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The Street Philosopher

Bilateral Benevolence

Seán Moran feels a warm glow on the streets of Dublin.

There is little doubt that benevolence is a Good Thing. The word even comes from the Latin for ‘good will’ (benevolentia) for goodness’ sake. It’s as desirable as motherhood and apple pie. Perhaps it is even more desirable, for unlike sugary pastries, benevolence isn’t directly implicated in the global rise of type 2 diabetes. The benevolent person’s disposition to help others is a commendable human quality: a virtue. In fact, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume regards benevolence as one of two great virtues (the other being justice). He sees its function as to “bestow happiness on human society” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751).

In my photograph, taken on a Dublin street, a benevolent social interaction is occurring as the top-hatted man presents a benign face to the other fellow. But the bestowing of happiness might have proceeded in the opposite direction – a horseracing tip for the 3.20 at Cheltenham, perhaps. I couldn’t quite hear their warmhearted conversation. And the direction matters little, for a virtuous circle can form that benefits both parties. As the Dalai Lama says on a related topic, “If you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion” (The Art of Happiness, 1998). These are sentiments that only a curmudgeon would dispute, but, if we’re not careful, discussions about benevolence can easily degenerate into saccharine fridge magnet aphorisms or Facebook banalities.

Feeling Good About Doing Good

benevolence in Dublin
Photo © Seán Moran 2016

We usually admire benevolence. From the benevolent person, says Hume, “the hungry receive food, the naked clothing, the ignorant skill, and the slothful industry.” This Humean paragon of virtue “cheers and sustains like the sun.”

If the beneficiaries of benevolence benefit from such beneficence, we may wonder what’s in it for the benign provider. According to Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, the answer is nothing: truly benevolent people neither receive nor expect any return on their ethical investments. Kant even asserts that philanthropists “without any motive of vanity or selfishness” who benefit others because they “find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy and take delight in the contentment of others”, act in ways that have “no true moral worth” (Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785).

This is a bit too puritanical for my taste: no psychological rewards for helping our fellows; no sweet puddings. Fortunately, Aristotle doesn’t agree. According to his Nicomachean Ethics, we should feel delight when performing genuinely virtuous acts, for the person “who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good.” Aristotle also rejects a puritanical approach to eating; rather, he advocates a moderate diet that suits our individual constitution and life-style. So there’s an optimum level of apple-pie-intake for each of us that’s conducive to the Aristotelian ‘Good Life’. Not all types of consumption have such a happy medium, though. For example, heroin, which is apparently very more-ish, is probably best avoided altogether.

I’m with Aristotle on the joy of giving. Why shouldn’t our benign acts produce a glow of satisfaction? But some of those performing benevolent gestures want more than a warm fuzzy feeling: they require public acclaim. Cambridge theologian Stephen Cherry argues that the demand for ‘donor recognition’ shows that the philanthropic industry largely runs on vice (The Dark Side of the Soul, 2016). And Aristotle’s model citizen, the ‘great-souled man’ or megalopsychos, isn’t really so great, for he only feigns benevolence to enhance his own reputation and put other people in his debt. So as well as using conspicuous consumption to advertise their net worth, the rich can also indulge in conspicuous donation, and this ‘blatant benevolence’ increases their philanthropic status. Such costly signalling may have evolutionary origins. Like the flamboyant peacock’s tail, which consumes the bird’s growth and food resources without any obvious practical advantage, the philanthropist’s message could be, “I’m so well endowed with treasure that I can afford to waste it,” attracting the amorous attentions of peahens, or the admiration of humanity.

At least the Ancient Greek megalopsychos and present-day philanthropists preface their demand for public applause by a real act of giving. In other cases of virtue signalling, the gesture is an empty one. Sometimes the apparent benefactor only clicks an online ‘like’, or wears a bracelet proclaiming charitable credentials without doing the supposed beneficiary any good.

Strangely, while empty virtue signalling is on the rise, the epithet ‘do-gooder’ has become almost a term of abuse aimed at those who really do try to help. Such a person is often regarded as smug, patronising and holier-than-thou, or perhaps a naïve but vain figure of fun, a ‘Lady Bountiful’. That archetypal do-gooder (in the pejorative sense) appears in the Restoration comedy The Beaux Stratagem (1707) by Irish playwright George Farquhar. Lady Bountiful is a wealthy widow and an ostentatious philanthropist. A servant pleads: “Your ladyship’s charity, goodness, benevolence, skill and ability have drawn me hither to implore your ladyship’s help in behalf of my unfortunate master, who is this moment breathing his last.” This is Restoration comedy, though, so the servant is an imposter and his ‘master’ is not ill but has romantic designs on Lady Bountiful’s daughter.

