On Promoting the Happiness of Our Inferiors

John L. Parkhurst

Citation Information:Parkhurst, John L., “On Promoting the Happiness of Our Inferiors,” Elements of Moral Philosophy: Comprising the Theory of Morals and Practical Ethics. Concord, NH: J.B. Moore and J.W. Shepard, 1825. 122-36.

1. “There are three principal methods of promoting the happiness of our inferiors:

  1. By the treatment of our domestics and dependents.
  2. By professional assistance.
  3. By pecuniary bounty.” [1]

I. The treatment of our domestics and dependents.

2. “Whatever uneasiness we occasion to our domestics. which neither promotes our service, nor answers the just ends of punishment, is manifestly wrong; were it only on the general principle of diminishing the sum of human happiness.

3. By which rule we are forbidden,

  1. To enjoin unnecessary labor or confinement, from the mere love and wantonness of domination;
  2. To insult our servants by harsh, scornful, or opprobrious language;
  3. To refuse them any harmless pleasure:

4. And, by the same principle, are also forbidden causeless or immoderate anger, habitual peevishness, and groundless suspicions.”[2]

5. “The foregoing prohibitions extend to the treatment of SLAVES.—Slavery may be defined, ‘an obligation to labor for tile benefit of the master, without the contract or consent of the servant.’ “[3]

6.  The evils of slavery are so obvious and so well known, as hardly to need description. “The natives of Africa are excited to war and mutual depredation, for the sake of supplying their contracts, or furnishing the market with slaves. With this the wickedness begins. The slaves, torn away from parents, wives, children, from their friends and companions, their fields and flocks, their home and country, are transported to America, with no other accommodation on shipboard than what is provided for brutes. This is the second stage of cruelty; from which the miserable exiles are delivered, only to be placed, and that for life, in subjection to a dominion and system of laws, the most merciless and tyrannical that ever were tolerated upon the face of the earth: and from all that can be learned by the accounts of the people upon the spot, the inordinate authority which the plantation laws confer upon the slave-holder, is exercised with rigor and brutality.

7. But necessity is pretended; the name under which every enormity is attempted to be justified. And, after all, what is the necessity? It has never been proved that the land could not be cultivated by hired servants. It is said that it could not be cultivated with quite the same convenience and cheapness, as by the labor of slaves; by which means, a pound of sugar, which the planter now sells for sixpence could not be afforded under sixpence half-penny;—and this is the necessity !”[4]

8. That the blacks, by the system of slavery, suffer more than the whites gain, is a proposition so evident, that he who disputes it, hardly deserves to be refuted,—unless it were by being chained, and subjected to the lash of a task-master. Therefore, as human happiness is diminished by the system of slavery, it is unlawful and ought to be abolished. Dr. Paley, however, proposes no definite plan for this purpose. He says, “The emancipation of slaves should be gradual; and be carried on by provisions of law, and under the protection of civil government.” I would rather say, Let all the slaves, who wish it, be at once delivered from the hands of their masters. Let those who choose to remove beyond the bounds of the United States, be either transported to Africa, or permitted to go elsewhere, under such restrictions as the wisdom of the national legislature may impose. And of those who choose to stay, let all under a certain age (say 15) be put into schools supported at the public expense, till they are qualified to take care of themselves and make good members of society; and let all above that age be employed in as profitable a manner as may be, under overseers appointed by government, who shall treat them with humanity and kindness. These may do enough to support themselves, to pay the expense of overseeing them, and perhaps to contribute something toward the support of the schools. As to the masters, they ought to receive a reasonable compensation for the loss of property which they may sustain in having their slaves taken from them. Whatever the expense of all this might be, it ought to be borne by the nation. Who that has the least spark of philanthropy in his bosom, would be reluctant to pay his share of a tax, which was to accomplish so humane and so noble an object? The rights of injured Africa have long enough been trampled upon. The blood of her sable sons has long enough called for vengeance on the heads of guilty white men. It is time that these wrongs were redressed; and some expiation made, for the tortures that have been inflicted, and the blood that has been shed. The plan of colonization, which has been set in operation by christian enterprise, and which is patronised by our national government, is a good thing as far as it goes; but it seems to be too slow a process, in a case, where the evil is so great, and the call of duty so loud. The least that our government ought to do, is immediately to deliver all the children of the slaves from the yoke of bondage, and place them in a situation, where they may become qualified to hold a respectable rank, as men and as citizens, as rational and immortal beings.

