Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

On Kindness

I do not understand the point of this book. I understand the stated point—to try to understand what kindness is and why we should care about it—but I’m not convinced  that this is what it is really about. After having spent a couple of hours reading the book and thinking about it, I don’t believe I am any the wiser about what kindness is and why it’s important. Rather, I have the impression that Phillips and Taylor approach their subject with a reasonably strong worldview—a kind of social and psychological communitarianism—that they want to promote.  They seem to be attempting to (re)interpret this worldview in a fairly forced (and not very instructive) way, to jump on the trendy happiness studies bandwagon, claim a crisis, and trot out some old tropes about compassion, social cohesion, and our innate inter-dependency. Phillips and Taylor seem to hope that earnest, well-meaning, thoughtful readers of the general public who want to know more about kindness won’t even notice their approach.  Their occasional references to stalwarts like the Stoics and Hume seem primarily camouflage for the real stars of the drama, Rousseau and Freud.

The authors declare a “kindness crisis” in society and in our psyches, but a cursory consideration of that subject would not call Rousseau or Freud to mind.  Kindness is not a subject that interested either of them particularly. (Pity or pité is not the same as kindness, nor is it guaranteed that one will follow from the other.) After reading On Kindness I’m not convinced that the authors are much interested in questions of kindness either. In short, the book is a kind of bait and switch—want to talk about kindness? How about social connection and cohesion instead?  But you’ll need to read all the way to the end to get this, and your time would be much better spent reading Aristotle or Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle’s Ethics and Rhetoric.

 On Kindness is a slim volume that reads like two lectures—one on the history of thought, the other a kind of meander through psychoanalysis.  It is peppered with quotations from various great thinkers throughout. Accordingly, one expects wisdom to pour forth, to present if not new ideas, a new approach to old ideas, or at least a judicious popular summary reminding us what the best and the brightest have had to say on the subject. Sadly, one is quickly disappointed. For there is nothing new in this book or particularly interesting. What there is, is a fairly standard critique of modern egotistical (materialist?) life from the perspective of 1970s style communitarianism/feminism and classic Freudian psychology. We are told that in spite of the pleasures individuals glean from practicing kind acts toward others :

 …today many people find these pleasures literally incredible or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking 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 (4).

This book explains how and why this unnatural antagonism comes about.  It shows, to the contrary, how the life lived in this instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others is the life we are more inclined to live and indeed is one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. In a positive version of false consciousness, people are leading kind lives secretly 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—not sexuality, not violence, not money—has become our forbidden pleasure. What is it about our times, the authors seem to ask, that makes kindness seem so dangerous?

According to Phillips and Taylor our very natures that incline towards kindness—interpreted as a type of imaginary fellow feeling (but also nastiness)—has been forced out of us by the free market system. The market turns us into selfish individualists who sneer at kindness because it compromises our fierce independence and makes us vulnerable towards others. (Of course no mention is made of the fact that the market generates the prosperity—the means by which many are able to act effectively on their kindness through philanthropy, but I suppose I am expecting too much.) Although Martin Seligman’s work on happiness and positive psychology is mentioned at the beginning, we do not get the impression that the authors have more than a passing familiarity with it, or other modes of thinking that might genuinely contribute to an understanding of current thinking about kindness and its relationship to the good life. There is no mention, for instance, of behavioral economics, experimental economics, or virtue ethics. Instead, there is a potted history of thought, from the ancients, Christianity and the Enlightenment, culminating in our current selfish malaise.

 In fact, one major problem with this book is that the arguments are about 40-50 years out of date. The argument in the first half resembles C.B. MacPherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, published in 1970! Since then thinkers have considered the feminist critique that faults patriarchy for selfishness and suggests an ethic of care instead. And, of course, we have also been through the communitarian critique of liberalism with Michael Sandel and others. No thoughtful person today believes that man can exist like Robinson Crusoe. We all acknowledge that “People need other people, not just for companionship or support in hard times but to fulfill their humanity” (17). 

 I can’t tell you what the argument of the second half of the book is since I could not discover one or make sense of what is there. There is something about our innate compassion for others causing us to feel vulnerable and scared, but beyond that I cannot discern what is going on. For instance, a long segment on Rousseau is embellished with the following psychoanalytical flourish:

The pitying imagination replaces the narcissistic cocoon of infancy with an other-oriented self, born through desire and fantasy. The ‘expansive heart’ finds itself ‘everywhere outside of itself,’ in other people whose vulnerability humanity makes its own. Subjectivity becomes populated as infantile self-love evolves into a social ‘sensitivity’ that no mere instinct, much less a lifestyle option, but a condition of development into full personhood (34).

 I may not be able to make sense of Adam Phillips’s take on kindness, but I do know that Freudian therapy had its heyday around the middle of the twentieth century and as far as I am aware, not very many outside Manhattan take psychoanalysis seriously these days, nor have they for quite some time. (See Jonathan Engel’s American Therapy, The Rise of Psychoanalysis in the United States for an excellent account of this decline.)

So much for the theory. Even if one is not convinced by the philosophical and psychological accounts offered by Phillips and Taylor, what about the empirical evidence? Is it true that people today lack compassion and generosity towards their fellowman? No doubt there will always be a need for more virtue, not less. However, even a casual glance across society would seem to suggest that in fact, contrary to the claims here, we do not routinely behave as if we were “all Hobbesians, convinced that self-interest is our ruling principle.” Look at the size of the charitable and philanthropic sector in the United States. We all know of cases of enormous acts of kindness and heroism during various disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Since Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America we have known and frequently practiced a self-interest rightly understood.  Indeed, contrary to Robert Putnam’s claims about Americans “bowling alone,” we still witness many, many spontaneous acts of kindness in civil society. Indeed, this may be why the book strikes one as being so wrong—for it is written by a pair of British intellectuals who point to the establishment and growth of the welfare state—not civil society—as the institutionalization of kindness—a profound mistake that is all too typical of a certain sort of academic who has never really experienced it. (See James Bartholomew’s The Welfare State We’re In for a sobering corrective, or anything by Anthony Daniels.) The book ends with a plea for more conversations about kindness. Let’s hope they can be informed by better ideas than those expounded in this book.


Claire Morgan is Director of the Social Change Project, Mercatus Center, George Mason University.

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