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.