Benevolence, Mother of Destitution: A Review of David Stove’s What’s Wrong with Benevolence

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (July 2011)

What's Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment
by David Stove, edited by Andrew Irvine
Encounter Books, 240 pp.


Among the unjustly small portion of the public who know and admire the work of David Stove, the late Australian philosopher, two features of the man’s writings likely stand out as the basis for that admiration: a fierce iconoclasm, which trampled over nearly every fashionable academic piety of the late twentieth century, and a mordant, hilarious wit, which made the task of reading his books more pleasurable than is the case with almost any other prominent philosopher of our times. His Darwinian Fairytales remains the single most devastating critique of modern Darwinism, and its unmistakable fraudulence. Who could possibly take the movement seriously after chuckling at passages such as this: “Dr. Dawkins, likewise, cannot understand why mothers do not welcome baby snatchers, and says that the question ‘deserves thorough research’ (This phrase is, of course, academese-English for ‘I have got all these unemployed graduate students…’)?” Wielding this same acerbic, yet relentlessly sensible, prose, Stove similarly skewered, in his other works, such unfortunately prominent intellectual trends as nineteenth century idealism, the “subjective” school in the philosophy of science represented by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, and the chic radicalism of feminist and multicultural “scholarship.” His work remains one of the most effective tonics against the ubiquitous claptrap of late liberal thought. This is why the publication of his last posthumous work, What’s Wrong with Benevolence, provides such a disappointment, because those two distinctive characteristics of his work are in very little evidence; the sharp, amusing passages are few and far between, and the argument almost entirely lacks originality, consisting as it does, in very large part, of a synopsis and commentary on an essay by Thomas Malthus. Moreover, that argument is beset by several important conceptual confusions - of the sort which Stove is usually so effective at exposing in the thought of others - and works towards a conclusion far too glib to be satisfactory to any intelligent reader.

Stove begins his book (it is really a long essay, of about a hundred pages) by reminding us of the intractability of human unhappiness: “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.  Some men are unhappy because they have never shed their own or an enemy’s blood in war; many more are unhappy because they have.” Someone who understands this central fact about human nature will regard as hopelessly fantastic any scheme that purports to deliver general happiness to a people through governmental policy. Yet since the Enlightenment, it has been the customary practice of Western intellectuals to propose one such scheme after another, typically aiming at the relief of poverty, as the source of the greatest unhappiness in the world. This is the “benevolence” which is the target of Stove’s argument, and it is his target because the historical record makes perfectly clear that it has been an unending cause of misery: “(benevolence) has been as great a source of unhappiness as war or poverty, at least in recent centuries. In the twentieth century in particular, it has even been the cause of most of our wars and famines.” 

One can begin to gather some sense of the weakness in Stove’s argument in the way he accepts here the typical liberal framing of the issue, by identifying happiness with material comfort. The construction of the Parthenon or the medieval cathedrals were undoubtedly acts of benevolence on the part of the rulers in those communities – acts undertaken to increase the happiness of their peoples – which did not cause the ugly consequences that modern attempts to eliminate poverty have caused. So it is an open question whether the disposition to increase the happiness of others (which is how Stove defines benevolence) inherently tends towards ruinous outcomes, or only when it is coupled with an inadequate conception of happiness, or an immoderation which is blind to the limits of how far it lies within our power to increase the happiness of our fellow men. 

Nonetheless, Stove is certainly correct that in the modern world, benevolence has manifested itself in policy most consistently by an effort to eliminate poverty and create an equality, or near-equality, of material goods.  He offers a brief history of the Poor Laws, the prototype of welfare-state legislation, which were first implemented during the reign of Elizabeth I. The salient feature of that history is that “it was found that the proportion of the population receiving money under the laws…always increased.” That is to say, the policy of benevolence, enacted to increase human happiness (ie, material comfort), actually wound up doing the opposite – increasing human unhappiness (ie, poverty). Little was learned, however, from this history by “enlightened” persons, for by the end of the nineteenth century, the full apparatus of the welfare state was erected, dwarfing the scale of benevolence behind the Poor Laws, and including “unemployment ‘relief,’ old-age pensions for all; state-subsidized education, medicine, and housing; state-prescribed minimum wages; state-prescribed hours and conditions of work; workers’ compensation;; pensions for unmarried mothers, etc., etc.”  And as we all know now (or ought to know), the history of this project has mirrored the history of the Poor Laws flawlessly – material dependence and destitution have continued and expanded in exactly the same communities where these benevolent policies have been most rigorously implemented. 

