Act Natural: Toward a Politics of Kindness

Act Natural: Toward a Politics of Kindness

Compassion works best when it’s selfish.

One gets the sense that it’s been a rough year for just about everyone here in the US. To understate the case. Deeply cynical partisan politics, along with long-due and still-in-process national reckonings with racial and gender injustice, have inflamed tensions among various groups of people. Our national ugliness has been unmasked, in the forms of white supremacists and sexual harassment in basically every industry, not to mention the consolidation of wealth and growing income-inequality and surging homelessness and an opioid crisis driven by pharmaceutical companies’ quest for profit. Constitutional crises have mostly been averted, but loom still, thanks to a Special Counsel investigation that’s in the news daily, and a mercurial president who runs the country like a reality show. For the first time in decades, too, nuclear war is a real possibility. ISIS is defeated, but terror threats and mass shootings are more numerous than ever. Nobody knows what to do about the Internet or fake news. The working-class folks who voted for this administration, hoping for change, have received it, in the perverse form of a massive tax overhaul that’s unprecedented in what it gives away to corporations and the rich. And worst of all, climate change continues, mostly undeterred, and represents a threat so massive that our current administration refuses even to acknowledge its reality.

You know all of this. It’s been exhausting, and it’s really hard, now, to foresee a happy ending.

In a historical moment that was, arguably, more volatile than our own, Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s hard to square this optimistic formulation, though, with the absolute natural law of entropy, and with history itself, which has brought us, fitfully, to this moment.

Back in September, I ended my letter describing a kind of politics of kindness:

Kindness, however, or compassion, or sympathy (again, struggling to figure out the differences), sees no Us-Them distinction, no winners and losers. Instead there are hierarchies of need: individual, group, nation, world – and the goal is to effectively balance these needs, to engage in a kind of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis: the word used by the Effective Altruism movement is optimal. The goal is to optimize existence – everybody’s existence. Kindness is rational.


I also linked to a survey I developed, about kindness and empathy, as part of my research into their differences, and the roles they play in our lives. After seeing your responses, I’m hopeful for the state of things going forward, and I’m more convinced than ever that, to begin to realize King’s vision, we need to shift away from our current politics, which relies heavily on empathy and antipathy (that’s what tribalism is; empathy for Us, antipathy for Them), and toward this politics of kindness. It’s not as hard as you might think.

Below, I’ve detailed some of the most interesting results from the survey.

(1) There’s no clearly agreed-upon definition of empathy.

One of the interesting things I discovered back in September was the term confusion that’s occurring all over the place – in books and podcasts, in movies, on TV and the web – between and among various words. “Compassion, empathy, kindness, altruism, sympathy – these terms are used in various ways in various contexts by various writers,” I wrote, “plus they’re embedded in bigger word-clusters that tend to make the semiotics here way more complicated.”

I’ve got no real idea or theory about why this happens, beyond possibly it’s just part and parcel of the loosey-goosey and weird and idiosyncratic nature of American English. Or it could be that, as Dr. Oliver Curry, an Oxford evolutionary anthropologist who studies kindness, told me back in June, “our language is fuzzy because we don’t fully understand it…yet.” Whatever the reason is, it looks like our survey, too, bears this out: when asked to define empathy, a little more than half of our respondents – about 55% – used terms like “understand” or “relate,” which indicates cognitive empathy, while just under half – 48% of respondents – used the term “feel,” indicating affective empathy instead. Though both fall under the empathy umbrella, they are distinct, neurologically.

And then to make things more complicated, nearly all of our respondents – a full 98% – said empathy was very important or somewhat important to them. Since, however, there’s no single definition of empathy – since, in other words, what’s important is different from person to person – it becomes just incredibly difficult to identify what exactly we value so much about empathy.

(2) Nearly half of our respondents don’t think empathy and kindness are connected.

More specifically, about 47% of respondents said you don’t need empathy to be kind, while 30% said that yes, you do. 23% said sometimes. That’s striking. It looks like half our respondents agree with Paul Bloom when he writes, in Against Empathy, that “the act of feeling what you think others are feeling – whatever one chooses to call this – is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good.” Another way of saying this is that nearly half of our survey respondents don’t believe empathy serves as the foundation of morality – which Bloom argues, as well: he believes, based on his research, that “we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts.”

One thing I’ve found in my research is that the lives of extraordinary do-gooders tend to bear this out. In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar explores the lives of a handful of deeply moral people and finds “they are galvanized by strong beliefs and a sense of purpose,” which often conflict with their humanity – most of us, she finds, are made pretty squirmy by do-gooders, because they make difficult sacrifices for their ethical commitments that we do not: close relationships, good food, financial security, the autonomy to do what one chooses to do. Whatever conflicts with or stands in the way of one’s ethics is discarded, ignored, or destroyed, often systematically, and it’s this attribute that makes monsters of saints in our eyes.

MacFarquhar does not shy away from this monstrous aspect in examining her do-gooders, but she does find that sense of duty common to do-gooders is a basic widening-of-one’s-circle, to include not just family and friends, but all of humanity:

What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.


I think it’s obvious I find Bloom’s argument, and MacFarquhar’s observations, compelling. If asked, I’d likely side with those who don’t think you need to feel empathy to be kind. Who believe logically-derived compassion is more effective than passionate kindness. That said, I do believe that, for most of us, the pleasure of kindness comes largely from the sort of personalization that empathy facilitates. In other words, kindness is most satisfying when we can see the fruits of it viscerally: a smile, a hug, a handshake, a tear.

