Kindness, or the lack of it, has been getting a lot of press recently. Media gurus lament the selfishness of our times, while newspapers regularly feature stories like the one about a wealthy stockbroker who, at the peak of his career, decided tospend his weekends doing volunteer work with deprived children. He was amazed at his own reaction. "Helping kids just makes me so happy, I feel like a different person." His astonishment is echoed in headline reports of studies of "what makes people happy," which show kindness registering much higher on the happiness scale than self-focused behavior. A recent report described an experiment carried out by the American psychologist Martin Seligman (author of Authentic Happiness), who recruited a group of university students to test out "philanthropy versus fun." "Guess which one gave them the bigger kick?" the reporter chortled. "I’ve felt that kick too, every time I buy someone a pint."
Reading these stories, we began to wonder why people today are so surprised by the blindingly obvious. Why do the pleasuresof kindness astonish us? And why are stories about kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter most to most people?
The pleasures of kindness were well known in the past. Kindness was mankind ’s "greatest delight," the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down the centuries. But today, many peoplefind these pleasures literally incredible or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterlylacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad, and dangerous to know; that as a species— apparently unlike other species of animal—we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking, and that our sympathies are forms of self-protection.
This book explains how and why this has come about. It shows how the kind life—the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others—is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness. Kindness, we will argue in this book—not sexuality, not violence, not money—has become our forbidden pleasure. What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?
In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else ’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness—like all the greatest human pleasures—are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess. How have we come to repudiate them? In 1741 the Scottish philosopher David Hume, confronted by a school of philosophy that held mankind to be irredeemably selfish, lost patience. Any person foolish enoughto deny the existence of human kindness had simply lost touch with emotional reality, Hume insisted: "he has forgotten the movements of his heart." How do people come to forget about kindness and the deep pleasures it gives to them?
On Kindness seeks to answer this question. Written by a historian and a psychoanalyst, it reveals the cost and, froma historical point of view, the peculiarity of modern attitudes to kindness. For nearly all of human history—up to and beyond David Hume ’s day, the so-called dawn of modernity— people have perceived themselves as naturally kind. Thisbook shows when and why this confidence evaporated and the consequences of this transformation: how in giving up on kindness—and especially our own acts of kindness—we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being. "We mutually belong to one another," the philosopher Alan Ryan writes, and the good life is one "that reflects this truth." Today this truth has gone underground. Independence and self-reliance are now the great aspirations; "mutual belonging" is feared and unspoken; it has become one of the great taboos of our society. Why?
To answer this we begin by looking back at ideas about kindness from the classical age onward. Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names—sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy—and that in the past were known by other terms as well, notably philanthropia (love of mankind) and caritas (neighborly or brotherly love). The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called "open-heartedness," the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other. "No less indiscriminate and general than the alienation between people is the desire to breach it," the German critic Theodor Adorno once wrote, suggesting that even though our alienation, our distance from other people, may make us feel safe, it also makes us sorry, as though loneliness is the inevitable cost of looking after ourselves. History shows us the manifold expressions of humanity’s desire to connect, from classical celebrations of friendship, to Christian teachings on love and charity, to twentieth-century philosophies of social welfare. It also shows us the degree of human alienation, how our capacity to care for each other is inhibited by fears and rivalrieswith a pedigree as long as kindness itself.
For most of Western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity, which sacralizes people ’s generous instincts and makes them the basis of a universalist faith. For centuries, Christian caritas functioned as a culturalcement, binding individuals into society. But from the sixteenth century, the Christian rule "love thy neighbor as thyself " came under increasing attack from competitive individualism. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)—the urtext of the new individualism—dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity. Men, Hobbes insisted, were selfish beasts who cared for nothing but their own well-being; human existence was a "warre of alle against alle." His arguments were slow to gain ground, but by the end of the eighteenth century— despite the best efforts of David Hume and others—they were becoming orthodoxy. Two centuries later it seems we are all Hobbesians, convinced that self-interest is our ruling principle. (The French psychoanalyst Lacan suggested that the Christian injunction "love thy neighbor as thyself " must be ironic, because people hate themselves.) Kindly behavior is looked upon with suspicion; public espousals of kindness are dismissed as moralistic and sentimental. "It’s just human nature," we say of selfish behavior; what more can we expect? Kindness is seen either as a cover story or as a failure of nerve. Popular icons of kindness—Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa—are either worshipped as saints or gleefully unmasked as self-serving hypocrites. Prioritizing the needs of others may be praiseworthy, we think, but it is certainly not normal.
So is it time to give up on being kind? Or at least to drop kindness as one of the things we claim to value, and instead just enjoy the apparently spontaneous but fleeting moments of kindness in our lives while acknowledging that, for selfish creatures like ourselves, these moments are the exceptions that prove the rule?
Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory. But before we condemn the mother who rages at her toddler in the street, we might stop to consider what it feels like to be a parent in a society where kindness is incidentally praised while being implicitly discouraged. Kindness—that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself— has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality). No one yet says parents should stop being kind to their children. Nonetheless we have become phobic of kindness in our societies, avoiding obvious acts of kindness and producing, as we dowith phobias, endless rationalizations to justify our avoidance. All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctlyold-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympatheticbecause of our kindness—if such a time ever existed. And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where "respect" for personal status has become a leading value.
Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers. But agreeing to talk about winners and losers is part and parcel of the phobic avoidance, the contemporary terror of kindness. Because one of the things the enemies of kindness never ask themselves—and this is now an enemy within all of us—is why we feel it at all. Whyare we ever, in any way, moved to be kind to other people, not to mention to ourselves? Why does kindness matter to us? It is, perhaps, one of the distinctive things about kindness— unlike an abstract moral ideal, such as justice—thatin the end we know exactly what it is, in most everyday situations; and yet our knowing what it is makes it easier to avoid. We usually know what the kind thing to do is—and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not. We usually have the wherewithal to do it (kindness is not an expert skill); and it gives us pleasure. And yet we areextremely disturbed by it. We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.
So we are profoundly ambivalent about kindness. We love it and we fear it; we feel its absence very acutely—it is themisery of everyday life—and we resist our own kind impulses. Our predicament is not just a moral one (kindness as a neglected duty) but psychological. It is not merely that we are not as kind as we ought to be, but that it seems peculiarly difficult for us to hold on to the fact that we get powerful pleasure from our own acts of kindness. As naturally social beings, we feel with and for others, and this makes us simultaneously kind and self-regarding. But this ambivalence can be hard to sustain, both in ourselves and in our perceptions of others. Just how hard is apparent in our attitudes to children, who tend to be seen as either wholly innocent and good, and therefore corrupted by adults, or wholly bad (vicious and sexual and rivalrous) and therefore simply small members of the unpleasant human race. This polarized view of childhood has had damaging consequences.
Children, like the adults they will become, are complex creatures with, we will argue, an instinct for kindness and concernthat is every bit as strong as their self-regarding instincts, about which we hear so much today. The forms kindness can take, like the forms sexuality can take, are partly learned from the societies in which we grow up, and so can be unlearned or badly taught or resisted. So it is one of the contentions of this book that children begin their lives "naturally" kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society. This is not a new idea: over 250 years ago Jean-Jacques Rousseau made a passionate plea for the rescue of children’s natural kindness from the corruptingeffects of a divided society. This is a key point in the history of kindness, which is also the history of childhood. What is new perhaps is how easily people today are persuaded not to take kindness too seriously. How has something so integral and essential to ourselves become so incidental, so implausible to us?
This is a historical story—about how and why people have been talked out of their kindness—but also a psychological one, that is, a story about how vulnerability becomes traumatic to people. Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t also resilient and resourceful. Bearing other people ’s vulnerability—which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it—entails being able to bear one ’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other. Before we are sexual creatures we are vulnerable creatures;indeed the strength of our desires derives from our original helplessness and dependence.
The child ’s first, formative trauma is his growing acknowledgment of his need for others (in actuality the mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her; parents need their children not to worry them too much). The needy child experiences a trauma of concern ("How can I take care of my mother to ensure that she takes care ofme?"), which calls up his natural kindness; but this concern—and the later forms of kindness that emerge from it—is too easily turned away from. This turning away we call self-sufficiency, and when we want to pathologize it we call it narcissism. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people ’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we are prone to call failings when we are at our most frightened). Vulnerability—particularly the vulnerability we call desire—is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we both long for and dread. How can people, from childhood onward, feel confident enough to take such risks?
People want safety, whatever the cost. Perhaps it is one of the perils of secularization, that if we no longer believe in God—in a Being who is himself invulnerable and so is capable of protecting us—we cannot avoid confronting our own relative helplessness and need for each other. If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere. How do we deal with this? In his novel Raw Youth (1875), Dostoevsky describes a morning when people wake to find themselves alone in a godless universe. Instead of bewailing their loss, they turn to each other, substituting their own tenderness and concern for divine protection. Acknowledging human vulnerability, they respond to it positively. Kindness, for them, becomes a way of experiencing their vulnerability that tests the strengths and limits of their resources to deal with it. When God is dead, kindness is permitted. When God is dead, kindness is all that people have left.
So it is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless, it is rather that real kindness changes people in the doingof it, often in unpredictable ways. Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can. (The notion of self-interest implies that we always know what we want, by knowing what the self is and what its interests are. It forecloses discovery.) Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them. By involving us with strangers (even with "foreigners" thousands of miles away), as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. But as we shall see, the child needs the adult—and his wider society—tohelp him keep faith with his kindness, that is, to help him discover and enjoy the pleasures of caring for others. The child who is failed in this regard is robbed of one of the greatest sources of human happiness. People have long known this, and long forgotten it. The history of kindness, to which we now turn, tells the story of this knowing, and forgetting, and reknowing, as central to Western ideas about the good life.
Nietzsche wrote in The Genealogy of Morals (1887)—the great nineteenth-century critique of the roots of morality— that he "regarded the inexorable progress of the morality of compassion which afflicted even the philosopherswith its illness, as the most sinister symptom of the sinister development of our European culture." It is our view that the morality of compassion has not made progress—has indeed shied away from its shrewdest insights—and that this is the truly sinister symptom of modern life.
Excerpted from On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor.
Copyright © 2009 Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.