Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Democracy’s Interest in Kindness

by John von Heyking, University of Lethbridge

During the bleakest days of the Covid pandemic and the shutdowns, numerous voices exhorted us to practice kindness. These exhortations were in response not just to the challenges of the pandemic and the lockdowns, but also in response to the social dysfunction that resulted. How quickly social bonds frayed as fear of contagion and of the “unclean” unvaccinated set in. How quickly neighbors turned to distrust and even to spy on one another.

The fragility of social and political bonds has been noticed at least since ancient Greek historian Thucydides described the disorder that resulted from the Athenian plague. Democratic peoples today though seem drawn to kindness as a key virtue for sustaining social and political association. I wish to suggest that the emphasis on kindness, as opposed to friendship, reflects a specifically democratic concern about social and political association, but one that expects more from kindness than it can provide.  The emphasis on kindness is itself a symptom of the very fragility of political and social bonds that appeals to it aim to address. The prescription is a symptom of the very malady it seeks to heal.

Most readers are familiar with the phrases, “random acts of kindness” and “kindness of strangers.” One immediately thinks of the inherent goodness of acts of kindness not only to one’s own friends, family, and neighbors, but also to strangers that we perform without expectation of reciprocity. Kindness is similar to mercy, and may even have Biblical roots.

Kindness seems to appeal to us because it reminds us of our obligations to do good towards other regardless of their connection with us. This appeal is curious because it departs from the origin of the term, “kindness,” which derives from the Old English word, “kyndness” which means nation as well as “produce” and “increase” (because “nation” derives from the Latin “natio” meaning “birth”). Kindness then implies a set of behaviors toward our “kin”—those with whom we identify. Just as “courtesy” is associated with the court, “civility” with the city (civitas), and “polite” with the polis, so too the original meaning of “kindness” is associated with those with whom we are kin. Just as later speakers in Middle English would apply “kindenes” to courtly behavior, so too the contemporary connotations of “kindness” have been applied to liberal democracy. Its usages reveal a lot about how we understand what sort of association liberal democracy is.

The phrase, “random acts of kindness,” was crafted by a reporter in San Francisco in the early 1990s, who argued that people should spend more time reporting on this rather than on “random acts of violence.” As the latter phrase suggests, the concern was not only about violence but its randomness. There is something viscerally fearful about attacks by strangers at any time of day and apparently for no cause, in a way that violence committed by familiars for some cause and not in broad daylight is less fearsome. “Random acts of violence” suggests that violence is no longer localized but reflects the general disorder of society where anyone regardless of status can suffer it. Wealth, class, race, gender, or other demographic characteristics no longer seem to affect one’s vulnerability or invulnerability. Like the plague that crushed ancient Athens, the idea of random acts of violence is a democratic scourge that threatens all equally.

Thus, “random acts of kindness” implies the aspiration to do good not in a localized way towards neighbors, but to any and all, and without distinction—to anyone who happens to appear before one, and perhaps without expectation of having it reciprocated. This randomness without a rule makes it an appealing democratic virtue because democracy is about equality. Necessarily, kind acts must be small because they are owed to all, which means we cannot spend much time on any one of them. It also means that they are relatively easy and cost-free to perform, though with the hope that small acts can make large differences.

Smallness and low cost make kindness attractive in our democratic age. But it is their promise of being relatively easy to perform that undermines the claim that we perform them without expectation of reciprocity. As if concerned that non-reciprocated acts of kindness are too much to ask, our proponents of kindness very firmly explain that they are in our personal self-interest.

For example, Arthur Brooks appeals to a considerable body of social science research to argue that kind acts are an important way to make one’s self happy. He also argues that it can make one effective in politics. The focus is on the happiness of the one performing the kind act and less on the recipient. He appeals not to Christian charity but primarily to social science which measures self-interest.

Brooks aligns squarely with the tradition of enlightened self-interest that has anchored the way that modern liberal democracies have expressed political and social bonds. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identified “interest well understood” as the central “doctrine” of American democracy. He claims that this doctrine is less-demanding and therefore more moderate than ancient republican ideals where honor-lovers “took pleasure in professing that it is glorious to forget self and that it is right to do good without interest, just like God.” Instead, “interest well understood” appeals to liberal democrats because “[it] suggests small sacrifices every day; by itself, it cannot make a man virtuous, but it forms a multitude of steady, temperate, moderate, far-sighted citizens who have self-control.” “Interest well understood” obliges each person to “sacrifice a portion of his particular interests to save the rest.” Tocqueville observes that the low level of moral demands of this doctrine makes it attractive to liberal democrats.

Still, Tocqueville raises a concern that should give us pause: “but how each man will understand his individual interest remains to be known.” He raises this concern because he fears that the social state of democracy will make it more difficult for persons to identify their interest, and that their very sense of self will come under threat. “Individualism” is the term he uses to describe the phenomenon of loneliness and solitude that results when the mobile and kinetic lives of Americans fray social bonds. He fears individualism will result in each citizen becoming “closed within himself” and incapable of relating to others. Instead of welcoming the stranger, citizens will associate only with those identical to themselves. Loosened social bonds and a cosmopolitan outlook that characterize democracy can spawn the opposite extreme of insular xenophobia.

Our current social and political state resembles what Tocqueville foreboded. While “interest well understood” purports to provide a humble but relatively stable edifice upon which to base political and social bonds, he also recognized its precariousness because it still requires sufficient intellectual and moral sentiments that enable citizens to behold others in bonds of sympathy: “[I]f citizens, while becoming equal, remained ignorant and course, it is difficult to predict to what stupid excess their egoism could be led…. I see the time drawing near when liberty, the public peace and the social order itself will not be able to do without enlightenment.” “Interest well understood,” like kindness, is too flimsy on its own, and political community requires more substantial virtues to sustain it.

Our concern with kindness needs to address the question of what kind of community we belong to in which kindness takes on significance. Long ago, ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that kindness is a step toward friendship but it falls short of friendship which takes time to build up and places greater demands upon ourselves and what we can give to the other. While there may be random acts of kindness, in friendship we choose to accept the obligation that that we give our time and our selves to the other in a sustained effort over the course of a lifetime.

Let us begin with random acts of kindness towards strangers, but let us bear in mind that these acts are but first steps and intimations towards the brighter uplands that is the gift of friendship.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is kindness different than compassion, and different than charity?
  2. Is the author suggesting that we dispense with kindness, or that we see it as a minimum?
  3. What is the goal of kindness? What alternatives does the author suggest?

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