Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

Beneficence/Benevolence

William K. Frankenaa1

a1 Philosophy, University of Michigan

I begin with a note about moral goodness as a quality, disposition, or trait of a person or human being. This has at least two different senses, one wider and one narrower. Aristotle remarked that the Greek term we translate as justice sometimes meant simply virtue or goodness as applied to a person and sometimes meant only a certain virtue or kind of goodness. The same thing is true of our word “goodness.” Sometimes being a good person means having all the virtues, or at least all the moral ones; then goodness equals the whole of virtue. But sometimes, being a good person has a narrower meaning, namely, being kind, generous, and so forth. Thus, my OED sometimes equates goodness with moral excellence as a whole and sometimes with a particular moral excellence, viz., kindness, beneficence, or benevolence; and the Bible, when it speaks of God as being good sometimes means that God has all the virtues and sometimes only that he is kind, mereiful, or benevolent. When Jesus says, “Why callest thou me good: None is good, save one, that is God,” he seems to be speaking of goodness in the inclusive sense, but when the writer of Exodus has God himself say that he is “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” God is using “goodness” in the narrower sense in which it means benevolence, for he goes on to make it clear that he is also just and severe. Similarly, “good will” may mean either “morally good will” in general, as it does in Kant, or it may mean only “benevolent will,” as it usually does; in “men of good will” it is perhaps ambiguous.

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