Beneficence is defined as the quality or state of being beneficent. Merriam-Webster dictionary[1] defines beneficent as doing or producing good. Especially: performing acts of kindness and charity. The notion of doing good is very broad and even more so when discussing ethical theory.

Beneficence and Ethical Theorists

From a moral obligation perspective, it is difficult to argue that helping an elderly lady to cross the street or to volunteer at a soup kitchen is not producing good for society. Accordingly, from an ethical theorist standpoint, many leading ethical philosophers, as reviewed by Waluchow[2] , have considered beneficence as part of their theoretical perspectives. W. D. Ross outlined the principle of beneficence in his mixed deontological theory as a requirement to “promote the good of others in our actions.” This is represented as one of his six pluralistic prima facie duties as the duty to improve the condition of others. Ross provides these self evident duties that initially seem easy to follow, unless they contradict one another. In this case, Ross suggests that a certain weight be associated with each competing duty to assist with the ethical pursuit of a certain course of action.

Reference to beneficence can also be found in J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism. Mill outlines moral decision making as pursuing the maximization of positive outcomes while minimizing the harmful ones. From a different perspective, Kant also employed the notion of beneficence in his belief that one should help others “according to one’s means, and without hoping for any form of personal gain thereby.” When beneficence goes beyond the call of duty as reasonably expected by society, the act of kindness becomes supererogatory: Praiseworthy, but optional and beyond one’s sense of duty.

Beneficence and Business/Public Relations

As we consider ethical decision making for the modern public relations practitioners, acting with beneficence seems to be a natural and expected behavior. When representing the interest of a client, advocating on behalf of a corporate group or simply promoting the values of an employer, performing acts of kindness and charity can go a long way in creating the right environment and emotional attachment. Many corporate entities exemplify beneficence by donating to charity, volunteering to good causes and raising funds for the community in which they operate.

When considering W.D. Ross prima facie duties, how can an organization risk the profitability and shareholders’ value by giving with beneficence to charity or providing generous employment benefits? One would have to weight the ultimate benefit for the corporation and society as a whole in determining the value of beneficence versus other prima facie duties of fairness and non-maleficence to its shareholders.

However, the moral philosopher Adam Smith[3] argues that the idea of corporate beneficence is unfeasible, as all actions performed by an organization are with the intent to serve self-interests. For example, a public relations campaign that raises awareness of an organizations’ support for a certain educational cause could be criticized for not actually being done to benefit the community, but to garner recognition for the actions as a means of boosting its positive image over competitors and increasing market share. Only authentic educational activities would pass public scrutiny.

This brings us to Audi [4] and the addition of two new obligations: Liberty and obligations of manner. The first, liberty, is related to preservation and enhancement of liberty and autonomy. In a business sense, it implies independence. The second, obligations of manner, enhances to concept of respectfulness. In other words, it is the how we do versus to what we do. An example would refer to the style of management or attitude toward openness and transparency in its dealing with various publics.
  1. ^ Beneficent. 2013. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beneficent
  2. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
  3. ^ Smith, A. (1976). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Audi, R. (2004). The good in the right: A theory of intuition and intrinsic value. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.