We can laugh at the layers of intrigue and self-deception in the farce, but our own humanitarian impulses may be similarly murky. Half a century before Farquhar, French author Francois de la Rochefoucauld claimed that we would “blush at our noblest deeds if the world were to see all their underlying motives” (Maxims, 1665). And in the Sixteenth Century, even the notorious Niccolò Machiavelli advises rulers to act in apparently benign ways at certain times. Although we don’t think of benevolence as a Machiavellian trait, the Florentine diplomat counsels the prince to “keep the people satisfied and contented” – but strictly for the selfish purpose of staying in power.

You Scratch My Back

For those of us who are neither oligarchs, landed gentry, nor Medici princes, there are still practical advantages in exercising the humane virtue of benevolence. And it is possible to be authentically benign without going to the extreme of selfless altruism. Indeed, some psychologists talk of ‘reciprocal altruism’ – effectively, ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ – although arguably that isn’t altruism at all.

But there’s also another, rather counterintuitive, way in which we stand to gain from benevolence. Here’s how it works:

Premiss 1: Being benevolent is part of living an enjoyable Good Life.

Premiss 2: If we are truly benevolent, we will also want others to enjoy living a Good Life.

Conclusion: To help others to live a Good Life, we should encourage their benevolent acts towards us.

How’s that for a conclusion? To be truly benevolent, we should solicit others’ benevolent acts, because that will enhance their wellbeing (and happily, our wellbeing too).

Does it work for you? I’m not suggesting that we should humiliate ourselves by depending abjectly on the kindness of random strangers. I have in mind those fellow citizens who don’t encounter many chances to show their benevolent side. This lack of openings imposes barriers between them and the Good Life. So when out and about, we might seek casual opportunities for selected others to display benevolence towards us. We could, for example, invite a villainous-looking coffee-shop customer to watch over our laptop while we buy another cappuccino. Or leave behind our Google Maps, GPS, and guidebooks when visiting a strange city, and instead approach a local person on the street for advice. They can then exercise benevolence, and hence participate better in the Good Life. Yes, there are hazards, and we should be circumspect. But although it may increase risk to be interdependent rather than embracing a proud, technology-enhanced self-sufficiency, more people will thereby have the chance to be animated by their other-regarding virtue.

Judging Goodness

It’s easy enough to show benevolence towards those we judge – rightly or wrongly – to be deserving of it (I personally draw the line at aggression). But Hume issues a caveat: “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.” Similar feelings provoke some city councils to erect posters discouraging benevolence on the street. Slogans such as ‘Begging: Watch your money get wasted’ warn us where our handout might go. And just in case we don’t catch the pun, they include pictures of syringes. Another says, ‘Your kindness could kill’. Not really fridge magnet material.

These campaigns may or may not be misguided – the multiple structural inequities involved are complex – but they can put us off demonstrating humane solidarity with society’s outcasts; people separated from the mainstream by some highly contingent events. Perhaps we should instead follow the principle, ‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.’ (Although another Scottish philosopher, Billy Connolly, adds: “After that who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes.”) If we probably shouldn’t donate money to them, the homeless addicts we encounter might still appreciate a chat, some food, a coffee (possibly requesting extra milk and twelve sugars. Yes, I know – type 2 diabetes – but sugar could well be the lesser of two evils here). Or maybe they just need to experience a little respect and recognition.

I write these words on a laptop that has been guarded by some of the scariest-looking people in town. And I’m wearing new navy-blue socks that a homeless heroin addict gave me (though I didn’t walk a mile in his shoes; that’s where he hides his money for wasting). It would have been patronising, insulting even, to refuse his well-meant ‘thank-you’ for the sugary lattes, the chats, and the minor assistance. That would have thwarted his enjoyment of the warm glow caused by his virtuous giving rather than narcotics. The homeless man acted in a spirit of bilateral benevolence, and I was grateful for his kindness. Would that go on a fridge magnet?

© Dr Seán Moran 2016

Seán Moran is a philosopher in Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland, and a director of Inter-Disciplinary.Net, a global network of people, projects, and events.

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