Cool To Be Kind?
Kindness is a virtue generally reserved for special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays and redundancy. An act of kindness consists either of selecting a target who doesn’t deserve anything and giving them something they don’t want, or choosing a recipient in genuine need and giving them the same.
If you really want to know what kindness is then the whole of Western thought, literature, art and science over the last two millennia is the worst place to look. Philosophers for instance have devoted whole books to questions of evil, and war, and lies, and bullshit even. Hardly any have scribbled more than an odd page in passing on kindness. This may be owing to the fact that the world overflows with evil, war, lies and bullshit but kindness is much less evident. Or it may be that the case for kindness isn’t philosophically compelling, and philosophers not naturally inclined that way.
Aristotle wrote the biggest ethical blockbuster of all time but managed not to give the slightest thought to kindness. He did, however, mention the concept in his Rhetoric - a kind of manual for political manipulation and one -upmanship.
Kindness, in Aristotle’s book, was something one did to the less fortunate. The higher up the social ladder you were and the bigger your pile the kinder you could afford to be. Kindness does exist amongst the upper classes but Aristotle suggests it’s easy to undermine confidence and sew suspicion about the quality of kindness of a political opponent if you wanted to slur his character. He offers a handy list – you could mutter ulterior motive, whisper about backhanders, or, even worse, spread it around that your enemy is cheap and the gesture hardly worth a slaves sandal.
The example Aristotle gives of genuine kindness of is of a man who donated a mat to the Lyceum, his school of philosophy. Presumably the deficient soft furnishing situation in philosophy class prompted this helpful deed. If the guy had expected to be taught dialectics in return then that would have been a commercial transaction – perfectly ethical but not necessarily kind. If the fellow suggested that Aristotle better not allow his kid to flunk the end of term ethics exam then the mat would have been a bribe – efficacious perhaps, but never kind.
(Incidentally, no other item of interior design was mentioned in the major works of philosophy for another two thousand years until Nietzsche had Zarathustra on the edge of a mighty ravine in a perilous storm shaking his fist to the gods and vowing that even if the Eternal Return should prove true he would defy it and refuse the Laura Ashley bedspread with matching pillowcases his sister bought him for his fortieth.)
Things don’t get much more illuminating in psychology, which until recently has been mostly concerned with showing the ugly side of human nature. Many of the most famous experiments were unkind in conception (Harry Harlow and his wire monkey mother) or ended up escalating the unkindness (Philip Zimbardo’s simulated prison dilemma) or showed us how spectacularly unkind we were prepared to be given half the chance (Stanley Milgram and Obedience to Authority.) In the last couple of decades a shiny, happy psychology has been getting all the research grants however. Positive Psychology has shown a significant statistical correlation between kindness as a character trait and kind acts. Sadly, however, not enough research has been done to establish whether the converse is true and it is unwise to speculate whether acting kindly can make one a kinder person. Best wait until the evidence is in.
Historically, kindness mainly used to entail not thrashing your servants on a Sunday (whether they deserved thrashing or not!) and allowing them half a day off every month so they could attend the public hanging. If you were of the servant class yourself then the only way you had to show your good nature was by giving up your front row seat at the execution to a lady from the local knitting circle.
In the hard sciences kindness has a Latin name and a whole theory why it can’t really exist. Basically the problem of altruism all boils down to the conundrum of how kind people get to reproduce. When two kind people of the opposite sex get together it is difficult to see how evolution could have got off the ground to begin with – after you! no, after you …Kindness could never be described as a virile virtue. Though I can see the sociobiological sense in a kindness gene for the female of the species when male performance does not quite match up with male display.
In popular culture too it’s a cliche that kindness is not an attractive quality in a potential mate; bad boys, bastards and blonds notoriously have all the fun. And speaking from personal experience, the kinder I behave the further I notice my chances of successfully getting anywhere near the realm of reproduction recede dramatically.
Recently I have begun to notice that it isn’t just genetically programmed life forms that can be described as kind. Whole shelves of product at the 99p shop are labelled “soft”, “gentle” and “kind”, everything from washing up liquid and fabric conditioner to “intimate lubrication.” Come to think of it, this is probably the reason the Western Philosophical canon is so blind to kindness – I mean, can’t really imagine Nietzsche going in for all that oatmeal and aloe vera nonsense can you?