According to Stove, it was Thomas Malthus who definitively explained why this pattern was inevitable. In his Essay on Population of 1798, Malthus claimed that “there are only two possible forms which human society can take: one in which most people are comparatively poor, and one in which everyone is absolutely poor. This is the thesis that equality of property…must be equality of poverty.” Benevolent efforts to equalize property are necessarily bound to spread general poverty. Malthus offers two primary arguments to prove that benevolent welfare polices actually increase the number of poor people in a community. First, since these policies “lighten any anxiety which (their) recipients may feel about how their children are to be supported,” they tend “to increase the number of poor people without increasing the means by which they can subsist.” Second, since the welfare recipients need to be supported by taxation, and since some portion of that tax burden must fall on the “independent poor,” (ie, the poor who do not yet receive welfare benefits), then some of these independent poor are going to be driven to welfare by the weight of the additional tax burden. Thus, by an ineluctable social mechanism, benevolence always begets its supposed rival, destitution.

Stove makes clear that the history of modern social policy has been a history of indifference to Malthus’ arguments, encompassing ever more ambitious projects for the equalization of material comfort. Yet when these efforts reached their logical terminus with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Malthus’ arguments achieved a perverse vindication, since all the catastrophic effects which he predicted would follow from such a project did in fact follow. Stove spends a number of pages reminding his readers of just how catastrophic those effects were since, as he wrote in 1989, communism was still a living threat in the political arena, and even more so in the academic arena. But we, who live after the alleged defeat of communism, should not regard ourselves as too secure from such catastrophe, since Stove rightly emphasizes that the same impulse of benevolence which ushered communism into the world still gives life to the vast welfare bureaucracies which rule over the entirety of the Western world to this day. Moreover, these regimes of benevolence have grown so expansive, that any hope of dismantling them must be regarded as naïve:

These governments are elected by universal adult franchise, but an electorally decisive proportion of the voters – in some countries, approaching a quarter – either is employed by government or is dependent to a significant extent on some welfare program. In these circumstances it is merely childish to expect the welfare state to be reduced, at least while there is universal suffrage. A government that did away with free education, for example, or socialized medicine simply could not be reelected. Indeed, it would be lucky to see out its term of office.

And even without these effects of electoral politics, the moral corrosion of the populace caused by the welfare regimes is sufficient to perpetuate their dominance:

How would we taxpayers respond to an offer by government to halve our present taxes in return for the abolition of free education and socialized medicine? In other words, which would we citizens of the welfare state rather do: continue paying our present level of taxation, or bear all the cost of, and responsibility for, our own and our children’s health and education? To anyone who knows us, the answer to this question cannot possibly be in doubt…This brings us to the root of the evil, and to the root cause which will prevent the welfare state from being dismantled: us. The kind of character, in other words, which has been formed by centuries of Enlightened benevolence, and especially by the last hundred years of the welfare state.

No one who has paid attention to recent debates over entitlement reform, and witnessed the horrifyingly inadequate response of our political establishment to the nation’s stupendous debt-load, can doubt the accuracy of Stove’s analysis here. Every news update, from the riots in Greece to the prospective down-grading of our national credit, confirms the ruinous tendency of benevolent policy. So merely as a prophecy of the likely effects of such benevolence, Stove’s argument is largely incontestable, and I ruefully suspect that the fate of most Western nations in the near-future will only serve to verify that argument many times over.

