The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Law of Benevolence: General Obligation, and Division of the Subject

WE have thus far considered merely the law of reciprocity; that is, the law which prevents our interference with those means of happiness which belong to our neighbor, from the fact that they are the gift of God to him. But it is manifest that this is not the only law of our present constitution. Besides being obliged to abstain from doing wrong to our neighbor, we are also obliged to do him good; and a large part of our moral probation actually comes under this law.

The law of benevolence, or the law which places us under obligation to be the instruments of happiness to those who have no claim upon us on the ground of reciprocity, is manifestly indicated by the circumstances of our constitution.

1. We are created under a constitution in which we are of necessity dependent upon the benevolence of others. Thus we are all exposed to sickness, in which case we become perfectly helpless, and when, were it not for the kindness of others, we must perish. We grow old, and by age lose We power of supporting ourselves. Were benevolence to be withdrawn, many of the old would die of want. The various injuries, arising from accident as well as from disease, teach us the same lesson. And, besides, a world in which every individual is subject to death, must abound with widows and orphans, who, deprived by the hand of God of their only means of support, must frequently either look for sustenance and protection to those on whom they have no claim by the law of reciprocity, or they must die. Now, as we live under a constitution in which these things are of daily occurrence, and many of them by necessity belonging to it, and as we are all equally liable to be in need of assistance, it must be the design of our Creator that we should, under such circumstances, help each other.

2. Nor do these remarks apply merely to the necessity of physical support. Much of the happiness of man depends upon intellectual and moral cultivation. But it is generally the fact, that those who are deprived of these means of happiness are ignorant of their value; and would, therefore, remain for ever deprived of them, were they not awakened to a convection of their true interests by those who h ve been more fortunate. Now, as we ourselves owe our intellectual happiness to the benevolence, either near or more remote, of others, it would seem that an obligation was imposed upon us to manifest our gratitude by extending the blessings which we enjoy, to those who are destitute of them. We frequently cannot requite our actual benefactors, but we always may benefit others less happy than ourselves; and thus, in a more valuable manner, promote she welfare of the whole race to which we belong.

3. This being manifestly an obligation imposed upon us by God, it cannot be affected by any of the actions of men; that is, we are bound by the law of benevolence, irrespective of the character of the recipient. It matters not though he be ungrateful, or wicked, or injurious; this does not affect the obligation under which we are placed by God, to treat our neighbor according to the law of benevolence. Hence, min all cases, we are bound to govern ourselves, not by the treatment which we have received at his hands, but according to the law by which God has directed our intercourse with him to be governed.

And yet more. It is evident that many of the virtues most appropriate to human nature, are called into exercise only by the miseries or the vices of others. How could there be sympathy and mercy, were there no suffering? How could there be patience, meekness, and forgiveness, were there no injury? Thus we see, that a constitution which involves, by necessity, suffering, and the obligation to relieve it, is that which alone is adapted to the perfection of our moral character in our present state.

This law of our moral constitution is abundantly set forth in the Holy Scriptures.

It is needless here to speak of the various passages in the Old Testament which enforce the necessity of mercy and charity. A single text from our Savior’s Sermon on the Mount will be sufficient for my purpose. It is found Luke 6:32-36, and Matthew 5:43-48. I quote the passage from Luke:

“If ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to those that do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest, for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye, therefore, merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” In Matthew it is said,” Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of (that is, that ye may imitate,) your Father which is in heaven, for he maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and upon the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and upon the unjust.”

The meaning of this precept is obvious from the context. To be merciful, is to promote the happiness of those who have no claim upon us by the law of reciprocity, and from whom we can hope for nothing by way of remuneration. We are to be merciful, as our Father who is in heaven is merciful.

1. God is the independent source of happiness to every thing that exists. None can possibly repay him, and yet his bounty is unceasing. All his perfections are continually employed in promoting the happiness of his creation. Now, we are commanded to be imitators of him; that is, to employ all our powers, not for our own gratification, but for 369 GENERAL OBLIGATION AND the Happiness of others. We are to consider this not as an onerous duty, but as a privilege; as an opportunity conferred upon us of attaining to some resemblance to the Fountain and Author of all excellence.

2. This precept teaches us that our obligation is not altered by the character of the recipient. God sends rain on the just and on the unjust, and causeth his sun to shine on the evil and on the good. “God commendeth his love to us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In imitation of this example, we are commanded to do good to, and promote the happiness of, the evil and the wicked. We are to comfort them when they are afflicted; to relieve them when they are sick; and specially, by all the means min our power, to strive to reclaim them to virtue. We are not, however, to give a man the means of breaking the laws of God; as to furnish a drunkard with the means of intemperance: this would be to render ourselves partakers of his sin. What is here commanded is merely the relieving his misery as a suffering human creature.

