The Problem With Unlimited Kindness

by The Editor

The Problem With Unlimited Kindness
PATRICK KEENEY enjoys a witty tossing and goring of a contemporary sacred cow. 'For the past 150 years or so there has been in the West a steady-state sort of political and intellectual conformism which coalesces around these twin ideas of a universal benevolence and universal equality. Enlightened benevolence has triumphed.'

“For ye have the poor always with you. – Matthew 26:11”

In this posthumously published essay, the late Australian philosopher David Charles Stove (1927 – 1994) provides a brilliant if disquieting analysis of benevolence as both a seductive and destructive force in the modern world. 

Stove was an academic philosopher who wrote for both the popular press and the learned journals. He was a brutally honest writer, dismissive of the intellectual fashions of the day. He had no time for political correctness, and could be withering in his assessment of certain voguish trends in the academy. He was also fearless. Here, for example, are his thoughts about the university that employed him:

“The Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle. …. The sum of Marxism, semiotics and feminism is 0 + 0 + 0 = 0” (page x).

Stove’s expertise was the philosophy of science, and his technical work centered on the problem of induction. David Hume was his hero, and Stove’s scholarly writing follows in the robust tradition of British empiricism. He was contemptuous of relativism, post- modernism and indeed any approach to science which sought to refute the realist notions that there is a knowable universe about which we can make true statements. For Stove, it is a plain and irrefutable fact that science has discovered a great deal about our world, and that we know more about our world now than we did 100 years ago, let alone 500 years ago. In Stove’s estimation, anyone who would dispute such claims is either intellectually impaired, dishonest, or engaged in one or another form of irrationalism.

In his 1982 book, Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, Stove sets out to refute the thought of four writers whose views incline them to deny that there is such a thing as scientific progress. As he writes in the preface:

“This book is about a recent tendency in the philosophy of science: that tendency of which the leading representatives are Professor Sir Karl Popper, the late Professor Imre Lakatos, and Professors T.S. Kuhn, and P.K. Feyerabend…These authors’ philosophy of science is in substance irrationalist. They doubt, or deny outright, that there can be any reason to believe any scientific theory; and a fortiori, they doubt or deny, for example, that there has been any accumulation of knowledge in recent centuries. Yet ... these writers are not at all widely recognized by their readers as being irrationalists.”

It is fair to say that Stove demolishes his opponents. Popper and After is an intellectual tour-de-force.

The above passage provides a good example of Stove’s clear, direct and simple style. Stove is a brilliant stylist, and among the easiest of serious writers to read; he made a virtue of clarity and simplicity. And he is certainly amongst the funniest of philosophers (admittedly a rather limited field). He is the only philosopher I can recall reading where I actually had to put the book down to enjoy a good belly-laugh. (For anyone who has attempted to plough through some of the turgid and leaden prose that seems to constantly plague philosophy, this is no small compliment.) Here, for example, is Stove on the ideas of the fatuous William Godwin, whom he calls the “apotheosis of the benevolent man”:

“[Godwin was]…a notorious parasite who exhausted, as far as he could, the benevolence, or at any rate the purse, of everyone he came into contact with…was a more superficial optimism ever conceived?…It is painful to compare such brainless stuff with the sobriety of ethical thought in antiquity…If Godwin could have spent a week sharing the responsibilities of Marcus Aurelius or even of Seneca, it might have imparted an improving touch of reality on his speculations. But of course, this benevolence craze did not start or end with Godwin” (p34)

In What’s Wrong with Benevolence, Stove’s arguments are put to the reader in language which is never anything less than forthright and crystal clear. One might disagree or quibble with what Stove writes, but one is never confused about what he is saying. 

The central argument of the book can be quickly summarized. For Stove, attempts to ameliorate poverty all arise from the same motive, namely, a misplaced sense of benevolence. While Stove is quick to point out there is nothing wrong with benevolence per se, it is a virtue which is best exercised on a personal and local level. Like charity, it is best practised nearer to home.

Regrettably, however, Western nations have taken on what Stove refers to as that “enlarged benevolence” which is a product of the Enlightenment, and which is very like that “telescopic philanthropy” that Dickens ascribes to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby is a woman who is busy doing charitable deeds -- provided that such work benefits those who are rather abstract and distant entities; she is so engaged in setting up settlements in Africa, that she utterly neglects her own husband and children.
Mrs. Jellyby’s ardour for charitable work in Africa while neglecting her own back yard is echoed in G. K. Chesterton’s famous quatrain:

“The villas and the chapels where,
I learned with little labour,
The way to love my fellow man,
But hate my next-door neighbour.”

And Jean-Jacques Rousseau issues a similar kind of warning:

“Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them. A philosopher loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his neighbours.”

