brothers do not have the usual degree of brotherly affection, and
    • a man lacks compassion and refuses to relieve the misery of his fellow-humans when he can do so easily.
  • But nobody imagines that those who might expect more kindness, in the cases above, have any right to extort it by force.
    • The sufferer can only complain.
    • The observer can only intermeddle by advice and persuasion.
  • Upon all such occasions, it would be the most insolent and presumptuous for equals to use force against one another.



2.2.8. A superior may sometimes, with universal approbation, oblige those under him to behave properly with each another.

  • The laws of all 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 a certain degree of mutual good offices.
  • It becomes punishable to disobey the sovereign when he commands what is merely indifferent and what might have been omitted without any blame.
    • When he commands what, antecedent to any such order, could not have been omitted without the greatest blame, it surely becomes much more punishable to be lacking in obedience.
    • Of all the lawgiver’s duties, this perhaps requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to properly execute.
      • To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities.
      • To push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice.


2.2.9. The mere want of beneficence seems to merit no punishment from equals.

  • But the greater exertions of beneficence appear to deserve the highest reward.
  • By being productive of the greatest good, they are the natural and approved objects of the liveliest gratitude.

On the contrary, the breach of justice exposes one to punishment.

  • But the observance of the rules of justice seems not to deserve any reward.
  • There is a propriety in the practice of justice.
    • It merits all the approbation due to propriety.
  • But as it does no real positive good, it is entitled to very little gratitude.
  • On most occasions, mere justice is but a negative virtue.
    • It only hinders us from hurting our neighbour.
  • The man who barely abstains from violating his neighbour’ s person, estate, or reputation, has surely very little positive merit.
    • However, he fulfils all the rules of justice.
    •  He does everything which:
      • his equals can force him to do with propriety, or
      • they can punish him for not doing
  • We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.


2.2.10. As every man doth, so shall it be done to him.

  • Retaliation seems to be the great law dictated to us by Nature.
  • We think that beneficence and generosity are due to the generous and beneficent.
  • We think that those whose hearts never open to the feelings of humanity should be:
    • shut out from the affections of fellow-humans, and
    • allowed to live in the midst of society, as in a great desert where nobody:
      • cares for them or
      • inquire after them.
  • The violator of the laws of justice should be made to feel himself that evil which he has done to another.
    • Since no regard to the sufferings of his brethren is capable of restraining him, he should be over-awed by the fear of his own.
  • The man who only observes the laws of justice with regard to others and merely abstains from hurting his neighbours, can merit only that:
    • his neighbours in their turn should respect his innocence
    • the same laws should be religiously observed with regard to him.

Words: 1,650

Aug. 28, 2015: Corrected the original genius as Lord Kames

For corrections or comments, please email


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