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

Francis Wayland


Benevolence to the Unhappy: Unhappiness from Physical Condition

A MAN may be simply unhappy from either his physical or his intellectual condition. We shall consider these separately.

The occasions of unhappiness from this cause, are simple poverty, or the mere want of the necessities and conveniences of life; and sickness and decrepitude, either alone, or when combined with poverty.

1. Of poverty. Simple poverty, or want, so long as a human being has the opportunity of labor sufficiently productive to maintain him, does not render him an object of charily. “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat,” is the language no less of reason than of revelation. If a man be indolent, the best discipline to which he can be subjected, is, to suffer the evils of penury. Hence, all that we are required to do in such a case, is, to provide such a person with labor, and to pay him accordingly. This is the greatest kindness, both to him and to society.

2. Sometimes, however, from the dispensations of Providence, a human being is left so destitute that his labor is insufficient to maintain him. Such is frequently the case with widows and orphans. This forms a manifest occasion for charity. The individuals have become, by the dispensation of God, unable to help themselves, and it is both our duty and our privilege to help them.

3. Sickness. Here the ability to provide for ourselves is taken away, and the necessity of additional provision is created. In such cases, the rich stand frequently in need of our aid, our sympathy, and our services. If this be the case with them, how much more must it be with the poor, from whom, the affliction which produces suffering, takes away the power of providing the means necessary for alleviating it! It is here, that the benevolence of the gospel is peculiarly displayed. Our Savior declares, “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” Bishop Wilson, on this passage, has the following beautiful remark: “‘Inasmuch’ (as often); who, then, would miss any occasion?’ The least;’ who, then, would despise any object?’ To me;’ so that, in serving the poor, we serve Jesus Christ.”

4. Age also frequently brings with it decrepitude oi body, if not imbecility of mind. This state calls for our sympathy and assistance, and all that care and attention which the aged so much need, and which it is so suit able for the young and vigorous to bestow.

The above are, I believe, the principal occasions for the exercise of benevolence towards man’s physical sufferings. We proceed to consider the principles by which our benevolence should be regulated. These have respect both to the recipient and to the benefactor.

I. Principles which relate to the recipient.

It is a law of our constitution, that every benefit which God confers upon us, is the result of labor, and generally of labor in advance; that is, a man pays for what he receives, not after he has received it, but before. This rule is universal, and applies to physical, intellectual, and moral benefits, as will be easily seen upon reflection.

Now, so universal a rule could not have been established without both a good and a universal reason; and, hence, we find, by experience, that labor, even physical labor, is necessary to the healthful condition of man, as a physical, an intellectual, and a moral being. And, hence, it is evident that the rule is just as applicable to the poor as to the rich. Or to state the subject in another form: Labor is either a benefit or a curse. If it be a curse, there can be no reason why every class of men should not bear that portion of the infliction which God assigns to it. If it be a benefit, there can be no reason why every man should not enjoy his portion of the blessing.

And, hence, it will follow that our benevolence should cooperate with this general law of our constitution.

1. Those who are poor, but yet able to support themselves, should be enabled to do so by means of labor, and on no other condition. If they are too indolent to do this, they should suffer the consequences.

2. Those who are unable to support themselves wholly, should be assisted only in so far as they are thus unable. Because a man cannot do enough to support himself, there is no reason why he should do nothing.

3. Those who are unable to do any thing, should have every thing done for them which their condition requires. Such are infants, the sick, the disabled, and the aged.

Benevolence is intended to have a moral effect upon the recipient, by cultivating kindness, gratitude, and universal benevolence among all the different classes of men. That mode of charity is therefore most beneficial to its object, which tends, in the highest degree, to cultivate the kinder and better feelings of his nature. Hence, it is far better for the needy, for us to administer alms ourselves, than to employ others to do it for us. The gratitude of the recipient is but feebly exercised by the mere fact of the relief of his necessities, unless he also have the opportunity of witnessing the temper and spirit from which the charity proceeds.

II. Principles which relate to the benefactor.

The Christian religion considers charity as a means of moral cultivation, specially to the benefactor. It is always, in the New Testament, classed with prayer, and is governed essentially by the same rules. This may be seen from our Savior’s Sermon on the Mount.

Hence, 1. That method of charity is always the best which calls into most active exercise the virtues of self-denial and personal sacrifice, as they naturally arise from kindness, sympathy and charity, or universal love to God and man. And, on the contrary, all those modes of benevolence must be essentially defective, in which the distresses of others are relieved, without the necessary exercise of these virtues.

