Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Mandeville on Charity Schools: Happiness, Social Order and the Psychology of Poverty

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Mandeville on Charity Schools: Happiness, Social Order and the Psychology of Poverty

Article excerpt


It used to be widely believed that Bernard Mandeville was not concerned about the poor.1 In truth, there is nothing to suggest that he was not a compassionate man either in his private life or in his profession as a medical doctor. He worked with the poor and witnessed, first hand, the grim realities of life on the streets. Likewise, his work addressed problems facing marginalized peoples and offered solutions to those problems. For example, he adopted a strong stance against domestic violence towards women, which is discussed in Virgin unmasked (Mandeville 1999); he has used female characters in several of his dialogues; he even provided ideas on how to improve the conditions of working girls.2 In his medical practice he advocated for simple methods, and above all offered psychological help to the sick. He seemed to genuinely despise coffee-shop doctors who cashed in on quack pills. The reality of the living and working conditions of the poor, among other things, could have fostered his resentment of hypocrisy, which he set out to expose by means of paradoxical writing in his Fable of the bees (Mandeville 1924a) as well as in his treatment of Shaftesbury (who was seen to project his own privileged position onto the whole of human kind).3 Nevertheless, although Mandeville acquired many of his views about human nature through his involvement with the immigrant population and working class, it should be noted that this constituted only one context of his experiences. By contrast, the most puzzling of his works is his Essay on charity and charity-schools (Mandeville 1924b), which dealt with a much debated and delicate issue of the time: poor people and the so-called "charity schools" where impoverished children were sent to receive a basic education, as an alternative to early employment.

Mandeville was not alone in criticising the charity school movement that had developed in Britain since late seventeenth century, yet his Essay on charity and charity-schools seems extremely provocative with regard to the conditions of the poor.4 Indeed, there are many passages in the essay that convey an apparently unmotivated ruthlessness.

What can be said is that Mandeville seemed, generally, to make an effort to reconcile his views about such institutions with his moral thought; that is, his premises were motivated from the perspective of an objective morality (i.e., morality that is not concerned with appearance), in order to validate his arguments. Yet, his efforts to do so fell short at times: first, his attempt at reconciling his views with objective morality was not convincing and thus not successful. Second, his portrayal of poor people was at odds with his own view of human nature, as if the poor belonged to a different species than human.

The aim of the paper is as follows: first, to shed light on Mandeville's views on charity and charity schools by going beyond the 'utility of poverty' discussion in order to show that such views are consistent with his general line thought: his criticisms of charity apply to the intentions that motivate charitable acts. In his texts Mandeville puts forward a view that claims that true morality is always and necessarily generated by self-denial, whereas charity and its "product"-i.e., the charity schools- are not. Self-denial is used as a premise for a moral position, upon which he evaluated the acts of those who claimed to be charitable. The argument he put forward purports to show that charity schools are not motivated by genuine consideration of what is good for society, or for the poor themselves. Rather, charity schools put at risk societal peace and order, the wealth of the country and, ultimately, the happiness of the poor.

Second, the paper shifts focus in order to address the problems inherent in Mandeville's views of how the working poor should be "managed": what he proposes does not appear to guarantee (but rather puts at further risk) societal peace as well as the happiness of poor people. …

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