II. Professional Assistance.

9. This kind of beneficence Is chiefly to be expected from members of the legislature, magistrates, medical, legal, and sacerdotal professions.

10. The care of the poor ought to be the principal object of all laws; for this plain reason, that the rich are able to take care of themselves.

11. Of all private professions, that of medicine puts it in a man’s power to do the most good at the least expense. Health, which is precious to all, is to the poor invaluable; and their complaints, as agues rheumatisms, &c. are often such as yield to medicine. And; with respect to the expense, drugs at first hand cost little, and advice costs nothing, where it is only bestowed upon those who could not afford to pay for it.

12. The rights of the poor are not so important or intricate, as their contentions are violent and ruinous. A Lawyer or Attorney, of tolerable knowledge in his profession, has commonly judgment enough to adjust these disputes, with all the effect, and without the expense, of a law-suit.”[5]

III. Pecuniary Bounty.

13 1. The obligation to bestow relief upon the poor.

14. It is our duty to bestow relief upon the poor, because a portion of our property will be a greater benefit to them, than it could be to us, and the sum of human happiness will thus be increased. “The christian scriptures are more copious and explicit upon this duty, than upon almost any other.—It does not appear, that before the times of christianity, an infirmary, hospital, or public charity of any kind, existed in the world; whereas most countries in Christendom have long abounded with these institutions.

15. 2. The manner of bestowing bounty; or the different kinds of charity

16. There are three kinds of charity which prefer a claim to attention.

17. The first, and one of the best, is, to give stated and considerable sums, by way of pension or annuity, to individuals or families, with whose behavior and distress we ourselves are acquainted. It is a recommendation of this kind of charity, that pensions and annuities, which are paid regularly, and can be expected at the time, are the only way by which we can prevent one part of a poor man’s sufferings,—the dread of want.

18. A second method of doing good, which is in every one’s power who has the money to spare, is by subscription to public charities. Public charities admit of this argument in their favor, that your money goes farther towards attaining the end for which it is given, than it can do by any private and separate beneficence.

19. The last, and, compared with the former, the lowest exertion of benevolence, is the relief of beggars. Nevertheless, we are, by no means, to reject, indiscriminately, all who implore our alms in this way. Some may perish by such a conduct. Men are sometimes overtaken by distress, for which all other relief would come too late. Besides which resolutions of this kind compel us to offer such violence to our humanity, as may go near, in a little while, to suffocate the principle itself; which is a very serious Consideration”[6]

20. There are other ways of relieving the poor, and promoting their happiness, which are as important as the giving of money, food, or clothing. They may frequently be furnished with employment, and thus not only be enabled to obtain a supply for their present wants, but also be led into a habit of industry. Those who employ laborers, would do well to keep this subject in view; and to consult, not merely their own interest, but also the relief and comfort of the neighboring poor.—But there is another species of charity, which affords a prospect of doing, in the end, still greater good; and that is, the making provision for the education of the children of the poor. By furnishing them with the means of literary, moral, and religious improvement; we may put them in a way to become qualified to take care of themselves, and to be a blessing, instead of a burden, to the public.

21. “3. The pretences by which men excuse themselves from giving to the poor.

22. 1. ‘That they have nothing to spare,’ that is, nothing for which they have not provided some other use; never reflecting whether it be in their power, or that it is their duty, to retrench their expenses, and contract their plan, ‘that they may have to give to them that need.’”

23. 2. ‘That they have families of their own, and that charity begins at home.’ If, by giving, they would injure their own families more than they would benefit the poor, the plea is a good one.

24. 3. ‘That they pay the poor rates.’ Very well; and if all the poor and distressed are in this way comfortably provided for, they have no farther claim upon our compassion and charity.

