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93 HUME ON THE "DUTY" OF BENEVOLENCE How extensive is the scope of the disposition for benevolent acts? This is a question of obvious ethical significance. David Hume advocates a theory of benevolence which, admittedly resting on empiricist presuppositions, places a certain limitation on the extent to which it would be proper to speak of a 'duty' of beneficence. Hume's doctrine allows that one may not in fact have a prima facie moral obligation to aid just anyone in need. Benevolence for Hume, broadly speaking, consists of affirmative undertakings in response to human needs of wellbeing . In what follows, I shall examine Hume's empiricist justification of a limited duty of benevolence and show in what respect such a debatable position need not reduce to callous indifferentism. I begin by showing Hume's way of arriving at the view that ordinarily benefactors tend to practice generosity on a limited rather than on an extensive scale. To establish this claim, Hume points to an affinity between feelings of sympathy and acts of benevolence. Next, I explore the sense in which Hume believes it is fitting to base certain generally recognized limited duties upon special relationship only. This proviso allows us to deem some acts as merely supererogatory in nature — that is, acts beyond the call of duty. * Supererogatory acts are characteristically optional. On the optionality principle, one who even knowingly fails to advance the good of a fellow-human being in need, at least potentially leaves the option open for someone else to be a benefactor. My final task will be to show how Hume may avoid possible negative implications linked with the notion of supererogatory acts. By appealing to what 94 I will call the mutuality of interest principle, Hume suggests a way of promoting acts of altruism in civilized society, so that it becomes collectively profitable to render mutual aid. While it still remains true that a duty for limited benevolence is the general rule, whereas capacity for extensive benevolence is the exception to the rule, Hume's broader views on social justice permit room for significant advancement of reciprocal acts of altruism. It is evident that any conclusions arrived at, especially respecting promotion of social justice, will have direct implications for programs of welfare and theories of economic redistribution. In this section of the paper I map out the conceptual boundaries between sympathy and benevolence so as to uncover what Hume seems to think is a fundamental affinity between these concepts. To use a Wittgensteinian metaphor, sympathy and benevolence share certain family resemblances. The feeling which lies at the root of moral approbation Hume calls sympathy. Sympathy is a fellow-feeling with the happiness as well as with the misery of others; it "is a very powerful principle in human nature" producing our sentiment of morals. This feeling is so much a part of our nature that it furnishes a satisfactory explanation for the approval we commonly give to meritorious personal qualities. However, even though sympathy is an original natural propensity it is also true that it is easier to show limited sympathy — e.g., sympathy towards close relatives and friends — than it is to show extensive sympathy (e.g., fellow-feeling for complete strangers) (T 580-81). Hume's main point, of course, 95 is that sympathy, however vivid, faint, or indifferent its manifestation, is a precondition of morality. Such sympathy, far from being merely reducible to infectious emotional communication (or passive transference of feelings) is, instead, a form of active imaginative projection of oneself into the 2 other person's situation. To be sympathetically inclined, then, for Hume, does not mean to be simply taken over by an unconscious emotional contagion in some magical sense, as it were. Genuine caring sympathetic concern involves an element of reflective fellowfeeling — expressed as thoughtful intersubjective identification — with the needs or special circumstances of others. Benevolence, for Hume, is to be construed as compassion for others in need, often marked by disinterested caring acts of generosity or kindness (T 602-606). Benevolence is parasitic on sympathy in the sense that a motive for rendering assistance to others in distress requires a certain amount of sympathy (T 579). So, to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 93-110
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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