Social movements are interesting, and one such interesting movement is the global kindness movement. In some ways this movement may be seen as a reaction against the perceived divisiveness and inhumanity of the modern world, or a reaction against the loss of a sense of community in modern societies. In the 2009 book On Kindness, authors Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor remind us that kindness is that what makes us human. The kindness movement may be neatly summed up in the modern adage that we should practice random acts of kindness.
In terms of ethics, however, it is useful to ask: is kindness enough? Or to phrase the question in more formal terms: is the exercise of kindness both necessary and sufficient for an ethical life?
The notion of kindness is very closely linked to the notions of benevolence and caritas, or agape love. It is interesting that in medieval thought caritas was identified as an overarching virtue. Some ethicists suggest caritas is a uniquely Christian virtue, although others have suggested it can also be identified in other traditions under different names. Many anthropologists argue that kindness is a universal trait, and interestingly the 1989 UNESCO Statement on Violence suggests that there is no natural inclination of humanity to violence, and thus a peaceful (kind) world is possible.
It is certainly difficult to deny the importance of kindness. Kindness has a practical social benefit, in that it is the glue that holds societies together. One can enforce social cohesion, through cruelty and compulsion, although this rarely results in a lasting and effective society. Most often kindness is evidenced and experienced through our immediate social group, be this family or tribe. One could argue that, in recent times, the need to articulate kindness as a virtue has come about through pressures on our immediate social group, be this our extended family or tribe.
There is a further strong argument that if we see the world fracturing today, this is because of a dearth of kindness. The fracturing of society may be identified in the increasing polarization of politics, in the decline of the middle ground in public discourse, in the re-emergence of militant nationalism, in a hyper-individualism which seeks personal advancement at the price of public good, and in simple things such as the lack of civility, such as in social media.
Of course, one could object that the world has been fracturing for some time or that it has always been a world where compassion is not the norm. After all, universal human rights are a relatively recent invention, and for millennia cruelty and oppression have been common. However equally one could argue that all this demonstrates is that there has always been a need for kindness. And it is interesting that there are factors which especially now seem to be emphasizing the need for kindness and compassion in the way we interact with each other.
The most important aspect about kindness, however, is that it gives agency to individuals, in a social context where many of us feel disempowered or simply confused as to what is the right thing to do.This is of course the inherent power of virtue ethics, in that it provides an antidote to ethical overload. It is very empowering to say that, in a confusing world, I am resolving to be kind to others in whatever circumstances I might meet them. Such a resolve helps others, and it bestows integrity and confidence on the person taking this action.
Is, however, kindness enough? Or, to put this another way, is kindness sufficient?
I think it might not be. The writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr have been garnering renewed attention in recent years, and a disturbing theme in his work is the idea that passive acceptance of injustice means acceptance of injustice and cooperation with evil. Thus, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Further, King argues we have a duty of noncooperation with evil. Evil may be most simply defined as avoidable harm, and King gives as examples extreme materialism, racism and militarism. Inaction in the face of evil means that we are complicit in evil.
What makes King’s ideas so disturbing is that this puts distinct ethical challenges before us. It is very difficult to deny that there are fundamental problems and fundamental evils within our world today, along the lines of extreme materialism, racism and militarism. If King is correct, then as individuals we have an ethical obligation not to cooperate with the systems behind these evils. And for King noncooperation with evil involves more than merely speaking out against evil. It involves nonviolent direct action, wherein the individual refuses to comply with what is demanded of him/her by these systems. For King, this is the only way to lasting social change.
The power of the ethic of kindness is that it functions on a personal level, and powerfully so. The adage that if you want to change the world, then the way to do this is one person at a time is very relevant. Paradoxically, however, this is also the weakness of the ethic. It is good that we act in a kind manner to those we engage with. Yet we live in societies and have social responsibilities. We need a social ethic as well as a personal ethic. There needs to be a wider commitment to social justice.
Kindness thus may be important and it may be necessary. But equally kindness is not enough, that is, it is not sufficient. Put simply, we need to do more.