2. As charity is a religious service, and an important means of cultivating love to God, and as it does this in proportion as all external and inferior motives are withdrawn, it is desirable, also, that, in so far as possible, it be done secretly. The doing of it in this manner removes the motives derived from the love of applause, and leaves us simply those motives which are derived from love to God. Those modes of benevolence which are, in their nature, the farthest removed from human observation, are, caeteris paribus, the most favorable to the cultivation of virtue, and are, therefore, always to be preferred.

Hence, in general, those modes of charity are to be preferred, which most successfully teach the object to relieve himself, and which tend most directly to the moral benefit of both parties. And, on the contrary, those modes of charity are the worst, which are the farthest removed from such tendencies.

These principles may easily be applied to some of the ordinary forms of benevolence.

I. Public provision for the poor by poor laws will be found defective in every respect.

1. It makes a provision for the poor because he is poor. This, as I have said, gives no claim upon charity.

2. It in no manner teaches the man to help himself; but, on the contrary, tends to take from him the natural stimulus for doing so.

3. Hence, its tendency is to multiply paupers, vagrants, and idlers. Such have been its effects, to an appalling degree, in Great Britain; and such, from the nature of the case, must they be every where. It is taking from the industrious a portion of their earnings, and conferring them without equivalent, upon the idle.

4. It produces no feeling of gratitude towards the benefactor, but the contrary. In those countries where poor rates are the highest, the poor will be found the most discontented and lawless, and the most inveterate against the rich.

5. It produces no moral intercourse between the parties concerned, but leaves the distribution of bounty to the hand of an official agent. Hence, what is received, is claimed by the poor as a matter of right; and the only feeling elicited is that of displeasure, because it is so little.

6. It produces no feeling of sympathy or of compassion to the rich; but, being extorted by force of law, is viewed as a mere matter of compulsion.

Hence, every principle would decide against poor laws as a means of charity. If, however, the society undertake to control the capital of the individual, and manage it as they will, and by this management make paupers by thousands, I do think they are under obligation to support them. If, however, they insist upon pursuing this course, it would be better that every poor-house should be a work-house; and that the poor-rates should always be given as the wages of some form of labor.

I would not, however, be understood to decide against all public provision for the necessitous. The aged and infirm, the sick, the disabled, and the orphan, in the failure of their relatives, should be relieved, and relieved cheerfully and bountifully, by the public. I only speak of provision for the poor, because they are poor, and do not refer to provision made for other reasons. Where the circumstances of the recipient render him an object of charity, let him be relieved, freely and tenderly. But, if he be not an object of charity, to make public provision for him is injurious.

II. Voluntary associations for purposes of charity.

Some of the inconveniences arising from poor-laws are liable to ensue, from the mode of conducting these institutions.

1. They do not make the strongest appeal to the moral feelings of the recipient. Gratitude is much diminished, when we are benefitted by a public charity, instead of a private benefactor.

2. This is specially the case, when a charity is funded; and the almoner is merely the official organ of a distribution, in which he can have but a comparatively trifling personal interest.

3. The moral effect upon the giver is much less than it would be, if he and the recipient were brought immediately into contact. Paying an annual subscription to a charity, has a very different effect from visiting and relieving, with our own hands, the necessities and distresses of the sick and the afflicted.

I by no means, however, say that such associations are not exceedingly valuable. Many kinds of charity cannot well be carried on without them. The comparatively poor are thus enabled to unite in extensive and important works of benevolence. In many cases, the expenditure of capital, necessary for conducting a benevolent enterprise, requires a general effort. I however say, that the rich, who are able to labor personally in the cause of charity, should never leave the most desirable part of the work to be done by others. They should be their own almoners. If they will not do this, why then let them furnish funds to be distributed by others; but let them remember, that they are losing by far the most valuable, that is, they are losing the moral benefit which God intended them to enjoy. God meant every man to be charitable as much as to be prayerful; and he never intended that the one duty, any more than the other, should be done by a deputy. The same principles would lead us to conclude, what, I believe, experience has always shown to be the fact, that a fund for the support of the poor of a town, has always proved a nuisance instead of a benefit. And, in general, as charity is intended to be a means of moral improvement to both parties, and specially to the benefactor, those modes of charity which do not have in view the cultivation of moral excellence, are, in this respect, essentially defective.