"The epithets sociable, good-natured, humane, merciful, grateful, friendly, generous, beneficent, or their equivalents are known in all languages and universally express the highest merit which human nature is capable of attaining." The chief reason for this high esteem in which the virtue of benevolence is held is the fact that actions which are designated by these terms are so highly useful in promoting the welfare of the members of society. When the dying Pericles made his reply to those admirers who had been so lavish in their praises of him, he is reported to have said, "You have not observed that no citizen has ever yet worn mourning on my account." The great Athenian understood that people in public office win the respect and esteem of their fellow citizens not because of any noble traits of character which they have exhibited but rather because of the benefits which they have bestowed on the ones over whom they have ruled. It is these benefits that are responsible for the praises that are spoken at a later time.
In displaying the praises of any humane action, there is one circumstance which is always present, and this is the bringing of happiness and satisfaction to the members of society. From this fact it may be concluded that "the utility resulting from the social virtues forms at least a part of their merit and is one source of that approbation and regard so universally paid to them."
Plants and animals are valued because of their usefulness to human beings, and the same can be said of machines, as well as of various types of social organization. Even the occupations and professions which people follow are always evaluated according to their usefulness in promoting human welfare. When Cicero, the Roman statesman, was replying to the views expressed by the Epicureans, he said "Your gods cannot justly claim any worship or adoration with whatever imaginary perfections you may suppose them to be endowed. They are totally useless and inactive." The gods of religion are worthy of praise and devotion only insofar as they can do something that will be of benefit to human beings. When Zoroaster was asked what men should do in order to express their reverence for the deity, he replied that they should plant trees, cultivate their fields, take care of the animals, and perform other meritorious deeds.
Actions are regarded as moral when they contribute toward the true interests of humanity; they are immoral insofar as they are contrary to these same interests. Liberality in giving is praiseworthy when it relieves distress and suffering, but it is no longer a virtue when it encourages laziness and lack of initiative on the part of those who receive it. "The social virtues are never regarded without their beneficial tendencies, nor viewed as barren and unfruitful."
Of all the traits of character which find expression in the life of a human being, there is no one of them which is praised more highly or held in greater esteem by people in general than that of a benevolent attitude toward one's fellow humans. To say of any individual that he has so lived that the happiness of others has been increased and their opportunities for success made more available because of what he has done is to bestow upon that person the highest praise that can be imagined. A life of this kind is generally regarded as deserving of greater merit than can be gained by the accumulation of wealth or the holding of positions of responsibility and power.
In contrast to this evaluation, it can be said that there is no trait of character which is so universally despised as that which is exemplified by the person who lives only for himself and without any regard or concern for the welfare of others. In view of this situation, it is appropriate to ask just what it is about the nature of benevolence that wins such wholehearted approval, and why is it that the lack of this trait is treated with scorn and contempt? Finding an answer to these questions should throw some light on the nature of moral principles in general.
If benevolence is to be regarded as a virtue because it is the command of a supreme being or because it can be shown to be in harmony with the nature of the universe as a whole, then it would follow that its requirements should remain constant and not in any way dependent on the changing conditions and circumstances which arise from time to time. In this case, it would resemble what Immanuel Kant called the categorical imperative, or that which is always the right thing to do no matter what the circumstances may be.
On the other hand, if an examination of instances in which benevolence has been involved should reveal that its approval has always been conditioned by circumstances relative to the welfare of human beings, this would indicate that the cause of its being regarded with approval is to be found not in some metaphysical or theological source but in the actual experiences of persons. One of the main criteria for determining the cause of a given phenomenon consists in finding a common factor which is always present whenever the phenomenon occurs. If it can be shown that whenever this common factor is not present the phenomenon does not occur, this will furnish additional evidence that the true cause has been located. It was by following these methods of procedure that Hume examined the nature of benevolence.
It was pointed out that plants, animals, machinery, and even the occupations and professions which people follow are always valued in proportion to their usefulness in the promotion of human welfare. The same can be said with reference to the rulers who direct the affairs of government. People praise their rulers not because of any great achievement which they may have accomplished on their own behalf but solely because of the benefits which their subjects have received on account of the policies which have been followed. Liberality on the part of individuals and their devotion to the welfare of society are held in high esteem but only insofar as they are advantageous to the public interest. As soon as they go beyond that point and tend to lessen one's efforts to help himself, they are no longer regarded as virtuous acts.
From findings of this sort, the conclusion is drawn that what makes benevolence a virtue is derived not from the motive of duty as some moralists have claimed but rather from the utility of the actions performed in the promotion of human welfare.