Still, Stove’s moral diagnosis of this impending disaster leaves much to be desired. There is an underlying ambiguity in his argument as to whether the benevolence behind the most deleterious welfare policies is sincere or feigned. In other words, is it true that benevolence has been the cause of so much unhappiness, or has it been the pretense of benevolence that has really been the culpable psychological state? For instance, Stove insists in several places that Lenin and Stalin were genuinely benevolent men: “Lenin, Stalin, and the rest would not have done what they did, but for the fact that they were determined to bring about the future happiness of the human race.” Yet writing elsewhere of the communist dictators, he says: “As though Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot cared any more for laws than they did for religion or bourgeois morality,” implying that a ruthless cynicism was the motivation behind the directives of their regimes. But why should that cynicism not have extended towards benevolence and its imperatives? Why should we assume that they were more sincere in carrying out the law of benevolence than any other law? Towards the conclusion of his essay, Stove claims that “there never really was anyone whose benevolence was completely universal, disinterested, and external, as Enlightened benevolence is required to be,” and that therefore, “Enlightened benevolence is unreal.” But then it seems to follow that what Stove is attacking is not any sincere desire to bring happiness to others, but the false shows of such a desire. The proper object of his censure is not benevolence, but hypocrisy, and this makes his argument far less paradoxical, and far less novel, than he wants it to appear.

Consider the matter only in light of our own political reality. Is it true that the politicians who always have the most benevolent words in their mouths, the Nancy Pelosis and Barney Franks of the world, are really the ones possessed of the most authentic and tender concern for their fellow citizens? Is it true that their errors are only the errors of excessive charity? Or is it not perfectly obvious that these kind of people are smarmy, hypocritical charlatans, whose benevolence never passed beyond their lips, and whose concern for the happiness of others stands in direct proportion to the extent that that happiness is consistent with their own aggrandizement? What about the health-care bill of President Obama, which was passed on a veritable tide of benevolent rhetoric? When that passage was followed weeks later by the granting of hundreds of waivers to politically-connected parties, releasing them from the onerous demands of the bill, it could not possibly be believed by any observant person that this legislation resulted from sincere benevolence, that it was anything other than a massive (and apparently successful) bid for future electoral domination. 

In truth, conservatives err greatly when they characterize liberalism as an excess of benevolence, or any other apparent virtue, for besides the fact that such a characterization is blatantly false, it has the inevitable tendency of equating conservatism with a brand of cynicism or hard-heartedness. Edmund Burke, who first and still most successfully wrestled with the leviathan of liberal doctrine, never made this mistake. He was ever at pains to emphasize the insincerity of mind behind liberal sentimentality: “They seemed tame, and even caressing. They had nothing but douce humanite in their mouth. They could not bear the punishment of the mildest laws on the greatest criminals. The slightest severity of justice made their flesh creep…Hardly would they hear of self-defense, which they reduced within such bounds, as to leave it no defense at all. All this while they meditated the confiscations and massacres we have seen.” Due to this clarity about the motives of the Revolutionists, Burke never once, in all of his polemical contests with their ideas, forfeited the magnanimous moral principles to which he claimed allegiance.

The same cannot be said of Stove. Apparently convinced of the untoward effects of true benevolence – of a sincere desire to bring others happiness – Stove inevitably slips into an advocacy of the adversarial, and purportedly corrective, trait: selfishness, or the desire to bring only oneself happiness. A number of passages in his essay suggest that he believes we would all be happier if we were all more exclusively concerned with our own welfare, such as when he approvingly quotes the following from Malthus: “to the laws of property and marriage, and to the apparently narrow principle of self-interest which prompts each individual to exert himself in bettering his condition, we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, for everything that distinguishes the civilized from the savage state.” Was anything falser ever written? Socrates’ lectures in the agora, the monastic preservation of learning amidst the Dark Ages, the establishment of the Royal Society, were all among the “noblest exertions of human genius,” which cannot possibly, by any stretch of the language, be attributed to the “narrow principle of self-interest.” Hundreds of other examples could easily be adduced. Theories of “selfish” morality, in fact, deserve little attention, and even less effort at refutation; anyone who supposes that the misery of humankind could be alleviated if only we were all more self-centered has fallen under the spell of a delusion which is likely incurable. And Stove knows this, for in Darwinian Fairy-Tales, one of his primary objections to sociobiological ethics is that it rests on a “selfish theory of human nature,” a theory which, as he says, “has a long history, but not, on the whole, an impressive or even a respectable one,” and further, that “the selfish theory requires, in those who believe it, an appetite for insolence and absurdity far stronger than most people possess or even approach.” It is hard to avoid the impression that Stove’s apparent condoning of that theory in What’s Wrong with Benevolence is an example of a philosopher betraying his better judgment, for the sake of argumentative neatness.