Stove’s book is an extended analysis of how such universal benevolence, despite the very best of intentions, inevitably leads to lowered productivity, decreased economic imperatives and, ultimately, increased poverty. What’s wrong with benevolence, then, is that this “enlarged” sense of benevolence is, paradoxically, the cause of much human misery: 

“[Benevolence]…when directed to relieve poverty and equalizing wealth…is productive of misery rather than happiness” (p61). 

How, exactly, does he arrive at such a dire conclusion? The answer lies in the subtitle of the book – the limits of Enlightenment thought” It is in that tangle of ideas, theories and moral aspirations known as the Enlightenment that Stove traces the origins of modern ideas of benevolence, and its inevitably disastrous consequences.

The Enlightenment is the crucible from which modern Western societies have emerged, and we have inherited from it certain deep-seated moral notions and ideals. It is here that we meet for the first time – say, in the writings of Rousseau, Hume, Paine, or Kant – ideas, sensibilities, attitudes and aspirations which we in the West continue to recognize as our own. So while it might take some effort to imaginatively enter, say, the world of Socrates, or to appreciate the values of a medieval samurai, it takes little effort for us to think ourselves into an eighteenth century mindset. And this is for the straightforward reason that the ideas that so exercised the philosophes of Paris, the learned societies of Edinburgh, or the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, are, to a very large degree, the same ideas that continue to animate and inform our own world. 

Western societies are the progeny of the Enlightenment, and our mental architecture continues to employ the categories, language and concepts of its thought. Foremost among these ideas is a morality of rights and duties which, as Kant argued, are universally binding on all peoples everywhere. The morality of universal rights – as opposed to the idea that ethical obligations accrue by virtue of allegiance to a smaller constituency such as family or country – is the ne plus ultra of contemporary political philosophy.
Hence one of the major strands of Enlightenment thought is a robust universalism which avers that moral injunctions must hold for all peoples and all times. That is, the moral constituency is always, de facto, the universal constituency. So benevolence, if it is to truly be a moral virtue, must therefore be universalized. We begin to see the origins of Mrs. Jellyby.

Further, underlying every political philosophy is a theory of human nature. Another legacy of the Enlightenment has been an enduring view that humans are naturally good. Against the Christian view of man as a fallen creature born in sin, or the Lockean notion of a tabula rasa, there arose an understanding of human nature as intrinsically good. As Rousseau -- whom Kant pronounced the “Newton of the moral world” -- famously proclaimed, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” In Rousseau’s diagnosis, these chains were a result of the depredations which accrue to an individual as the result of his immersion in a vicious, artificial and insincere society. If we are to “cure” the individual, the one thing most needful was to somehow return the human condition to a state of nature. In such a state, man would once again become reconciled to his true, benevolent and moral self. As Rousseau strove to demonstrate in Emile, man’s natural beneficence could emerge only through radical educational reform. If Emile (as the representative man) were educated according to nature, then it would surely follow that human misery, vice and corruption would fall away, and the human race would be delivered to the New Jerusalem.

What Rousseau’s attempts at educational reform shared in common with all other Enlightenment thinkers was a hearty belief in what Stove refers to as “externalism” – namely, the conviction that “human beings are made what they are by external influences such as education, or the form of government, or the distribution of wealth prevailing around them” (p22). When stated so blandly, this central Enlightenment notion seems unremarkable. But if we think more carefully about what externalism entails, we arrive at the extraordinary idea that unhappiness and misery are never the fault of the individual, but exclusively the result of circumstances. Yet the sources of human unhappiness are infinitely variable: 

“The causes of our misery are inexhaustibly various, and so numerous as to include almost everything. This woman’s life is embittered by childlessness; that woman’s life is embittered by her children…Poverty is indeed a common cause of unhappiness; but there is also profound truth in the old story of King Midas” (p22)

Despite the obvious truth of such observations, the belief in externalism prevails. To bring about Utopia (or perhaps more modestly, to maximize the general happiness) is really just a matter of cleverly engineering the right kind of education or politics or wealth distribution. If only we are smart enough to arrange the external circumstances of  life in an optimum way, human happiness is sure to follow. Conversely, when we encounter human misery or unhappiness, it is not because of a failure of character, or individual shortcomings, or because of the vagaries of fortune or luck; it is because we have failed to successfully arrange the external circumstances of life. For Stove, it is this notion of externalism when combined with universalism and disinterestedness, which renders contemporary notions of benevolence dangerous. And what, precisely, is this danger?