25. “4. ‘That the poor do not suffer so much as we imagine: that education and habit have reconciled them to the evils of their condition, and make them easy under it.’ Habit can never reconcile human nature to the extremities of cold, hunger, and thirst, any more than it can reconcile the hand to the touch of a red-hot iron : besides, the question is not, how unhappy any one is, but how much more happy we can make him.

26. 5. ‘That these people, give them what you will, will will never thank you, or think of you for it.’ In the first place, this is not true: in the second place, it was not for the sake of their thanks that you relieved them.”[7]

27. I will close this chapter with some extracts from Dr. Brown “On the Duties of Benevolence ;”[8] and I flatter myself, that, though he does not confine his remarks to the promotion of the happiness of our inferiors, though some ideas already advanced may be repeated, and though the extracts occupy several pages, it will not be thought, by the reader of moral sensibility, that in making them, I need apology, either for digression, repetition, or prolixity.

28. “The benevolent spirit, as its object is the happiness of all who are capable of feeling happiness, is as universal in its efforts, as the miseries which are capable of being relieved, or the enjoyments which it is possible to extend to a single human being, within the reach of its efforts, or almost of its wishes. When we speak of benefactions, indeed, we think only of one species of good action; and charity itself, so comprehensive in its etymological meaning, is used as if it were nearly synonymous with the mere opening of the purse. But ‘it is not money only which the unfortunate need, and they are but sluggards in well doing,’ as Rosseau strikingly expresses the character of this indolent benevolence, who know to do good only when they have a purse in their hand.’ Consolations, counsels, cares, friendship, protection, are so many resources which pity leaves us for the assistance of the indigent, even though wealth should be wanting.”

29. “If, indeed, there be in the heart those genuine wishes of diffusive good, which are never long absent from the heart of the virtuous, there will not long be wanting occasions of exertion. It will not be easy for an eye, that has been accustomed to the search of objects of generous regard, to look around without the discovery of something which may be remedied, or something which may be improved; and in relieving some misery, or producing or spreading some happiness, the good man will already have effected his delightful purpose, before others would even have imagined that there was any good to be done.”

30. “The benevolent man will be eager to relieve every form of personal suffering. Public institutions arise, by his zeal, for receiving the sick, who have no home, or a home which it is almost sickness to inhabit, and for restoring them in health to those active employments of which they would otherwise have been incapable. In the humblest ranks of life, when no other aid can be given by the generous poor, than that which their attendance and sympathy administer, this aid they never hesitate to afford. When their own toils of the day are over, they often give the hours of a night, that is to be terminated in a renewed call to their fatiguing occupations,—not to the repose which their exhausted strength might seem to demand,—but to a watchful anxiety around the bed of some feverish sufferer, who is scarcely sufficiently conscious of what is around him to thank them for their care, and whose look of squalid wretchedness seems to be only death begun, and the infection of death to all who gaze upon it. The same benevolence, which prompts to the succor of the infirm, prompts to the succor also of the indigent. Though charity is not mere pecuniary aid, pecuniary aid, when such aid is needed, is still one of the most useful, because one of the most extensive in its application, of all the services of charity. Nor is it valuable only for the temporary relief which it affords to sufferings that could not otherwise be relieved, It has a higher and more comprehensive office. It brings together those, whose union seems necessary for general happiness, and almost for explaining the purposes of heaven in the present system of things. There are every where the rich, who have means of comfort which they know not how to enjoy, and scarcely how to waste;—and everywhere some, who are poor without guilt on their part, or at least rather guilty because they are poor, than poor because they are guilty. All which seems necessary for the comfort of both, is, that they should be brought together. Benevolence effects this union. It carries the rich to the cottage, or to the very hovels of the poor—it allows the poor admission into the palaces of the rich;—and both become richer in the only true sense of the word, because to both there is an accession of happiness. The wealthy obtain the pleasure of doing good, and of knowing that there are hearts which bless them ;—.the indigent obtain the relief of urgent necessities, and the pleasure of loving a generous benefactor.

