Kindness and Philosophy

Monday March 10, 2008


The philosopher Mary Midgley says somewhere that the history of ethical reflection clearly demonstrates how much of our thinking is shaped by what our sages omit to mention. This is a thought that I have been turning over in my mind for several weeks now, whilst I have been teaching my latest ethics course at Staffordshire University. Because one thing that has struck me is how, in the history of philosophy in the West, there has been very little consideration given to the practice of kindness. Ethical philosophers like to talk about duties and rights, they like to talk about utility and consequence, they like to talk about virtue and vice, good and evil, responsibility and obligation. These are big and impressive sounding things. But the amount of ink spent writing about kindness is, as far as I can see, rather slight. That is not to say that philosophers have entirely ignored the subject, of course. Aristotle, for example, tackles the subject in his Rhetoric, where he writes that “Kindness – under the influence of which a man is said to “be kind” – may be defined as helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped” – perhaps a rather more minimal definition than I myself might favour. However, it would be possible to scour the indexes of a substantial library shelf full of books on ethics, and not come across the word “kindness” mentioned even once.

And yet, when it comes to our everyday lives, kindness is something that we seem to care about a great deal. Indeed, for many of us, I suspect, kindness is a more fundamental aspect of ethical reflection than the ideas of duty, rights, consequence and so on. So the question that has been perplexing me is this: why have philosophers had so little to say on the subject?

Part of the answer, I suspect, is that philosophers are frequently drawn to a kind of rhetorical and conceptual grandeur. The idea of duty sounds impressive and slightly overbearing. You can stub your toe on duty. Similarly with consequence, or with responsibility, or with good and evil. These kinds of terms seem – and I’m not sure why this is – to lend to our ethical language an air of cosmic weightiness that is hard to argue with. But kindness does not seem to be like this. The term itself suggests a kind of small-scale intimacy that simply does not have the same kind of grandeur. You can’t stub your toe on kindness. At least, I don’t think that you can.

To find more systematic approaches to kindness, it is necessary to look elsewhere. The various traditions of Buddhism have given more attention to the idea of kindness. There is a rich vocabulary of love and kindness within Buddhist approaches to ethics – anukampa or “being moved in accordance with others”; muducittata or “the state of having a tender mind”; anuddaya or “tender care” – which bespeaks just this kind of intimacy with others and with the world as a foundation for ethics. The emphasis on tenderness is both interesting and important: much of Western philosophical ethics seems to relish precisely the opposite. We must be tough-minded, we must drive out every trace of tenderness, we must follow our reasoning through to its conclusions, whatever they may be.

But such approaches seem to lead to a diminished view of ethics. No doubt reflection and clarity are both necessary and important. But ethics needs kindness as well. It needs to recognise the small-scale, intimate dimensions of life, the everyday care and solicitude, the nuance of our interactions with each other and with the world, lest it betrays the very thing that it sets out to guard.

If anybody out there knows any recent ethical philosophers who have seriously engaged with the idea of kindness (Martha Nussbaum may be an exception to the general rule here, but I’d like to hear about any others), I’d be delighted to know.

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#1 · Anthony Beckman

10 March 2008

The only philosophers I can think of that deal with Kindness, are as you note, the more contemporary individuals whose work is considered under the heading of “ethics of care.”

I believe the major difference between the Buddhist’s ability to consider kindness and the Western aversion (or at least silence) to it can be captured in the relative importance each puts in “rationality.” If I were to interpret much of Greek and Continental philosophy sympathetically, I would say that they have a concern for kindness, but that it falls just outside their work. Since kindness can be seen in a non-rational light, the argument seems to be that we NEED the concepts of Good/Evil and Duty to convince our logical minds that kindness is in our best interest. The rational mind cannot find a way to simply be kind for kindness sake. Perhaps certain forms of virtue ethics could accommodate kindness, though I’m not familiar with any that do.
The more traditional and popular western ethical traditions (consequentalism) have no room in them for soft concepts like kindness. I have a particular interest in finding non-western (currently Gandhian influenced, but ultimately Buddhist influenced) alternatives to consequentalist moral theory. The work of Amartya Sen suggests that human rights consideration can be taken into account under a full-fledged consequentialist moral theory – however I’m not sure how successful it could be incorporating kindness. And very broad Consequentialist theories like those of David Sosa may be able to (though I doubt any serious analytic philosopher would consider this) define a more favorable state of affairs as one that includes acts of kindness. However “moving the goal posts” like this seems like a poor way to formulate ethical theories. And, in the end, as the theory would still be consequentialist, some sort of rational calculus would be involved and Kindness would likely be left behind.
Thank you for this thought provoking post. More grist for the mill. I wonder if the Metta Sutra would find a home in the western canon of ethics…

