The Springs of Beneficence -- By: O. W. Firkins

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 070:277 (Jan 1913)
Article: The Springs of Beneficence
Author: O. W. Firkins


The Springs of Beneficence

O. W. Firkins

The object of this paper is an informal inquiry into the nature of the motives prompting men to beneficent or charitable acts, and the ascertainment of the extent to which disinterestedness prevails in human conduct.

An obvious distinction, liable like many such truths to be obscured by its very obviousness, must be noted at the start. When we speak of an unselfish character, we do not imply the unselfishness of all its acts and motives; we do not even imply the unselfishness of most of them. The character of men consists of a large, primitive, inner circle of self-love or self-regard, around which, in the course of time, an outer ring, a band or margin as it were, of unselfishness insensibly forms. In unselfish characters the margin is broad, not with respect to the inclosed circle, but in relation to the width of the same margin in other minds. The assertion that we are unselfish does not mean that we do more for our neighbor than for ourselves, but that we do more for him than he does for his neighbor or for us.

I shall not discuss the reality of unselfishness, and shall be happy to relinquish to the controversialists the task of proving that man is or is not capable of a strictly disinterested act. Granting that, from the point of view of the analyst, a man can act only to please himself, there remains a trenchant distinction, not only for the man in the street but for the analyst himself when he is off duty or off guard,

between the pleasures derived from the feeding of one’s self and the feeding of a hungry dog or child. The distinction is one which no confluence or convergence of terms can efface or diminish; and, in the present unsettled state of nomenclature, may be expressed, for simple-minded people, in the old terms. We need not wrangle with the New-Yorker who classes Minnesota and Oregon together under the general title of the West, but it is well to remind him that the term does not abolish one of the thousand or more miles between Oregon and Minnesota, and that the fact that the States are on the same side of the Mississippi River does not blot out the almost equally weighty fact that they are on opposite sides of the Rocky Mountains. The main point is that men are capable of deriving pleasure from the contemplation of the pleasure of their fellow beings, in the absence of any other benefit, direct or indirect, to themselves.

Nobody, of course, supposes that all the pleasure which the happiness of others affords us is disinterested, or that all the acts we perform to induce that happiness are unselfish. Nature has willed that we should help each other; but she has been far too shrewd to rely solely on our benev...

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