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SECOND SERIES. NO. XVII.---WHOLE NO. XLIX.
BENEVOLENCE AND SELFISHNESS.
By Jeremiah Day, D. D. L. L. D. President of Yale College, Connecticut.
Ir is asserted by many, by some even who appear to be exemplary Christians and able divines, that self-love is the moving principle of all voluntary action; that it is common to saints and sinners; that it is an essential element in benevolence itself. By others, it is considered as identical with selfishness; as directly opposed to benevolence; as the radical principle of all iniquity. Is it not high time, that Christian brethren should come to some understanding, with respect to the essential characteristic of the religion which they profess? If the existing disagreement, on this all important point, is in appearance only; if it is nothing more than a difference in the interpretation of certain words and phrases, while there is a real harmony of belief, with respect to the nature of the distinction between virtue and vice, benevolence and selfishness; strenuous efforts ought to be made to dispel the mists which the ambiguities of language have thrown. around the subject; that those who are brethren in profession should no longer be alienated from each other, on account of supposed differences of opinion, which are, in reality, only verbal; and on the other hand, that those who have adopted erroneous and heretical tenets, should not have the
SECOND SERIES, VOL. 1X. NO. I.
privilege of veiling their errors, under vague and deceptive phraseology.
If there is either a kind or degree of self-love which is virtuous, and another kind and degree which is sinful, the distinction should be drawn, in characters which cannot be easily mistaken. The want of such distinction may be, to multitudes, the occasion of fatal delusion. Those who hold the truth themselves, and yet express it in dubious language, may be unintentionally instrumental in leading others into ruinous errors. If we say that self-love is, in some sense, the moving principle in all moral action, while we do not. distinctly show in what sense it bears this relation, the selfish man will be sure to give to the assertion a construction in his own favor.
The more specious any selfish theory of morals is, the more nearly it copies the language in which the truth is expressed, the more dangerous will it be, if it be radically erroneous. It may escape the detection to which the grosser forms of error are exposed. This is not a subject of barren metaphysical speculation, having no practical relation to the duties and responsibilities of life. It may have a determining influence upon the judgment which we form of the essential elements of Christian character. Many may be fatally deceived, by mistaking a refined selfishness, for the impartial benevolence which the divine law and the gospel require. Though all classes have a deep interest in the practical applications of the subject; yet a correct understanding of its nature and relations, requires a greater nicety of discrimination than is consistent with the loose, metaphorical style of a popular address or essay.
In attempting to draw the line of distinction between benevolence and selfishness, we have to encounter not only the almost endless perplexities of ambiguous phraseology, but what Dugald Stewart significantly denominates the "ambiguity of things;" the apparent identity of mental states, or objects of thought, which are really distinct, but which are so intimately blended, that we find it difficult to separate them, especially when the same terms and phrases are indiscriminately applied to them.
1. We have an example of this, in making the inquiry, whether, in all our actions, we are influenced solely by a love of happiness. There have been, at least, four different ap
plications of this expression. It has been used to signify our present enjoyment of happiness,-or our regard for the present happiness of others,-or our desire for their future happiness, or a desire of our own future happiness. The first of these uses appears to be an improper one. The other three may be correct, if due caution be observed in keeping the different significations distinct.
Without taking for granted any point respecting benevolent affection and action which may, in the course of our inquiry, come under examination, let it be supposed, that a Christian minister has a sincere regard for the spiritual welfare of his people, that his labors have been blessed to the conversion and increasing sanctification of numbers, and that he hopes to be the instrument of bringing others into the kingdom of Christ, in whose recovery from the bondage of iniquity he may hereafter rejoice. Here are, at least, three different states of feeling which may be termed a love of happiness; his joy in the present welfare of a portion of his flock, his desire of the future spiritual prosperity of these and others, and the hope that he himself will be a partaker of their joy, that his happiness will be promoted by witnessing theirs. He may also expect to receive a reward from his Father in heaven.
But there appears to be no propriety in applying the expression "love of happiness" to present enjoyment, without reference to the good of others, or our own future good. Yet many a specious argument has no other foundation, than the artful, or undesigned substitution of this, for one of the other three meanings. Love is an affection which always has an object; an object distinct from itself. It is true, that it is a pleasing emotion. There is enjoyment in love. But this enjoyment is distinct from the good which is the object of the emotion. To love, is to be pleased with something. But this something is not the pleasure itself. The act of loving is not simply loving to be happy; being pleased with being pleased. If I rejoice in the happiness of another, his joy is not my joy, but the object of my joy. My love of his happiness is not a love of my own happiness. The pleasure of loving is as distinct from the object loved, as the pleasure of viewing a landscape is distinct from the landscape itself. It is true, that present enjoyment is accompanied with a desire for the continuance of the happiness. But continuance
refers to the future. Our own future good may be the object of our present love or desire. This may, properly enough, be denominated self-love. But what propriety is there in applying the term to present gratification, without any reference to the future? The expression self-love and a desire of happiness are not always synonymous. For, although all self-love may be a desire of our own happiness, yet all desire of happiness is not self-love. There may be a desire of the happiness of others.
2. In the discussions respecting benevolence and selfishness, it is important to distinguish between different mental states which are considered as voluntary action, or choice. The inquiry is made, What is the immediate cause, reason, or motive of such acts? Is it something within, or without the mind of the agent? Is it subjective or objective; an internal, or an external motive? Before we can answer this inquiry understandingly, we must know what is intended by the terms voluntary action, choice, &c. Are they used to denote simply an emotion, a being pleased with an object, without any effort to obtain it; or do they signify a purpose, or an imperative act, to secure the object desired? In the former case, there must be an external motive, some object of thought, which, if not actually existing, is yet apprehended by the mind, as distinct from its own present act.. The influence of this object upon some sensibility of the agent, is the immediate antecedent, cause, ground, or reason of the emotion.
But if any thing with which we are pleased is now in our possession, we desire its continuance. If it is not yet in our possession, but is considered as attainable, we may form a purpose to do something to secure it, and at the proper time of acting, we may put forth imperative or executive volitions, in reference to its attainment. The immediate antecedent of the purpose, and of the imperative acts, is desire, an internal or subjective motive. This desire implies that we are pleased with the object sought, either for what it is in itself, or as a means of obtaining something else which we love. Objects of pursuit are such, because they were previously objects of affection. If I rejoice in the present happiness of my child, I shall desire that this happiness may continue, I shall purpose to do something to promote it, I shall put forth imperative acts, to carry this purpose into