Chap. 3: Systems which make Virtue consist in Benevolence

Chap. 3: Systems which make Virtue consist in Benevolence

7.2.72. The system which makes virtue consist in benevolence is very ancient.

  • But I think it is not as ancient as those I have already mentioned.
  • It seems to have been the doctrine of most of the Eclectics, after the age of Augustus.
    • They pretended to follow chiefly the opinions of Plato and Pythagoras.
    • Thus, they are commonly known as Platonists.


7.2.73. According to them in the divine nature, benevolence or love was the sole principle of action.

  • It directed the exertion of all the other attributes.
  • The Deity’s wisdom was employed in finding out the means for bringing about those ends which his goodness suggested, as his infinite power was exerted to execute them.
  • However, benevolence was still the supreme and governing attribute which the other attributes were subservient to.
    • The whole excellency or morality of the divine operations was ultimately derived from it.
    • The whole perfection and virtue of the human mind resembled or participated with the divine perfections.
      • Consequently, it was in being filled with the same principle of benevolence and love which influenced all the Deity’s actions.
  • Actions which flowed from this motive were alone truly praiseworthy or could claim any merit in the Deity’s sight.
    • It was by actions of charity and love only that we could:
      • imitate God’s conduct, as became us,
      • express our humble and devout admiration of his infinite perfections, and
      • 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.


7.2.74. This system was much esteemed by many ancient fathers of the Christian church.

  • After the Reformation, it was adopted by several divines of the most eminent piety and learning and of the most amiable manners.
    • Particularly, it was adopted by:
      • Dr. Ralph Cudworth,
      • Dr. Henry More, and
      • Mr. John Smith of Cambridge.
  • But of all the patrons of this ancient or modern system, the late Dr. Hutcheson was undoubtedly, beyond all comparison, the most:
    • acute, distinct, philosophical
    • the soberest and most judicious of all
      • This is of the greatest consequence.


7.2.75. Human nature often shows that virtue consists in benevolence.

  • It has already been observed, that proper benevolence is the most graceful and agreeable of all the affections.
    • It is recommended to us by a double sympathy.
      • Its tendency is necessarily beneficent.
        • It is the proper object of gratitude and reward.
      • It appears to our natural sentiments to possess a superior merit.
  • It has been observed too, that even the weaknesses of benevolence are not very disagreeable to us.
    • Whereas the weakness of every other passion are always extremely disgusting.
      • Who does not abhor excessive malice, selfishness, or resentment?
    • But the most excessive indulgence even of partial friendship is not so offensive.
    • Only the benevolent passions can exert themselves without any regard or attention to propriety and yet retain something about them which is engaging.
  • There is something pleasing even in mere instinctive good-will which does good offices without once reflecting whether this conduct is the proper object of blame or approbation.
    • It is not so with the other passions.
    • They cease to be agreeable the moment they are:
      • deserted
      • unaccompanied by the sense of propriety

7.2.76. Benevolence bestows a superior beauty to benevolent actions.

  • Actions which lack benevolence and have negative benevolence communicate a peculiar deformity.
  • Pernicious actions are often punishable just because they show a lack of sufficient attention to our neighbour’s happiness.

7.2.77. Besides all this, Dr. Hutcheson observed that whenever a seemingly-benevolent action was discovered to have another motive, its merit gets so far reduced with this discovered motive.

  • The merit or 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
  • He imagined that that virtue must consist in pure and disinterested benevolence alone.
    • The mixture of any selfish motive, like that of a baser alloy, reduced or removed altogether the action’s merit.

7.2.78. On the contrary, when seemingly selfish actions are discovered to have arisen from a benevolent motive, its sense of merit is greatly enhanced.

  • If we believed that a person who tried to advance his own fortune did so because he wanted to do good and make proper returns to his benefactors, we would love and esteem him more.
  • This observation further confirmed the conclusion that only benevolence could stamp virtue on any action.


7.2.79. The casuists had disputes regarding the righteousness of conduct.

  • Dr. Hutcheson, lastly, observed that the public good was the standard which the casuists constantly referred to.
    • He imagined that this was an evident 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.
  • In the recent debates about passive obedience and the right of resistance, the only controversy among men of sense was whether universal submission would probably be attended with greater evils than temporary insurrections when privileges were invaded.
    • He said that it was never a question whether what tended most to mankind’s happiness was also not morally good.


7.2.80. 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.


7.2.81. Actions which aimed at the happiness of a great community demonstrated a more enlarged benevolence than those which aimed only at the happiness of a smaller system.

  • Thus, such actions were proportionally more virtuous.
  • Therefore, the most virtuous of all affections 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.

7.2.82. 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.

