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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