According to Stove, the danger that lurks within the benevolent impulse was first noted by Thomas Malthus. Malthus was puzzled by the fact that the Poor Laws, which were intended to relieve the poverty within English parishes, had, in fact, the opposite effect of increasing the overall poverty within the parish. Malthus came to the conclusion that
“…widespread poverty cannot be relieved from the outside and, therefore, can be relieved (if at all), only by the industry, self-reliance and prudence of the poor themselves” (p101)
Hence attempts to equalize wealth would replace the comparative poverty of the few with the absolute poverty of all. Contrary to the prevailing spirit, Malthus concluded that a poor man’s only chance of improving his condition lies, not in any external circumstances, but in his own industry, sobriety and economy. The trouble with benevolence, then, is that it has triumphed at the expense of precisely those virtues and character traits – industry, thrift, self-reliance – most needed to lift the poor out of their impoverished state. Moreover, what is worse is that over time, as the populace becomes more reliant on the benevolence of the state, there is a “wholesale extinction of those elements in human psychology that can create wealth” (p100).

Stove suggests that Western nations have grown so accustomed to providing citizens with free healthcare, education, old-age pensions, workman’s compensation, and all the other benefits of the modern welfare state, that they run the danger of extinguishing those dispositions and traits of character necessary for the creation of wealth. The advanced democracies differ from the Communist societies of the twentieth century only in that they “…want the benefits of Enlightened benevolence without its costs: the welfare state maximized, without poverty and terror. But this is wanting to have a certain cause while being free from its effects” (p101)

The enshrinement of the notion of enlarged benevolence – the disposition to act so as to maximize the happiness of humans – as the supreme virtue is an idea of very recent vintage; it is a“…belief the novelty of which it is scarcely possible to exaggerate. It may sound as a truism now…[but] it was utterly foreign, and equally foreign to Homer and Shakespeare, to Plato and Aquinas, to Pericles, Calvin and Charles V” (p30) He adds, “Every earlier human landmark of moral authority, whether dating from antiquity or the Christian centuries, was buried under a tidal wave of benevolence” (p33)Having eliminated rival candidates for virtue, the Enlightenment, “…measured the morality of actions and persons by their tendency to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people. Its elevation of benevolence into the highest virtue was, therefore, an inevitable theorem” (p34)

If the moral values of the Enlightenment made benevolence the highest virtue, then the enshrinement of equality as a non-negotiable moral demand was a close second. By equality, Stove means “the conviction that every privilege, advantage, or superiority of one human being over another is morally wrong” (35). From this axiom flows a general Enlightenment antipathy to inequalities of wealth and property. Contrary to the view that the Enlightenment was “simply an expression of ideological bourgeois economic interests,” Stove argues that, “The institution of private property never had, among the Enlightened, a single unqualified friend; only enemies of different degrees of intransigence and consistency” (p36)

It is easy to forget that the basic premise of communism – namely, hostility to private property, aligned with the notion that community of property is a cure for poverty and inequality – can be traced directly to the eighteenth century. The emotional fuel which made communism so attractive to so many people over so many years was precisely that Enlightenment instinct which set out to abolish human misery and suffering. Stove quotes Maxim Gorky, writing about Lenin:
“He was particularly great, in my opinion, precisely because…of his burning faith that suffering was not an essential and unavoidable part of life, but an abomination that people ought to and could sweep away” (p19)

For Stove, the enshrinement of benevolence as the highest virtue, conjoined with a commitment to equality, has been the leitmotif of the modern world since around the middle part of the nineteenth century. Stove suggests that after 1860, “the triumph of benevolence and equality was never in doubt” and every political party in Great Britain (and arguably the rest of the progressive, industrialized world) “had to become simply one of the contenders in the benevolence competition” (p64).

In other words, for the past 150 years or so (with the notable twentieth century disruptions of fascism and Nazism) there has been in the West a steady-state sort of political and intellectual conformism which coalesces around these twin ideas of a universal benevolence and universal equality. Enlightened benevolence has triumphed. Benevolence, in one of the author’s more memorable mots, “is the heroin of the Enlightened” (p117). The conventional pieties of every political party – whether Left or Right -- as well as the mainstream media, all serve to reinforce the basic ideological contours of an eighteenth century mindset, one which believes it can simultaneously abolish poverty and overcome inequality. Towards the end of the book, the author writes:

“The difference to the world which Enlightenment benevolence has made is a huge and undeniable fact. Yet it is also a puzzling one. If the Enlightenment’s ideal of the benevolent man is so remote from reality and so unattractive, how can it have transformed the world?” (p103)

It is a very good question. And for those who would pursue it in a way which challenges the sort of lazy thinking, group think, and dogmatism which plagues so much of our current public discourse, David Stove has provided a superb place to start.


Replicated, with permission, from the Winter 2011 Issue of The Quarterly Review. To find out more about this conservative intellectual journal head to the website at

PATRICK KEENEY is the editor of the philosophical journal Prospero and an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University in Canada. This article first appeared in the Dorchester Review.

What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment. David Stove, edited by Andrew Irvine with a foreword by Roger Kimball, Encounter Books, 2011, hb, 240pp, $23.95


Content on the Traditional Britain Blog and Journal does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Traditional Britain Group