7.2.83. Self-love was a principle which could never be virtuous in any degree.

  • It was 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.


7.2.84. Dr. Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be 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.


7.2.85. 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 affections,
    • check the injustice of self-love, and
    • somewhat discourage self-love by representing it as something that could never reflect any honour on those influenced by it.


7.2.86. Beneficence is the supreme virtue.

  • Some of the other systems I have mentioned do not sufficiently explain where the excellency of beneficence comes from.

Prudence, vigilance, circumspection, temperance, constancy, and firmness are inferior virtues.

  • This system has the contrary defect of not sufficiently explaining where our approbation of these inferior virtues comes from.
  • It only attends to the view and aim of our affections.
    • It altogether disregarded their:
      • beneficent and hurtful effects,
      • propriety and impropriety, and
      • suitableness and unsuitableness to the cause which excites them.






7.2.87. Regard to our own private happiness and interest often appear as very laudable principles of action.

  • The habits of oeconomy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought, are generally supposed to be cultivated from self-interested motives.
    • These habits are seen as very praise-worthy qualities, which deserve everybody’s esteem and approbation.
  • It is true that that the mixture of a selfish motive often sullies the beauty of benevolent actions.
    • However, this is not because self-love can never be the motive of a virtuous action.
    • It is because the benevolent principle in this case appears to be weak and unsuitable to its object.
    • Therefore, the character seems imperfect.
      • It deserves blame rather than praise.
  • A supposed selfish action which is mixed with a benevolent motive will not reduce our sense of its propriety, or of the virtue of its actor.
  • We do not suspect anyone of being defective or careless in selfishness. 


    • This carelessness is not a weakness of human nature which we have to be suspicious of.



      A person fails if he does not take that proper care of his health, life, or fortune,

    • Our instinct for self-preservation is supposed to do this automatically.
      • Such a person who fails this would be pitied instead of hated.

        However, it would still reduce his dignity

      • Carelessness and want of oeconomy are universally disapproved of because it shows a lack of attention to the objects of self-interest and not because of the lack of benevolence




7.2.88. A conduct’s tendency to the welfare or disorder of society was the standard the casuists frequently used to determine what is right or wrong.

  • It does not follow that a regard to the welfare of society should be the sole virtuous motive of action.
  • It should only cast the balance against all other motives, in any competition.


7.2.89. Benevolence might perhaps be the sole principle of action in the Deity.

  • There are several, probable arguments which persuade us that it is so.
  • It is not easy to conceive what other motive an independent and all-perfect Being, who stands in need of nothing external, and whose happiness is complete in himself, can act from.
  • But whatever may be the case with the Deity, man, as a creature so imperfect, must often act from many other motives.
    • Man’s existence requires so many things external to him.
    • The condition of human nature would be peculiarly hard if the benevolence, in the very nature of our being, could never appear virtuous or deserve anybody’s esteem and commendation.


7.2.90. Those three systems place virtue in propriety, prudence, and benevolence.

  • They are the principal accounts which have been given of the nature of virtue.
  • To one or other of them, all the other descriptions of virtue, no matter how different they appear, are easily reducible.


7.2.91. The system which places virtue in obedience to the Deity’s will, may be counted:

  • among those systems which make it consist in prudence or
  • among those which make it consist in propriety.
  • The question of why we should obey the Deity’s will is an impious and most absurd question.
    • It can have two answers:
      1. We should obey the Deity’s will 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.
      2. There is a congruity and fitness that a creature should obey its creator, independent of any regard to our own happiness or to any rewards and punishments
        • A limited and imperfect being should submit to one of infinite and incomprehensible perfections.
    • Besides these two, it is impossible to conceive any other answer to this question.
      • If the first answer be the proper one, virtue consists in prudence or in the proper pursuit of our own final interest and happiness.
        • Since it is on this account that we are obliged to obey the Deity’s will.
      • If the second answer be the proper one, virtue must consist in propriety.
        • Since the ground of our obligation to obedience is the suitableness or congruity of humility and submission to the superiority of the object which excites them.


7.2.92. The system which places virtue in utility also coincides with the system which makes it consist in propriety.

  • According to this system, all those qualities of the mind which are agreeable or advantageous to the person himself or to others, are virtuous.
    • The contrary are vicious.
  • But the agreeableness or utility of any affection depends on the degree which it is allowed to subsist in.
    • Every affection is useful when it is in moderation.
    • Every affection is disadvantageous when it exceeds the proper bounds.
  • According to this system therefore, virtue consists not in any one affection, but in the proper degree of all the affections.
    • Its only difference from my system is that it makes utility, not sympathy or the spectator’s correspondent affection, the natural and original measure of this proper degree.

Words: 2,235

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