What’s Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment, David Stove, Encounter, 200 pages
David Stove (1927-1994) was a philosopher and polemicist who taught at the University of Sydney for many years. A pessimist, a conservative, and a common-sense reductionist in the grand Anglo-Saxon tradition, Stove deployed a keen wit and an imaginative style against a wide range of modern shibboleths. His writings were little known outside his own country until after his death, when they were championed by Roger Kimball, then editor of The New Criterion and now also publisher of Encounter Books.
What’s Wrong With Benevolence is an extended essay—107 pages—that Stove wrote between February and October 1989, as the Soviet Union’s grip on its European satrapies was being broken. Francis Fukuyama was writing the first iteration of his essay “The End of History?”—which still had the question mark in its title—at precisely the same time. Neither essay shows any awareness of the other, and they could hardly be more different in tone or approach. While Fukuyama saw Marxist-Leninist despotism as a detour in an upward evolutionary development of human society, for Stove it was the political expression of a fundamental human weakness that came to light as the ideals of the 18th-century Enlightenment became dominant. At the heart of that weakness, says Stove, is a dream of universal benevolence.
Under normal circumstances the power of human affections weakens with distance, like the force of gravity. Our love is strongest for our own kin and those we know well. For our extended family and remoter acquaintances we feel less; and thence outward to the occasional and attenuated bonds of club and tribe, ethny and nation, and the “fictive kinships” of religion and ideology.
This default configuration can be disturbed by family strife, personal betrayals, civil or religious conflict, and international crises. It can even be reversed: a man dies in the trenches for his country or faith, leaving his wife and children without support. We nonetheless feel the default diminishing-with-distance configuration to be the normal and natural one and look on deviations from it as regrettable.
But we are also inclined to think that our affections might, or ought, at their broadest but weakest, encompass our entire species in universal benevolence. Why else do people give to disaster relief in remote lands? Science fiction novelists tell us that when the slave traders arrive in starships from Alpha Centauri we members of Homo sapiens sapiens will unite against the Other. Perhaps we will, though the historical record of human regions visited by slave traders of our own species does not encourage optimism on this point.
Be that as it may, universal benevolence is a feeble and occasional emotion in the ordinary course of events. Not many of us would send relief money to victims of a flood in Indonesia if it meant that our own children would go hungry. We would look on someone who did so as eccentric, if not immoral. Yet such people exist. Charles Dickens gave us the archetype of inverted benevolence with the character of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, whose attentions to the natives of Borrioboola-Gha (“on the left bank of the Niger”) left her no time to spare for her own kin. Says the narrator of that novel: “It struck me that if Mrs. Jellyby had discharged her own natural duties and obligations before she swept the horizon with a telescope in search of others, she would have taken the best precautions against becoming absurd…”
Dickens had no objection to benevolence of the less telescopic, more local and personal sort. He offered sympathetic portrayals of it in Samuel Pickwick and Charles Cheeryble, though he was careful to give neither of those gentleman a wife or children to dilute their concern for the deserving poor.
Discussions about benevolence, charity, and welfare in Dickens’s time were conducted in the shadow of the great political economist Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population and its subsequent revisions and reissues were read, not entirely correctly, as arguing for the futility of all large schemes of social improvement. Such schemes, argued Malthus, could only lead to population sizes beyond what the environment could bear, since food supply increases arithmetically, whilst population increase, if not constrained, is geometric.
Dickens was anti-Malthusian, or thought he was. The character of Ebenezer Scrooge is generally supposed to be a personification of Malthusianism, and the stonehearted Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times has actually named one of his children Malthus, presumably for readers who did not take the hint from Gradgrind Sr.’s own forename.
Yet Dickens was no more a friend to structural social reform than was Malthus: the socialist union organizer in Hard Times is an obnoxious demagogue. Dickens was, as George Orwell noted regretfully, a bourgeois moralist. The relief of human misery, says Dickens, lies not in social revolution but in a transformation of the individual human heart. Scrooge and Gradgrind must be turned into Pickwick and Cheeryble.
Easier said than done. Observation suggests, and rigorous empirical enquiry has confirmed, that the individual human personality is an intractable thing. That leaves us with a choice between Malthusianism and the blithe social optimism Malthus opposed.
That social optimism was characteristic of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Its emotional inspiration came from universal benevolence; its intellectual foundation was in what David Stove here calls “externalism,” to which, he writes, “all Enlightenment thinkers subscribed.” This was “their belief that human beings are made what they are by external influences such as education, or the form of government or distribution of wealth prevailing around them. Malthus expressly and effectively challenged that belief.”
Much of What’s Wrong with Benevolence is a qualified reclamation of Malthus, with Stove drawing his examples from our post-Malthusian 200-plus years of experience with social optimism.
Stove’s text actually occupies less than half of this Encounter Books edition. It is followed by a long bibliography of works by and about Stove and is preceded by an introduction from the book’s editor, Andrew Irvine, who studied under Stove in the 1980s. Irvine now teaches philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The book also has a brief foreword by Roger Kimball, who continues to be Stove’s greatest champion in the United States.