And again, the survey results bear this out: when asked why kindness is important, many of our respondents focused on how it affected the recipient. Kindness “can foster connection” wrote one person, and can “help to lighten someone’s load,” wrote another. “Even the smallest amount can really drastically improve someone’s day/life,” wrote a third, and “makes you and the recipient feel better,” wrote a fourth. Answers like these were also often accompanied by some version of “it makes the world a better place.” Why, I wonder, does kindness-stemming-from-empathy make the world a better place? I don’t know. But I suspect a large part of it is that we feel better about the world after engaging in a kind act. And I further suspect that for those of us who aren’t extreme do-gooders driven along by a sense of duty and deeply-ingrained ethical system, that good feeling functions as an incentive for being kind in the future, much like the endorphin rush we feel after some vigorous aerobic exercise today drives us to do it again tomorrow.

(3) We’re kind because “it’s the right thing to do,” according to more than half our respondents.

When asked more specifically why they’d engaged in a kind act, just over half of respondents said “it was the right thing to do,” while 23% said that they’d been kind because they want to “spread” kindness. About 13% said it was because it made them feel good to be kind, and another 13% responded with write-in answers that blended two or more of the above reasons.

Why does the answer to this question contradict the answer to that previous question about the importance of kindness? More specifically, why do so many respondents say we’re kind because it’s the right thing to do, when, as mentioned above, they also said kindness is important because of how it made them or the recipient feel?

Kindness is most satisfying when we can see the fruits of it viscerally: a smile, a hug, a handshake, a tear.

I’d argue that this has something to do with how we’ve historically defined kindness. As Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor observe in On Kindness, for centuries now, in Europe and America, kindness has been an ethical obligation – a duty – divorced from emotion, linked to selflessness, and built right into the larger structure of Christianity. We’re kind because God’s dictated that we be kind, and the responsibility pretty much drowns out the pleasure of it. A useful analogy here is our contemporary education system, how its focus on testing and next-level incentivizing gamifies learning and turns it into a means-to-an-end, instead of something that’s an end in itself. In Christianity – and because Christianity’s so deeply penetrated and informed all of Western civilization, we can extrapolate to society more generally – kindness is gamified: if you’re kind and selfless and follow the rules, you go to heaven[1]. Any pleasure derived is a nice little side effect, but crucially, it’s not the point.

And to just make matters a little bit worse: the Hobbesian worldview we’ve adopted along with capitalism tends to glorify self-interest, and Adam Smith, with his (in)famous “invisible hand,” basically enshrined it as natural law, the implication being that when everybody acts according to their own best interests, society is better off. Kindness has no real place in a world like this. It becomes, literally, unnatural. Which is why altruism was so baffling when it was first observed.

What Phillips and Taylor argue is that it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way anymore. There was a time before Christianity when kindness was valued largely for the joy it brought people: the Stoics, in particular, built their moral philosophy around oikeiôsis, the attachment of self to other. “No one can live a happy life,” wrote Seneca, “if he turns everything to his own purposes. Live for others if you want to live for yourself.”

And then let’s just briefly consider the holidays. Here is a time when kindness is explicitly linked to joy. When giving gifts is upheld as both a fundamental social good and a really great thing to do to feel good. It’s no real surprise that folks are way more generous, with both their time and their money, during the holidays than during any other time of the year. Or that we’ve created Giving Tuesday as a counterpoint to Black Friday. It’s pitched as both a way to balance the books, morally, and to feel good. You see where I’m going. In kindness, it’s possible to have morality inextricably intertwined with joy and happiness. This, I’m happy to report, is a scientific fact.



So here’s the bottom line: people are fundamentally kind because they’re fundamentally social. We give because it feels really good, and because it fosters social cohesion, which is, frankly, what guided the formation of our morals in the first place.

We can again build this into our society. A politics of kindness. A culture of kindness. It would not take a behavioral sea-change, is what I’m telling you. Instead, it would require us to act naturally. To repudiate the Hobbesian worldview and embrace oikeiôsis. To recall that our success as a species was built on cooperation, not on competition. And to do things that make us feel good instead of selfish. Or good and selfish. Because that, I think, is one of the great missed opportunities of kindness: the fact it’s as much for us as it is for our intended recipients. I’ve seen this first hand, working at a food bank downtown in a large metropolitan area: everybody wants to be the volunteer handing out food; very few want to be the person stocking shelves, sweeping floors, or breaking down cardboard back in the warehouse. That visceral sense of helpfulness is just so deeply satisfying. It’s a basic, human thing.

One of the greatest myths about kindness is that it’s hard. “Could politics ever be an expression of love?” asks Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, voicing, I think, the question our country’s briefish existence has always begged.

The answer, of course, is yes.

Happy holidays.


[1] Certain strains of Christianity adhere to the total depravity doctrine, which states that we’re irredeemably corrupted, regardless of the good we do. You’ve heard of this. Evangelicals are most famous for it. You can only be “saved” through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. This, I’ve found – through more than a decade of evangelical churchgoing – is mostly just an intellectual stance; people still seem to really fundamentally believe, when push comes to shove, that you’ve gotta do some good to earn your way to paradise. I suspect this has to do with our evolutionarily-ingrained sense of fairness.

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