Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Whewell on Benevolence

When William Whewell considers the Idea of Morality, he argues that it must be such as to apply to all human beings precisely as human. As such, it excludes anything that ignores what he calls "sympathy with common humanity" and includes encouragement to such affections as tend to unite people together. This facet of the Idea of Morality he calls 'Benevolence'. It covers the things that bind together human society as a society: love for family, love for community, love for mankind. Like all elements of the Idea of Morality, it may be considered subjectively (as a disposition to an ideal object), in which case we call it Virtue, or objectively (as the ideal to which the disposition tends). (I will continue to capitalize 'Virtue' when using the noun because I think Whewell's sense is slightly different from what is often meant by the word, being an ideal to which one has in some degree approached in a significant way.)

As a Virtue, Benevolence considers all matters involving the affection of love, whether the love be conjugal, parental, filial, fraternal, or the love of friends, of fellow citizens, of the whole human race. "When these natural Affections are directed to their proper objects, and regulated by Reason," Whewell says, "they are virtuous Affections" (EM §238). Because of this, we can divide up the dispositions associated with Benevolence in a lot of ways, but some are particularly common, and form the vocabulary of Benevolence. For instance, the natural running of virtuous affection is called, under various circumstances, Good-will, Good-humour, or Good-nature. Good-humour may be harmed by various irritating factors, and because of this there are virtuous dispositions to uphold Good-humour even in the face of such provocations: Mildness, Meekness, Gentleness. Or we can divide them up in light of the circumstances in which they are relevant: where the affection is concerned with perceived commonality, we have the disposition of Fellow-feeling, where it is concerned with pain, we have Compassion, Pity, Mercy, and Charity as it exhibits different lights in the context. There are in addition supplementary virtues that are dispositions not directly involved with the affection of love, but for one reason or another are closely connected to it: Hopefulness, Cheerfulness, and various dispositions concerned with moral Zeal.

The Virtues give the vocabulary for talking about Duties, which are expressed in specific rules arising from general moral principles. The general principle expressing the character of Benevolence is what Whewell calls the Principle of Humanity: "Man is to be loved as Man" (EM §269). Applying this to our social relations and circumstances, as well as our internal tendencies, gives us Duties, the fulfillment of which, when habitual, becomes a Virtue. Those associated with Benevolence are learned by beginning with those affections that are naturally strongest; the more general affections are expansions outward from an inner circle of more immediate affections: "The Natural Affections are the proper moral School of the Heart" (EM §281). Because of this those things that are closely associated with the maintenance of these natural affections all become Duties; Whewell's list of examples is: Gratitude to Benefactors, Compassion, Reverence for Superiors, Filial Affections, Parental Affection, Conjugal Affection, Fraternal Affection, Love of our Fellow-citizens, Universal Benevolence, Compassion. These must be cultivated as part of the "School of the Heart", and without them there is no possibility of really attaining to the Virtue of Benevolence in is full and proper form, and so the rules appropriate to them must be followed in order to be moral. The rules involved here, however, are rules for affections -- they are about how we must work to set up our inner life -- not rules for specific actions, which Whewell says can only be determined by taking into account all the rules for affections at once.

From the fact that these are all Duties for cultivating affections, it follows that we also have a Duty to cultivate our affections in an appropriate way, by how we direct our thought, by practicing appropriate actions, and by putting ourselves into appropriate situations. This Duty of Cultivation of Affections will generally overlap the Duties concerned with the affections themselves, but will affect how we perform them by requiring us to take into account how the performance shapes our character.

Such is Benevolence in natural morality, but Whewell also considers Benevolence in the light of two special domains of moral life: Christian morality and the morality governing states and polities. Christian morality, as Whewell conceives it, is not a distinct kind of morality, but is a way of taking natural morality and investing it with religious significance and sanction. They thus take the same Duties and both raise the standards and intensify the motivations for them.

States also have Duties of Benevolence, however. It is because of Benevolence, for instance, that states are to recognize all human beings as having natural rights. Whewell takes the Duties of the state in this regard to include guaranteeing freedom (it is thus inconsistent with Benevolence for a state to allow slavery), giving temporary and limited relief to the destitute (Whewell argues that if it is not temporary and limited that this is not in fact Benevolent, because it does not involve supporting people in living their own lives), and forbidding cruelty to animals. These are certainly not exhaustive -- it's pretty clear that the reason these in particular come up is that slavery, poor law, and animal cruelty were all hot-button political issues in Whewell's day.

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