Philosopher David Hume on Benevolence Summary
SECTION II: on Benevolence
139-40. Benevolence brings good-will and all languages have words such as sociable, good-natured, humane, merciful, grateful, friendly, and generous. With good government and useful education these characteristics can raise one in some measure to the divine. A public hero or politician may be envied for his abundant ability, courage and success, but if he is praised as humane and friendly, envy is dwarfed in praise. Cicero said that the social virtues are always good and amiable. To be in a position of authority one becomes truly eminent only by doing good. I am not yet recommending generosity and benevolence, but our verdict can become tentative because social virtues engage the heart on their first exposure. It can be observed that nothing is given good-will and approval more than a person's generous concern and sympathy for others.
141-42. It is observed that a person's benevolence brings happiness to society. It is said that he endears himself more to his parents by this quality than by his relationship. His children feel that he uses his authority not for his benefit but for theirs. His friends sense his love for them. From him the hungry receive food, the naked clothing, the ignorant skill and the slothful industry. He cheers and sustains like the sun.
If confined, his activity can have the narrow benefit of private life. If he has a high position of authority, society and posterity reap the fruits of his labour.
We commend an animal or plant for its usefulness. So, too, we approve of the useful machine and the convenient house. We praise the manufacturer and the merchant for the benefits that we observe they give to society. So, too, with praise we show our value for the historian and the writer when fulfilling a useful role. And these: what reproach we give them when they are not useful. Even Cicero taught that gods, however perfect, have no value if they are useless. The religion of Zoroaster praises as meritorious acts the planting of a tree, the cultivating of a field, the raising of children.
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143-44. Utility is determined by the true needs of human beings. As soon as our experience and reason find initial praise to have been given to what is later found to not bring benefit, praise is withdrawn. We praise alms given to a beggar; but when we observe his taking advantage of this in idleness, an act of charity that we initially considered a virtue we later judge as a weakness. Tyrannicide, the murder of oppressive leaders, seems worthy of praise until we gain the experience of history that it leads to greater oppression. Liberality in leaders is praised until it is seen as provoking idleness and the wastage of the efforts of the industrious. Generosity for the greedy: here praise is not given. Luxury is a source of corruption in government and the immediate cause of strife and civil war.
Therefore benevolence offers the merit of meeting human need and bestowing happiness, bringing harmony within families, the mutual support of friends, and order to society. And with this utility it is rightly praised.