'The Backbone of Benevolence' by Andy Postema
The Liberal Institute

The Backbone of Benevolence

Be nice! Thatís a common exhortation these days. For instance, it's the sugar coating that makes the poison of political correctness palatable. Most of the time it's something less noxious. It's the sappy sentimentality of people who have lost their bearings and the confidence of their convictions in this postmodern age, which puts a premium on getting along over getting it right. Even so, the injunction of the postmodernists to be nice is corrosive, as it is intended not only to soften disagreement but dissolve it altogether. The happy hand-holding goo that remains submerges whatever objective truth the clash of opposing ideas might reveal. Victory by default to the postmodernists, and a good reason to be wary of benevolence as a virtue in this battle to rescue a culture drowning in their subjectivism. Right?

Wrong. Objectivism gives benevolence a backbone that has little to do with being nice and everything to do with being rational in an irrational age.

Many misunderstand benevolence as kindliness towards others. Others reduce it to mere courtesy. Still others regard it as a type of charity, as in giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Benevolence is none of these nice things. It is a species of justice. It is the tentative judgment that another person is rational. When you make that judgment, it may also make sense to be kind, to be courteous, or to give the benefit of the doubt, but that conduct is a byproduct of benevolence. Instead, benevolence focuses you upon a higher ideal than niceness: Human beings possess rationality, therefore, they will choose to act rationally. Benevolence guides you to apply this ideal in all circumstances in which there is not evidence to the contrary. This is how Objectivism stiffens benevolence with the backbone that being nice lacks. Applying it requires critical thinking. It is not a pleasant demeanor. It is judgment; judgment that may require a response other than being nice.

So what does that mean in this squishy world of postmodern niceness? Most often, exercising benevolence does in fact mean a decision to be friendly and courteous. It may even mean maintaining a courteous demeanor when someone does not reciprocate, if you judge that he or she is essentially rational and will act like it in the absence of provocation. Benevolence will often direct you to not stand on your rights and take offense at every sleight. It will usually prompt you to forgive and forget when an apology is offered.

But benevolence must look hard-hearted at times. It may demand that you respond harshly if that is the tone that will cut through the noise of a personís irrationality. Benevolence needs a loud and disapproving voice when you judge that is what will get the rational ear of a person behaving irrationally. There are other situations in which benevolence advises against draping doilies over every contentious word. It will direct you to treat others as rational adults who do not need to be patronized with smiley-faced circumlocutions to take the edge off an honestly expressed thought. This is because people interacting rationally value forthrightness and honesty in each other, especially when the matter at hand may be unpleasant. Benevolence dispenses with the sugar coating. This is when the backbone of benevolence is most evident in your interaction with others.

As important as benevolence -- properly understood -- is in avoiding the quicksands of niceness, there's a lot more to it. To further demonstrate that benevolence is objective judgment and not friendly demeanor, it can guide you in forming a judgment of a person you haven't even met, a circumstance in which your demeanor is irrelevant. An emergency situation will illustrate this point.

You are on a dock and see a drowning boy. You also see a rope on a nearby boat that you can use to save his life. What you donít see is the owner of the boat, so you cannot ask his permission to use the rope. Therefore, you exercise benevolence. You make the tentative judgment that the boat owner is rational and would want his rope used to save the boy. Based upon that judgment, you take the rope to rescue the boy from drowning. Afterward, you put the rope back on the boat, and its owner may never know what happened or who you are. In that case heíll certainly have no knowledge of your demeanor -- i.e. how nice you are -- even though you did treat him benevolently. Had you not made a benevolent judgment of the absent boat owner and instead feared his hostility toward the taking of his rope, the boy would have drowned. The irrationality of that fear was that you had no evidence that the boat owner would be hostile. Benevolence guides you away from such irrationality.

The drowning boy scenario shows why benevolence is an Objectivist virtue, as opposed to merely rational conduct in the face of todayís wishy-washy postmodern culture. It subdues the irrational fears and hatreds that prevent or sour relationships with others, even fleeting ones, from bearing fruit. Remember, benevolence is a synonym for goodwill, which in turn is used by corporations to define the store of intangible value accumulated from business relationships. Similarly, exercising benevolence helps you to accumulate value from your relationships by stiffening your backbone to fearlessly embrace the ideal that people will act rationally because they possess reason, instead of rationalizing petty squabbles and cowardly retreats as standing on your rights in response to the irrationality of others. That is why benevolence is a virtue. It is an attribute of a hero, not a rational miser of goodwill. Its reward is the value that comes from cultivating the rationality of others and increasing the happiness and productivity of your relationships with them. The only cost is the occasional disappointment. It's the best bargain there is in Objectivism.

ANDY POSTEMA writes for Sense of Life
, among others