Beneficence as a principle that guides decisions should be distinguished from the virtue that motivates actors. The
Oxford English Dictionary defines "beneficence" as "doing good, the manifestation of benevolence, or kindly feeling" (emphasis added). This definition bespeaks the etymology of both terms. Beneficence is derived from the Latin bene (well; from bonus, good) and facere (to do), whereas benevolence is rooted in bene and volens (a strong wish or intention) (Partridge). Philosophers who emphasize a more rationalist approach, calculated to guide principled choices, tend to endorse beneficence. Those who see ethics as primarily concerned with virtue, character, and the psychological dimensions of the moral life emphasize benevolence.
David Hume, for example, conceived of benevolence as one of the instincts originally implanted in human nature. Like Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and other eighteenth-century English-speaking philosophers, Hume was not so much concerned with ethical problem solving as with describing the role and place of benevolence in the moral topography of human beings. Adam Smith used the term beneficence, but employed it to describe the virtue of goodwill, and saw it as a moral passion rather than a principle. Of concern to all these philosophers was a task set for them by Thomas Hobbes a century earlier.
Hobbes set the modern polemical context for discussions not only of beneficence and benevolence but also of ethics more generally. His moral philosophy was determinist, denying any capacity for choice based on values, and relativist, denying any independent reference for the terms good and evil: Liberty he saw as merely the ability to enact one's desires, not freedom to deliberate and choose. Good and evil simply denoted human appetites and aversions. "Will" was just another desire, not a distinctive moral capacity. Obviously such a philosophy was no place for beneficence as a principle of choice or benevolence as a motivation for the good of others. Ethics devolves into a deterministic egoism. Butler, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, in a variety of ways, took as their task a survey of the moral psyche, with special regard for the place of benevolence as something innate or natural to human life.
Unless Hobbes's egoistic portrait is correct, any well-rounded view of ethics will include ways of describing and evaluating both the motivational and character-laden aspects, and the decisional, action-oriented elements of ethics— that is, both benevolence and beneficence.
A principle of beneficence can be broadly or narrowly defined. William Frankena views beneficence as an inclusive principle involving elements of refraining from inflicting harm and preventing or removing evil, as well as an obligation actively to promote good. James Childress adopts Frankena's elements but reclassifies them according to two distinct principles: nonmaleficence, the obligation not to inflict harm; and beneficence, the obligations to prevent harm, to remove harm or evil, and positively to promote good. This refinement has the merit of following an intuitive division between refraining and active doing. It elucidates why refraining from harm is usually seen as a universal duty to others, while actively promoting good or helping others is typically seen as a less stringent obligation and often as resulting from specific role obligations (being a parent or a doctor) or contractual agreements. A broader-ranging sense of beneficence is, nevertheless, endorsed by some philosophers. For example, in The Right and the Good, W. D. Ross claimed that duties of beneficence are incurred because of "the mere fact that there are other human beings in the world whose condition we can make better ..." (p. 21).
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