Burden or Benefit? Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

Burden or Benefit? Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

Burden or Benefit? Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

Burden or Benefit? Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

Synopsis

In the name of benevolence, philanthropy, and humanitarian aid, individuals, groups, and nations have sought to assist others and to redress forms of suffering and deprivation. Yet the inherent imbalances of power between the giver and the recipient of this benevolence have called into question the motives and rationale for such assistance. This volume examines the evolution of the ideas and practices of benevolence, chiefly in the context of British imperialism, from the late 18th century to the present. The authors consider more than a dozen examples of practical and theoretical benevolence from the anti-slavery movement of the late 18th century to such modern activities as refugee asylum in Europe, opposition to female genital mutilation in Africa, fundraising for charities, and restoring the wetlands in southern, post-Saddam Iraq.

Excerpt

Chris Tiffin and Helen Gilbert

A cartoon in the New Yorker shows an executive on his way to work trying to avoid a panhandler who asks, “Spare a little eye contact?” This cartoon wittily presents some of the ambivalence and awkwardness associated with that relationship variously called “benevolence,” “philanthropy,” “charity,” or “humanitarianism.” It bespeaks goodwill, but it also speaks inequality; it involves the willingness and power to give, but it also involves demands and obligations that are sometimes complicated and unwelcome. “Benevolence,” like “peace” or “freedom,” is a quality that seems axiomatically positive and unexceptionable. To wish for the well-being of others, to desire their happiness, is manifestly preferable to its antithesis. Yet in 1978 William Gaylin noted that it was “fashionable these days to view … benevolence as obscene.” Why should something so palpably positive for human life engender not only suspicion but even outright rejection? What’s wrong with benevolence? This book proposes no glib answer, but rather raises a set of philosophical and historical questions that are as fascinating as they are complex.

Optimistic philosophers see benevolence as innate to humans. They propose that we are naturally attracted to other human beings and are disposed to wish for their happiness and betterment. Moralists such as the third Earl of Shaftesbury (and after him Francis Hutcheson) even made benevolence the definitional test for virtue, while Percy Shelley believed that two human beings had only to come together for the “social sympathies” to be aroused between them, and that love was “the great secret of morals.” For others, however, humans were either not naturally benevolent (Thomas Hobbes) or benevolent only within a specific range of contexts (David Hume). Such limitations, of course, raise the question of the relationship between benevolence and self-interest. Shaftesbury was able to argue that self-interest was compatible with . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.