Historian Barbara Taylor was frustrated with articles touting the benefits of kindness as if it was a new fad. Her friend psychoanalyst Adam Phillips had noticed his patients’ preoccupations with their own kindness, or lack thereof. The two decided to write collaboratively on the subject, and the result is On Kindness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $20). They argue that "magical kindness," the sentimental notion of a bloodless remedy for social problems and rocky relationships, has obscured true kindness–the recognition that we are all vulnerable, interdependent beings who find in sympathy and fellow feeling some of our greatest pleasure. –Christine Smallwood
In the book you speak of "the kindness instinct." What is it?
One of our fundamental predispositions is to care for other people. "The kindness instinct" is an attempt to formulate a phrase that could capture the way in which kindness might be as elemental as sex. There would be, as it were, profound biological reasons having to do with survival and reproduction that would mean it was intrinsic in our nature to be capable of kindness.
The development of the personality of the individual occurs in relation to other people. There’s really no such thing as a psychological isolate, or if there is, they really don’t prosper or possibly even become fully human at all. Right from the start, who we are and what we are is embedded in our relating to other people.
Why are people suspicious of kindness?
Since antiquity people have argued about whether or not human beings are kind or egotistical. But what seemed striking to us was that in modern times, there’s a sense that one side of that argument has swept the board, and one might call it the Hobbesian point of view. We’re not saying that people have stopped being kind but that kindness has been under a great deal of pressure. What is striking is that people have stopped thinking of human beings as kind. There’s a real suspicion about the human character which has never been, in Western society, as widespread as it is now.
Kindness is a casualty of a certain kind of capitalist, competitive culture. It’s quite clear that if you regard other people as an object for exploitation then kindness is a major problem.
Why draw on biology by using the word "instinct"?
We don’t need to speak biologically. But it seems to make sense that kindness would be part of the survival of the species. If you accept that one of the most fundamental things about all of us is our vulnerability, then it isn’t odd that we would have to find ways of adapting to this. One of the ways we adapt is to deny or attack something. A better way is to acknowledge it and live with it, as though it is the medium between us rather than a problem.
We are each other’s best resource and also our sole resource. The term "instinct" is being used, loosely, to refer to psychic survival.