3. Nor is our obligation altered by the relation in which the recipient may stand to us. His being our enemy in no manner releases us from obligation. Every wicked man is the enemy of God; yet God bestows even, upon such, the most abundant favors.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Jesus Christ spent his life in acts of mercy to his bitterest enemies. He died praying for his murderers. So we are commanded to love our enemies, to overcome evil with good, and to follow the example of St. Paul, who declares to the Corinthians, “I desire to spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.”

In a word, God teaches us in the Holy Scriptures, that all our fellow-men are his creatures as well as ourselves; and, hence, that we are not only under obligation, under all circumstances, to act just as he shall command us, but that we are specially under obligation act thus to our fellow-men, who are not only our brethren, but who are also under his special protection. He declares that they are all his children; that, by showing mercy to them, we manifest our love to him; and that this manifestation is the most valuable, when it is the most evident that we are influenced by no other motive than love to him.

Shakespeare has treated this subject very beautifully in the following passages:

      ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
      The throned monarch better than his crown.
      His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
      The attribute to awe and majesty,
      Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
      But mercy is above the sceptred sway.
      It is enthroned in the heart of kings.
      It is an attribute of God himself;
      And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
      When mercy seasons justice.
      Mer. of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1.

      Alas! alas! Why all the souls that are, were forfeit once;
      And He that might the advantage best have took,
      Found out the remedy. How would you be,
      If He, who is the top of judgment, should
      But judge you as you are?
      Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2.

The Scriptures enforce this duty upon us for several reasons:

1. From the example of God. He manifests himself to us as boundless in benevolence. He has placed us under a constitution in which we may, at humble distance, imitate him. This has to us all the force of law, for we are surely under obligation to be as good as we have the knowledge and the ability to be. And as the goodness of God is specially seen in mercy to the wicked and the injurious, by the same principles we are bound to follow the same example.

2. We live, essentially and absolutely, by the bounty and forbearance of God. It is meet that we should show the same bounty and forbearance to our fellow-men.

3. Our only hope of salvation is in the forgiveness of God — of that God whom we have offended more than we can adequately conceive. How suitable is it, then, that we forgive the little offences of our fellow-men against us! Our Savior illustrates this most beautifully in his parable of the two servants, Matthew 18:23-35.

4. By the example of Christ, God has shown us what is that type of virtue, which, in human beings, is most acceptable in his sight. This was an example of perfect forbearance, meekness, benevolence and forgiveness. Thus, we are not only furnished with the rule, but also with the exemplification of the manner in which the rule is to be kept.

5. These very virtues, which are called forth by suffering from the wickedness and injury of our fellow-men, are those which God specially approves, and which he declares essential to that character which shall fit us for heaven. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the peace-makers, etc. A thousand such passages might easily be quoted.

6. God has declared that our forgiveness with him depends upon our forgiveness of others. “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father, who is in heaven, forgive you your trespasses.” “He shall have judgment without mercy, that showeth no mercy; but mercy rejoiceth against judgment;” that is, a merciful man rejoices, or is confident, in the view of the judgment day.

If it be asked, What is the Christian limit to benevolence, I answer, that no definite rule is laid down in the Scriptures, but that merely the principle is inculcated. All that we possess is God’s, and we are under obligation to use it all as He wills. His will is that we consider every talent as a trust, and that we seek our happiness from the use of it, not in self-gratification, but in ministering to the happiness of others. Our doing thus he considers as the evidence of our love to him; and therefore he fixes no definite amount which shall be abstracted from our own immediate sources of happiness for this purpose, but allows us to show our consecration of all to him, just as fully as we please. If this be a privilege, and one of the greatest privileges, of our present state, it would seem that a truly grateful heart would not ask how little, but rather how much, may I do to testify my love for the God who preserves me, and the Savior who has redeemed me.

And, inasmuch as our love to God is more evidently displayed in kindness and mercy to the wicked and the injurious than to any others, it is manifest that we are bound, by this additional consideration, to practice these virtues toward them, in preference to any others.

And hence we see that benevolence is a religious act, in just so far as it is done from love to God. It is lovely, and respectable, and virtuous, when done from sympathy and natural goodness of disposition. It is pious, only when done from love to God.