31. Such are the delightful influences of positive benevolence, in their relation to the personal sufferings, and to the pecuniary wants, of those, who, if they have no property to be assailed by injustice, have at least necessities, the disregard of which is equal in moral delinquency to injustice itself. In its relation to the affections of those around, who are connected with each other by various ties of regard, benevolence is not less powerful, as a producer, or fosterer of good. Wherever there are causes of future jealousy, among those who love each other at present, it delights in dispelling the elements of the cloud, when the cloud itself, that has not yet begun to darken, scarcely can be said to have arisen. If suspicions have already gathered in the breast of any one, who thinks, but thinks falsely, that he has been injured; it is quick, with all the ready logic of kindness, to show that the suspicions are without a cause.—If it find not suspicion only, but dissention that has burst out, in all the violence of mutual acrimony, it appears in its divine character of a peacemaker and, almost by the influence of its mere presence, the hatred disappears and the love returns—as if it were as little possible, that discord should continue where it is, as that the mists and gloom of night should not disappear, at the mere presence of that sun which shines upon them.

32. “The virtuous man,’? it has been beautifully said, “proceeds without constraint in the path of his duty. His steps are free; his gait is easy; he has the graces of virtue. He moves along in benevolence, and he sees arising in others, the benevolence which is in him. Of all our virtuous emotions, those of kind regard are the most readily imitated. To feel them is to inspire them ; to see them is to partake them. Are they in your heart?—they are in your looks, in your manners, in your discourse. Your presence reconciles enemies ; and hatred which cannot penetrate to your heart, cannot even dwell around you.[9]

33. If benevolence is eager to preserve the affection of those who love each other, it cannot fail to be careful of their character, on which so much of affection depends. The whispers of insidious slanders may come to it as they pass,—with a secrecy, which has nothing in it of real secrecy, but mere lowness of tone,—from voice to voice in eager publication ; hut if there be no other voice to bear them farther, they will cease and perish, when it is benevolence which has heard.

34. The power which nature has given us over the trains of thought and emotion, which we may raise more or less directly, in the minds of others, the benevolent man will employ as an instrument of his generous wishes, not as an instrument of cruelty. It will be his care to awake, in the mind of every one who approaches him, the most delightful feelings which he can awaken, consistently with the permanent virtue and happiness of him whom he addresses. He will not flatter, therefore, and speak of faults as if they were excellencies, for this would be to give a little momentary pleasure at the expense of the virtuous happiness of years. But without flattery, he will produce more pleasure, even for the time, than flattery itself could give:—in the interest which he seems to feel, he will show that genuine sincerity, which impresses with irresistible belief, and of which the confidence is more gratifying to the virtue,—I had almost said to the very vanity of man,—than the doubtful praises to which the heart, though it may love to hear them, is incapable of yielding itself.

35. Benevolence, in this amiable form, of course, excludes all haughtiness. The great, however elevated, descend, under its gentle influence, to meet the happiness and the grateful affection of those who are beneath them ; and in descending to happiness and gratitude,—which themselves have produced, they do not feel that they are descending. Whatever be the scene of its efforts or wishes, to do good is to the heart always to rise, and the height of its elevation is, therefore, always in proportion to the quantity of good which it has effected, or which, at least, it has had the wish of effecting.

36. Politeness,—which is, when ranks are equal, what affability is, when the more distinguished mingle with the less distinguished—is the natural effect of that benevolence which regards always with sympathetic complacency, and is fearful of disturbing, even by the slightest momentary uneasiness, the serenity of others. A breach of attention in any of the common offices of civility, to which the arbitrary usages of social life have attached importance, even when nothing more is intended, is still a neglect, and neglect itself is an insult; it is the immediate cause of a pain which no human being is entitled, where there has been no offence, to give to any other human being. Politeness then,—the social virtue that foresees and provides against every unpleasant feeling that may arise in the breasts around, as if it were some quick-sighted and guardian Power, intent only on general happiness,—is something far more dignified in its nature, than the cold courtesies which pass current under that name the mere knowledge of fashionable manners, and an exact adherence to them. It is, in its most essential respects, what may be possessed by those, who have little of the varying vocabulary, and varying usages of the season. The knowledge of these is, indeed, necessary to such as mingle in the circles which require them ; but they are necessary only as the new fashion of the coat or splendid robe, which leaves him or her who wears it, the same human being, in every respect, as before ; and are not more a part of either, than .the ticket of admission, which opens to their ready entrance, the splendid apartment, from which the humble are excluded. The true politeness of the heart, is something which cannot be given by those who minister to mere decoration. It is the moral grace of life, if I may venture so to term it,—the grace of the mind, and what the world count graces, are little more than graces of the body.

