Sunday 5 September 2010

Too kind for kindness

C.S Lewis commented that if there is one virtue in which modern civilization excels, that virtue is kindness.


Peter Kreeft expands on this:

"We have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind (...)

"But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals.

"But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter."

Peter Kreeft - A Civilization at Risk: Whatever Became of Virtue?


And there is another twist on this - because, by having reduced all virtue to kindness, our civilization fails to sustain kindness.

You can see this in schools that strive to create a kind environment yet fail to do so because they are kind to bullies, who thrive un-checked.

On a larger scale we have societies that are kind and gentle with the violent, and so decline into terror.

This is, of course, the failure to discriminate.

We created a kind space, but will not defend the kind space, because to do so entails making a discrimination on the basis of kindness, which strikes us as being an unkind thing to do - so the unkind will take-over and render kindness impossible.


(The unkind will take over - will not leave the kind people alone - because even unkind people naturally prefer to live among kind people - who doesn't! But unkind people value other things more highly than they value kindness, and so they will be cruel in pursuit of their primary values. And so to the extent that unkind people dominate, they will destroy the kind society.)


We really will *not* defend kindness - our primary virtue! We value kindness so much that we will do nothing that is not kind in its defence.

This inability, unwillingness, flat refusal to be tough in a tough world - even in pursuit of gentleness - seems to be an intrinsic flaw in modernity.

We have created unprecedented gentleness; but the gentleness has become compulsive, undiscriminating, universal, blind. Kindness unbalanced, undefended by any other virtue. Kindness unto victimhood.

To be so short-sighted, so short-termist, so lacking in common sense makes me wonder whether we really are so kind after all. Such 'kindness' is a species of laziness! - a glib moral laziness which is impatient with enduring that struggle which is intrinsic to the human condition.


In theory, it should be easy to correct this blindspot - for example I thuogh it would be corrected after the 9/11 terror attacks. I thought that 9/11 would shock our civilization into the necessary changes.

But it didn't happen then and it is not happening now.

If a kind society is weak in its own defence then it will be replaced by much un-kinder society that is stronger in other virtues - such as courage; and all the gains in kindness will be lost.


F said...

I was really struck by this essay by Adam Phillips which appeared in the Guardian in September 4.

Mr. Phillips goes around the issues you have been bringing up for the last four months but never brings himself to even mention some form of religious philosophy as possible solution to the problem he identifies.

The inescapable fact of human life is that it ends in death. No matter how happy you are, or were, or will be, you need to come to terms with what you are doing that will last. Are you building the civilization? Are you creating successful children? Are you making the world better?

Speaking for myself, I haven't given up on science and democracy as engines to improve the world. My belief is that the universe is comprehensible to man because God made it that way and God wanted man to understand a great deal. I confess to a dream that humans will spread life and some measure of understanding across what appears to be the unthinking galaxy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Colin. I'm afraid to say that I have a long-term and strong aversion to Adam Phillips; whose work strikes me as phoney and pretentious!

My feeling is that for an intellectual of my generation to be a psychoanalyst requires a degree of clever-silliness, or moral corruption, that pretty-much invalidates anything they might have to say on any topic!

Pascal says that the pursuit of happiness is inevitable (Phillips says nothing to refute this). Surely this is right? What is in question is the framing of happiness, its conceptualization in terms of an understanding of the universe, the purpose of the world etc.