In one of my recent podcasts, I pointed out that virtues such as love and benevolence are not always the best foundation for moral behavior in society. One reason is that these virtues tend to be grounded in clan-based loyalties, where our compassion extends only to family, friends, and sometimes fellow citizens. Good will and compassion typically do not guide our behavior toward political enemies and others who may oppose our way of life. But human history has proven time and again that one’s enemies are frequently vulnerable and deserving of sympathy. In such contexts, just laws are needed to illuminate our blind spots. True justice can provide a code of ethical obligations to protect otherwise defenseless people from their would-be oppressors.
This is not to say, however, that benevolence and compassion are less potent or less needed virtues. In fact, benevolence may be the most important virtue for propelling personal and societal change.
As the disposition to do good to others, benevolence is the foundation for generosity and kindness. It cultivates compassion and responds wisely to the genuine needs of others. Benevolence taps into the light of conscience that can only be dimmed by responding to the darker side of human nature.
In Confucianism, the Chinese character ren is often translated as benevolence. It’s a general virtue that governs human relationships through the principle of love. In ancient Chinese texts, a more accurate translation of ren might be “humanity,” which implies a more comprehensive virtue that encompasses benevolence, wisdom, and other characteristics needed for human flourishing. As our sense of humanity, benevolence can impact the way we treat both friends and foes.
Confucius affirms that benevolence or a sense of humanity is one of the core values that allows for true self cultivation. And he reminds us of the tremendous power that can be wielded by benevolence. As the recipient of kindness, my psyche is naturally indebted to my benefactor and inclined to repay their kindness by acting benevolently toward others. The laws of karma dictate that kindness begets kindness. Compassion leads to more compassion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to this principle as the law of compensation: “Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation.” While kindness will not always be reciprocated immediately, the cosmic laws of nature ensure that we will not be cheated in the long run. Sooner or later, benevolence returns to us through the intervention of “a third silent party to all our bargains.”
The preeminence of benevolence is expressed profoundly in the Christian doctrine that God is love. As conveyed in 1 John 4:8, “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The most reliable indicator of personal redemption and conversion is the expression of love and kindness in our daily actions.
While benevolence appears to occupy a less prominent place in Aristotle’s philosophy, we see its expression in other virtues, such as generosity, friendship, and magnanimity. As the essence of human virtue, benevolence promotes healthy personal relationships, compassion and fairness in society, and peace between sovereign nations.
As the virtue that most impacts human relationships, benevolence is an indispensable catalyst for change. In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King states, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Dr. King’s call for change through nonviolent resistance is grounded in the principle of love, which has the power to destroy the forces of evil and establish justice.
When we are consciously aware of the laws of karma or compensation in our personal lives, our benevolence can be expressed as a form of enlightened self-interest. The desire to reap benevolence for ourselves provides ample motivation to treat others benevolently. However, such an approach usually requires patience as well. While kindness and compassion can be reciprocated immediately, change often takes time. This is one of the reasons Confucius counsels his disciples to maintain high expectations of themselves and low expectations of others.
The call to love our enemies provides a particular challenge to the self-interest model. As a full expression of virtue, benevolence does not expect anything in return. We treat others with kindness and respect whether they deserve it or not. And while such a selfless expression of the higher law might not be reciprocated by our enemies, it will always transform us.