Anyone taking Malthus’s side against Enlightenment social optimism has some heavy work to do. Most obviously, the much improved material condition of society—especially for the poor—since Malthus’s time is evidence that the Enlightenment “externalists” had a point: by improving education, public health, housing, and so on through government action, much misery can indeed be alleviated.
Stove’s riposte amounts to: “How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” Malthus enumerated the sources of human unhappiness as war, poverty, and disease. That, says Stove, is hopelessly inadequate. Human beings have far more ways to be unhappy. Improve the human condition—the “externals”—as you may, misery will find its wonted level again, in the process science calls homeostasis.
There is a grain of truth in that, but on the whole I think there is a bigger grain in the folk saying that while wealth won’t make you happy, it will at least allow you to be miserable in comfort. There is much unhappiness in even the most prosperous modern nation, but surely the occasions for hopeless misery are far fewer now than in 1798. Think of dentistry.
The modern Malthusian must also tackle the two big objections that have been made to Malthus’s theory for nigh on a century now, namely that improvements in the technology of food production on the one hand, and of contraception on the other, have defanged both jaws of the Malthusian trap.
Stove’s weakness here is more excusable, as it arises from his position in time. As Stove watched the Soviet Union’s crumbling through those middle months of 1989, his otherwise commendable pessimism led him into a false prediction:
The truths which Malthus vainly strove to impart cannot be too often repeated. These are that widespread poverty cannot be relieved from the outside and, therefore, can be relieved (if at all) only by the industry, self-reliance, and prudence of the poor themselves. But the worldwide triumph of Enlightened benevolence has been at the expense of precisely these traits of character. … So since I believe, for the reasons given in the last few pages, that communist poverty is irreversible, I predict that terror will soon resume its accustomed position in those communist countries which have lately relaxed it to a greater or lesser degree.
Stove also fails to give proper attention to the population side of Malthus’s dreadful equation. That too is a function of his essay having been written when it was. The problem of population decline in advanced countries was already visible in 1989, but it did not have the salience it now has in public commentary and common conversation. To the contrary, Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb was still on people’s bookshelves, its influence still being felt. China’s one-child policy was only 10 years old.
There is much more to be said here, and I wish Stove had said it. Malthus, as Stove was surely aware, knew all about abstinence, delayed marriage, non-procreative sex, and even birth control: he called them “preventive” checks on population growth, contrasted with “positive” checks like abortion, disease, war, and malnutrition. He factored these preventive checks into his arguments, which are subtler than is generally known. They derive the necessity for social inequality, for example, from the differential effect of those checks on different social classes, positive checks working more on the poor, preventive checks more on the affluent.
The advantage of writing on these topics in 1989 was that the full-blown horrors of communism were still fresh in our minds, or at least in the minds of that minority among Western intellectuals whose judgment had not been castrated by the unrestrained “externalism” that is Stove’s main target. Those horrors still afflict a few Third World hellholes in full virulence and in China have only been leashed, perhaps temporarily. Stove was quite right to argue that they are the logical endpoint of universal benevolence, of the kind of temperament that values a theoretical advance of humanity at large—the proverbial omelette—over the distress of actual human beings—the eggs. This is where his polemic against benevolence is strongest and most persuasive.
He is also good on the humorlessness of the benevolent world-improvers and their lack of personal bonds. I think he is wrong to absolve them of cruelty, though. Communism could not have been as monstrously cruel as it was, and still is, if its promoters and enforcers were merely indifferent to human suffering. Lenin, says Stove, was not cruel: “To those who experienced the effects of Lenin’s benevolence, cruelty from him would have been a relief: a reassuring touch of common humanity.” Bertrand Russell, who met Lenin in 1920, came away with a different impression:
When I met Lenin … my most vivid impressions were of bigotry and Mongolian cruelty. When I put a question to him about socialism in agriculture, he explained with glee how he had incited the poorer peasants against the richer ones, ‘and they soon hanged them from the nearest tree—ha ha ha!’ His guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.
I think Stove is right, though—prescient even—about the ultimate destination of the welfare state: “We also know that the inherent tendency of the welfare state is to increase poverty; that ‘welfare’ still continues every year to absorb a greater proportion of our nations’ wealth and population; and that there is no social force in sight capable of stopping that process.”
With 40 million Americans on food stamps and government outlays exceeding revenues by a trillion and a half dollars, I don’t think it is fanciful to see our country as being in a Malthusian trap, if not quite the one the Reverend Thomas envisaged. The same applies, to greater or lesser degree, to other welfare states.
Something has to give. It is not unthinkable that it will give in the direction of war, pestilence, or famine. If that comes to pass, the old pessimist will have been proven right after all, and so will David Stove.
John Derbyshire is a contributing editor of National Review and the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.