What lies behind this confusion is Stove’s irresolution of the question whether benevolence qualifies as a real virtue or not. Though the precise definition of one’s key terms always properly belongs at the beginning of a disquisition, it is not until his essay’s concluding pages that Stove takes up this conceptual point, and even here, his treatment of the issue is hardly satisfactory:

Is benevolence a virtue at all? I do not say that it is not, but anyone who thinks it self-evident that it is a virtue needs to be reminded of certain facts: facts both of logic and of history. First, the logical facts. Your benevolence, or lack of it, is entirely a matter of your disposition of mind, of what you are, on balance, disposed to do. If you are, on balance, disposed to make X happier than X otherwise would have been, then you are benevolently disposed towards X, and conversely. That is all there is to benevolence towards X.  

But on the classical understanding of a virtue, there is no question that benevolence, as it is defined here, does not rise to the level of a virtue. It is something more like an attitude or a sentiment. For virtues are, as Aristotle makes clear, habits of the soul that we develop in accordance with what reason reveals to us about our true nature. So concerning the virtue of “liberality,” (which encompasses for him a man’s inclination to share his money), Aristotle writes, “the liberal man…will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time,” and what is right in each case must be dictated by practical reasoning, in the form of the intellectual virtue of prudence, or phronesis. So that a man who gives the wrong amounts to the wrong people is, by definition, not acting liberally, and therefore, not acting virtuously. But Stove explicitly states that the rightness or the wrongness of one’s actions do not determine whether those actions are benevolent: “If you have false beliefs on that subject then you are more likely to act in a way which fails to increase X’s happiness, or which actually decreases it; but as long as you remain disposed to increase X’s happiness, it remains true that your disposition towards him is a benevolent one.” In this case, then, benevolence can hardly qualify as a virtue, since a disposition to act, which remains unqualified by true belief, can never be a virtuous disposition. A virtue just is a habit of acting rightly, and so it makes no sense to say that a characteristic of the soul which makes one act alternately rightly and wrongly is a virtue.

These are not arcane, scholastic points; they are of the first importance to the tenor of our politics. For as long as we allow claims to virtue to stand independent of claims to reason, we will be subjected to that vapid attitudinizing which is the quintessence of modern liberalism. And those who combat liberalism will always be lured towards cynical “selfish” theories of morality and realpolitik, for if the alleged “virtues” of liberals are productive of such broad social ruin, it will always seem preferable to some conservatives to be done with virtue altogether. But so long as we remain clear about the fact that persons habitually inclined to act in manifestly irrational ways are not virtuous, no matter how effusive their emotions may be, then we will be able to battle liberalism with all of our proper moral principles intact. We will also have more than adequate grounds upon which to rest our objections to the welfare state, since virtues are the habits of persons, and not bureaucracies.  For this reason, we will no more expect a byzantine entity like the Department of Health and Human Services to demonstrate the virtues of generosity or charity, than we would expect the sport of baseball to demonstrate courage. And we will suspect the rational competence – and therefore, the virtue – of those who do routinely harbor such expectations.