37. Such is benevolence in the various forms in which it may be instrumental to happiness,—and, in being thus instrumental to the happiness of others, it has truly a source of happiness within itself. It may not feel indeed, all the enjoyment which it wishes to diffuse—for its wishes are unlimited—but it feels an enjoyment, that is as wide as all the happiness which it sees around it, or the still greater and wider happiness of which it anticipates the existence. The very failure of a benevolent wish only breaks its delight, without destroying it ; for when one wish of good has failed, it has still other wishes of equal or greater good that arise, and occupy and bless it as before.

38. In considering the various ways in which benevolence may be active, we have seen how extensive it may be as a feeling of the heart. If wealth, indeed, were necessary, there would be few who could enjoy it, or, at least, who could enjoy it largely. But pecuniary aid, as we have seen, is only one of many forms of being useful To correct some error, moral or intellectual,—to counsel those who are in doubt, and who in such circumstances, require instruction, as the indigent require alms,— even though nothing more were in our power to show an interest in the welfare of the happy, and a sincere commiseration of those who are in sorrow,—in those, and in innumerable other ways, the benevolent, however scanty may be their means of conferring, what alone the world calls benefactions, are not benevolent only, hut beneficent ; as truly beneficent, or far more so, as those who squander in loose prodigialities, to the deserving and undeserving, the sufferers from their own thoughtless dissipation, or the sufferers from the injustice and dissipation of others, almost as much as they loosely squander on a few hours of their own sensual appetites.

39. Even in pecuniary liberalities, benevolence does not merely produce good, but it knows well, or it learns to know, the greatest amount of good which its liberalities can produce. To be the cause of less happiness or comfort, than might be diffused at the same cost, is almost a species of the same vice which withholds aid from those who require it. The benevolent, therefore, are magnificent in their bounty, because they are economical even in bounty itself. Their heart is quick to perceive sources of relief where others no not see them; and the whole result of happiness produced by them, seems often to have arisen from a superb munificence which few could command, when it may, perhaps, have proceeded only from humble means, which the possessor of similar means, without similar benevolence, would think scarcely more than necessary for his own strict necessaries.”[10]

40. It is by its inattention to the little wants of man that ostentation distinguishes itself from charity ; and a sagacious observer needs no other test, in the silent disdain or eager reverence of his heart, to separate the seeming benevolence, which seeks the applauding voices of crowds, from the real benevolence, which seeks only to be the spreader of happiness on consolation. It is impossible for tine most ostentatious producer of the widest amount of good, with all his largesses, and with all his hypocrisy, to be consistent in his acts of seeming kindness; because, to be consistent, he must have that real kindness, which sees, what the cold simulator of benevolence is incapable of seeing, and does, therefore, what such a cold dissembler is incapable even of imagining.”


* Pale y’s Mor. and Polit. Philos. Book VI. Chap. 9. + Paley’s Moral Philos. Book III. Part II. Chap. 1. * Ibid. Chap. 2.  + Ibid. Chap. 3. * Ibid. * Ibid. Chap. 4. * Ibid. Chap. 5. * Ibid.  + Brown’s Philosophy, Lect. 86. *St. Lambert, Ouev. Phil. Tome III. p. 179. *     “Necessary for his own strict necessaries.” So reads the only edition of Brown’s Lectures which I have seen that published at Andover, 1822. Ought in not no be - sufficie nt for his own strict necessaries” ? or, ’ necessary for his own, strict necessities’ ?