#2 · Padmakara

10 March 2008

Maybe Confucius: theblog.philosophyta…

‘Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses’. Confucius

‘To be able under all circumstances to
practice five things constitutes perfect
virtue; these five things are gravity, generosity of
soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness’. Confucius

But also William S Hamrick has a book: ‘Kindness and the Good Society: Connections of the Heart’ (SUNY press.)…

From the blurb to the book:
“In response to neglect of the topic by philosophers, Hamrick provides an extensive, critical, and insightful examination of kindness and the role it plays in the good life. Key to his analysis is demonstrating that kindness is a complex phenomenon with both affective and cognitive features. Hamrick structures the book in three parts. The first offers a phenomenological description of kindness, while the second provides a hermeneutical critique that allows him to develop a critical ethic in the third. In chapter 1, Hamrick embraces a phenomenological method to uncover the central features of kindness manifest in concrete everyday examples. He describes the kind act as intentional, voluntary, and aimed at the welfare of the recipient.”

#3 · PeterAtLarge

11 March 2008

It’s odd, isn’t it, that kindness is equated too often in our society with weakness. I watch the current political campaign with dismay, even as I realize how accurate reflection it is of our society’s values: competitiveness, abrasiveness and rudeness=strength; kindness, courtesy, consideration=weakness. Too bad!

#4 · Keith Ramsay

11 March 2008

Have a look at Joan C. Tronto’s book, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. Many of the issues mentioned here are considered in it.

#5 · Andy

12 March 2008

Amen, Will. That was a really beautiful post. Thank you.

I think it shows yet another example of where religious expression can sometimes top the secular alternative. I mean, I may not believe that Jesus died and rose again for my sins, but I can see the beauty in his words about giving ‘a cup of cold water’ to ‘one of these little ones’ (Mt 10:42).

Have you ever read any of Raimond Gaita’s work? He writes about the rhetorical weight of religious expression in his book A Common Humanity. It’s worth a look.

As for kindness in moral philosophy, few writers spring to mind. Maybe Simone Weil? Or Iris Murdoch? Both women, interestingly. And Weil was a Christian of sorts, so maybe she counts as a theologian rather than a philosopher.

#6 · Say Lee

16 March 2008

I believe the dichotomy in the Buddhist and western ethos on ethics (the inclusion and exclusion of kindness, respectively) boils down to whether an act is borne out of unconditional love (mahakaruna) or conditional love. I just learned from Bhante Upananda today that the four divine abidings that lead to Unconditional Love are:

1) Loving Kindness
2) Compassion
3) Sympathetic/Altruistic Joy, and
4) Equanimity (or equality in the social context).

Personally, I would like to add Wisdom to #2 above, or at least think that the two always go hand-in-hand in the Buddhist sense, as aptly put by Christina Feldman (The Buddhist Path to Simplicity, Thorsons, 2001, pg. 97):

“Wisdom rescues compassion from deteriorating into feelings of pity and powerlessness. Compassion rescues wisdom from deteriorating into idealistic intentions that remain distant from the realities of suffering in each moment.”

#7 · Jacob Russell

18 March 2008

Weil is an interesting case. Fascinates me. I have great respect for her—an extraordinarily independent mind. You say, a Christian of sorts. I think the “sorts” says more than the “Christian.” She refused conversion, remember. A gnostic outside all systems—which is her strength. Yet, in suffering an anorexic death in sympathy with the suffering children of Europe, she could not offer so much as a prayerful thought to the two million murdered Jewish children. Something of a blank in her capacity to empathize… with herself, or those marked my that same star of identity she sought to flee.

It seems to me that having it “all sewn up” is an impediment to, perhaps an escape from, our intimate relationship with others. Whether the knowledge or understanding is one’s own, or part of the system, if it’s all sewn up—what need to take seriously the one who stands before us in this moment?

In humbling ourselves to the realization that even in all the collective knowledge of the species, we are more ignorant than knowing, we open ourselves to the reality that anyone, the least child, the homeless man pestering us for change on the street, has a unique experience and grasp of reality beyond us, that we will never sense without them. That only in accepting them as partners in our quest for understanding will we be able… perhaps… to place ourselves that much more in the world of reality. We are in sore need of what the other knows, and we do not.

Every violent death diminishes us, is a triumph of ignorance.

Sooner or later, I’m afraid, we will all perish for want of what those we have slaughtered might have given us.

#8 · Will

27 March 2008

Thanks for all the suggestions. I read (somewhat cursorily) some Simone Weil years ago, and have often wanted to go back to her. I should take a second look. The Hamrick book looks well worth reading as well. I’ll try to track down a copy.
Best wishes,

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