Most importantly, so long as we preserve our moral principles in their proper form, we will always remember that the first of political virtues is justice, and that one of the most common impediments to practice of justice will always be the prevalence of economic injustice. Granting the full validity of Stove’s case against the welfare state and its inevitably disastrous consequences, the prevalence of economic injustice, and its resultant poverty, remains one of the most grotesque features of human social life, and no one who is perfectly comfortable with that fact can be said to understand his political duty. As often as modern liberal governments have enacted policies intended to distribute wealth equally, they have just as often colluded in the fabulously unequal distribution of the wealth accumulated in a capitalist economy; look no further than the recent bank bail-outs, which stuffed millions of tax-payer dollars into the already bulging pockets of the very plutocrats who drove their “too-big-to-fail” enterprises to the brink of collapse. Historically, in fact, ruling powers probably have more often acted to protect gross disparities in material affluence than otherwise, and no amount of righteous antipathy to the welfare state should make us forget that. To conclude, from the failures of “enlightened” policy, that no real problem of economic injustice existed in the first place, is to declare, out of disgust with the itinerant quack, that such things as back-ache and pleurisy have never been seen in the world.

Stove really does seem to believe that there is no true problem of economic injustice in the first place. He even claims, ridiculously, that the “problem” of economic injustice was invented in the Enlightenment, and that before that time no one had ever been much disturbed by gross disparities in material comfort: “the fact that most people were comparatively poor and a few comparatively rich had of course always existed…It had simply never been accounted a problem until Enlightened benevolence came along.” Yet one can find, in the cuneiform tablets recording the reign of the Sumerian king Urukagina, the expressed outrage that “the widow and the orphan were… at the mercy of the powerful,” along with a list of policies enacted by the king to address this unjust state of affairs. That was some four thousand years ago, and a profound distress at the consequences of economic injustice has troubled men’s minds ever since; in brief, it has always been a problem. To be sure, Stove makes one or two acknowledgments of the reality of such injustice, but that reality is never the object of his own indignation, in the way that “enlightened” policy repeatedly is. Overall, it must be said that he appears a little too comfortable with the prevalence of the sort of abject poverty which results from unjust political arrangements. More than one page of his essay conjures images of Ebenezer Scrooge demanding, “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” as he callously goes on his way.

For this reason, What’s Wrong with Benevolence is bound to prove unsatisfactory to most readers. Though accurately exposing the liberal prescription as a fake, Stove has no remedy of his own for the effects of economic injustice, and often seems to doubt the reality of the disease. He has little more to say regarding the poor than that they should pull up their boots, and start showing a little moxy. The unreality of this sort of thing is revealed to us when we consider a place like Latin America, where the poverty afflicting hundreds of millions of people is of the most horrific variety, and has often resulted from the entrenched corruption of those countries’ rulers. One leftist scoundrel after another, from Castro to Chavez, has risen to power on the delusive promise of eliminating that poverty, and one after another they have only increased the misery of their citizens.  But this correspondence of “enlightened” policy to Stove’s predictions in no way renders the suffering of those hundreds of millions any less horrific, nor does it free their rulers from their duty of finding some solution for this palpable evil. The tragedy of the Latin American countries has been that their democratically elected governments have repeatedly proven too corrupt or too indifferent to pursue such solutions, leaving a constant pretext for the murderous socialists among them to wrest power into their own hands.

In fact, the word “tragedy” is really the appropriate descriptive for much of the poverty and economic injustice in the world, for it suggests an evil locked so deeply into the nature of things, that, though we are obliged to struggle against it to the full extent of our powers, we are ultimately powerless to remove it altogether. The limits of our governments to fully rectify unjust poverty are the limits of our tragic condition, the condition lamented by Shelley in The Triumph of Life, when he wrote: “And much I grieved to think how Power and Will / In opposition rule our mortal day, / And why God made irreconcilable / Good and the means of good.” Perhaps the best that we can ask of ourselves when we discuss the issue of poverty is that we always bear in mind the tragic dimensions of the problem we are confronting. The benevolent liberal is blind to those dimensions, confidently calling in government – the “means of good” – at every turn, oblivious as to how far the nature of government may be inimical to the real achievement of the good in this case. But Stove, in his failure to recognize economic injustice as a real offense against the good, evinces a symmetrical blindness to the tragic dimensions of the issue, and this blindness is particularly dismaying in one who was usually so capable of seeing what the rest of us missed. 


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