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Adam Smith on the illegitimacy of using force to promote beneficence (1759)

Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that force should never be used to make people be beneficent to others:

Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil. It may disappoint of the good which might reasonably have been expected, and upon that account it may justly excite dislike and disapprobation: it cannot, however, provoke any resentment which mankind will go along with.

Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil. It may disappoint of the good which might reasonably have been expected, and upon that account it may justly excite dislike and disapprobation: it cannot, however, provoke any resentment which mankind will go along with. The man who does not recompense his benefactor, when he has it in his power, and when his benefactor needs his assistance, is, no doubt, guilty of the blackest ingratitude. The heart of every impartial spectator rejects all fellow-feeling with the selfishness of his motives, and he is the proper object of the highest disapprobation. But still he does no positive hurt to any body. He only does not do that good which in propriety he ought to have done. He is the object of hatred, a passion which is naturally excited by impropriety of sentiment and behaviour; not of resentment, a passion which is never properly called forth but by actions which tend to do real and positive hurt to some particular persons. His want of gratitude, therefore, cannot be punished. To oblige him by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it. His benefactor would dishonour himself if he attempted by violence to constrain him to gratitude, and it would be impertinent for any third person, who was not the superior of either, to intermeddle. But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what is called a perfect and complete obligation. What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still less be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude. We talk of the debt of gratitude, not of charity, or generosity, nor even of friendship, when friendship is mere esteem, and has not been enhanced and complicated with gratitude for good offices. …

About this Quotation:

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith has a very important section in which he talks about the best ways to promote the two virtues of beneficence and justice towards others. The former should be promoted and encouraged by means of “advice and persuasion” and never by the use of force. The reason he gives is that the failure to be beneficent towards others causes “no positive hurt to any body.” We may find such behavior worthy of criticism but it is no grounds for the government or other individuals to use force to punish that behaviour. To do so is “improper” and demonstrates “the highest degree of insolence and presumption” towards our fellows. On the other hand, the virtue of justice should be “extorted by force” because violations of justice cause “real and positive hurt” to others. (This will the subject of another Quote in the future.) There are two things to note is this passage: firstly Smith uses his idea of the “impartial spectator” to make his argument; and secondly, the similarity of his distinction between benefice and justice to that of Lysander Spooner’s concerning “vices” and “crimes.”

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