The Pitfalls of Benevolence: Unpacking the Toxic Mix of Universal Good Intentions and Political Correctness in the New Year

New Year’s is traditionally a time for reassessment and meditation. Wise sayings and saws are dredged up for reconsideration even as the chorus is getting ready to reprise “Auld Lang Syne.” It is easy to dismiss such scraps of wisdom, especially as they tend to come glazed with an unpalatable frosting of sentimentality, not to mention familiarity.

But it is important to note that many clichés are clichés precisely because they articulate important truths.  Consider, for example, the admonition, which you probably first heard from your mother or father, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Why should that be the case? Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I believe a large part of the answer involves the metabolism of benevolence.

Benevolence is a curious creature. Its operation tends to be more beneficent the more specific it is. This was a point that James Fitzjames Stephen, the great nineteenth-century critic of John Stuart Mill, made in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. “The man who works from himself outwards,” Stephen wrote,

whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others… than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbors. On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race—that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind—is an unaccountable person . . . who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.

“A moral Don Quixote”: that is a line worth remembering. Political correctness tends to breed the sort of unaccountability that Stephen warns against. At its center is a union of abstract benevolence, which takes mankind as a whole as its object, with rigid moralism. It is a toxic, misery-producing brew.

The Australian philosopher David Stove got to the heart of the problem when he pointed out that it is precisely this combination of universal benevolence fired by uncompromising moralism that underwrites the cult of political correctness. “Either element on its own,” Stove observed in a powerful essay called “Why You Should be a Conservative,”

is almost always comparatively harmless. A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho-Chi-Minh, or Kim-Il-Sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.

Of course, as Stove goes on to note, this “lethal combination” is by no means peculiar to Communists. It provides the emotional fuel for utopians from Robespierre on down. That is the really sobering thing about moral Don Quixotes of all descriptions. They illustrate the fact  the capacity for evil so easily cohabits and feeds upon the emotion of virtue.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau warned that “Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people must feel themselves capable… of changing human nature… of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.” Robespierre & Co. thought themselves just the chaps for the job. The fact that they measured the extent of their success by the frequency with which the guillotines around Paris operated highlights the connection between the imperatives of political correctness and tyranny—between what Robespierre candidly described as “virtue and its emanation, terror.”

That is the conjunction that should give us pause, especially when we contemplate the good intentions of the politically correct bureaucrats who preside over more and more of life in Western societies today. They mean well. They seek to boost all mankind up to their own plane of enlightenment. Inequality outrages their sense of justice. They regard conventional habits of behavior as so many obstacles to be overcome on the path to perfection. They see tradition as the enemy of innovation, which they embrace as a lifeline to moral progress. They cannot encounter a wrong without seeking to right it. The idea that some evils may be ineradicable is anathema to them. Likewise, the traditional notion that the best is the enemy of the good and that many choices we face are, to some extent, choices among evils—such proverbial wisdom outrages their sense of moral perfectibility.

Alas, the result is not paradise but a campaign to legislate virtue, to curtail eccentricity, to smother individuality, and to barter truth for the current moral or political enthusiasm. For centuries, political philosophers have understood that the lust for equality is the enemy of freedom. That species of benevolence underwrote the tragedy of Communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness has redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment, not the struggling masses, but “reproductive freedom,” gay rights, the welfare state, the Third World, diversity training, and an end to racism and xenophobia.

It looks, in Marx’s famous mot, like history repeating itself not as tragedy but as farce.

As we get set to say farewell to 2023, however, it is worth reflecting that it would be a rash man who made no provision for a reprise of tragedy.

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