‘We live in an age in which humanity is the fashion.” So Sir John Hawkins (he had the misfortune to write the other biography of Dr. Johnson) lamented in 1787. David Stove, an Australian philosopher whose lucid and original writings have provoked fresh interest since his death in 1994, knew what Sir John meant. In his posthumously published book What’s Wrong with Benevolence, Stove argues that a misplaced faith in the virtues of altruism is the great humbug of our age, one that has conjured a welfare state of such colossally good intentions that, even as it devours the substance of the commonwealth, there is (in Stove’s view) “no social force in sight” capable of stopping it.
It might seem paradoxical that charity, which St. Paul ranks among the virtues, should be at times an evil. But one has only to consider 20th-century Communism, Stove says, to know that it is so. For it “is quite certain,” he writes, “that the psychological root of 20th-century Communism is benevolence.” What Stove wants to know is why some acts of benevolence, if they are not actually good, are far from patently noxious, while other kinds end in cruelty, horror, and the gulag.
Stove believes that bad benevolence is likely to be vast and even universal in scope; it has for the objects of its solicitude not a particular person or a small group of people, but great multitudes of men — often, indeed, all of humanity. Bad benevolence, moreover, is what Stove calls “external” in its operation. The altruist proposes to bring about the happiness of others, not by changing their characters, but by altering their circumstances: He does nothing to buck up the inner man.
Stove argues, finally, that the dispenser of bad benevolence is likely to be disinterested. Marx and Bentham could not know personally all of those whom they intended to help, nor did they expect a material reward for their philanthropic exertions. There was, Stove writes, “‘nothing in it’ (as we say)” for them. I wonder if this is quite right. The dispenser of bad benevolence is less a disinterested figure than an uninterested one. He yearns to save Mankind, and has little sympathy for actual men. His kindness, being a perpetual abstraction, is compatible not only with intensely selfish motives, but also with appalling cruelty. So subtly has self-love been woven into the fabric of our natures that it is in many instances vain to conjecture where kindness ends and selfishness begins. But surely Henry James was on to something when in The Princess Casamassima he showed that the benevolence of the princess herself — a great lady who goes in for slumming and social reform — is prompted by the acutest self-love. The princess wants to feel herself virtuous (for her riches have given her a bad conscience), and she wants to have others in her power (for their own good, of course).
Can there be any doubt that the philanthropic insanity of, say, Bentham was the fruit of morbid self-regard and passionate will? “But for George the Third,” Bentham said, “all the paupers in the country would, long ago, have been under my management.” Stove is closer to the truth when he says that benevolence is moral heroin. It intoxicates the conscience, and dulls the pain that even a morally obtuse person may feel when he plays the tyrant. Thus the slaveholder, affecting a paternal interest in his chattels, persuades himself that slavery is a benevolent institution; thus Bentham, designing his various geometrical torture chambers, persuades himself that he is saving humanity.