This post examines the virtue of kindness. I wrote this not as an expert, but as someone who wants to learn more about kindness and how to become better at it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is kindness?
“It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research & study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.” ―Aldous Huxley
I had more difficulty than I expected coming up with a good definition of kindness. I painted myself into a corner by doing previous write-ups on compassion, respect for others, care, benevolence, and courtesy. Those cover a lot of the same territory, and seemed to leave kindness with little ground of its own. But I think there is some distinct kernel to kindness that makes it different from these things, and this may also suggest different ways of improving it in ourselves.
For example, there’s the concept of “random acts of kindness.” It’s harder to imagine “random acts of care” or “random acts of compassion”: those virtues seem to require more intimacy with the recipient and their needs than “random” acts would be appropriate for.
Courtesy and respect for others may just discourage you from being unkind, without also prompting you to kindness.
And there’s the trope of the benevolent person who loves humanity, but can’t seem to get along with anybody in particular and treats individual people condescendingly or brusquely. Kindness seems an especially important skill for an aspiring benevolent to cultivate. As one wise person put it: “Try to always be kind because you never know when you’re incompetent.”
[B]ecause being wrong feels exactly like being right, you’re almost always better off being nice. Kindness covers a multitude of incompetences, including incompetence you didn’t even realise you had.
My attempt to define kindness
I think you are being kind if you are doing something with the motive of making some other creature’s life better for them and you do so skillfully enough that you are likely to succeed in this. To unpack this:
- Kindness involves doing something (a kind word might be enough, but thoughts-and-prayers probably aren’t). It is an activity, not a sentiment.
- It is prompted by a kind motive—a desire to be helpful: to make some creature’s life better (or prevent it from getting worse).
- This motive is to make that creature’s life better for them—on their terms: not your idea of what would be better, but theirs… typically, anyway. In exceptional circumstances, this might be your wise understanding of their enlightened self-interest even when at cross-purposes to their present desires: e.g. taking your dog to the vet, preventing a suicide.
- What you do, prompted by this motive, is done skillfully enough that it works, or anyway would likely have worked barring unforeseeable accidents or the intransigence of someone who is just dead set on having a bad day. Good intentions without skillful follow-through are not sufficient to be kind.
Does my definition leave out acts of kindness that are done for mercenary motives: to prompt reciprocal acts of kindness, to boost one’s reputation or build one’s network, to bask in gratitude, and so forth? Such acts might not seem as pure but aren’t they nonetheless kind? It might be argued that in such cases you are doing kindnesses but are not doing them kindly. You are not quite practicing the virtue of kindness, but are using skills of kindness for other purposes.
But maybe these can be ways of getting practice… like the way Phil in Groundhog Day cynically does good deeds in order to impress Rita, but in doing so eventually comes to appreciate the value of doing good deeds.
If you are trying to do something kind, to make some creature’s life better for them, in order that you might gain something else besides, I don’t think this means you haven’t been kind. It just means you’ve been kind with ulterior motives. Kindness doesn’t necessarily require that you are selflessly motivated to make some creature’s life better for them as an end in itself. Such a disinterested kindness might arguably be a nobler or better form of kindness, but I don’t think it’s the only form. You may genuinely want to make some creature’s life better for them, but as a means to some other end, and by doing so you are still being kind.
I think people sometimes confuse cases like that with cases in which someone merely pretends to be kind—does something that is only superficially or conventionally kind—because they are never motivated to make some creature’s life better for them but only to appear kind or to cheaply reap the benefits of having been seen to have attempted a kindness. Such things are not self-interested kindness or kindness with ulterior motives, because they are not really kindness at all.
Evolutionary psychology suspects that subconscious mercenary motives are hidden behind many of our acts of kindness. For example: we are kind to our children and other family members because kin selection has led to the evolution of such altruism in the service of the selfish gene. Reciprocal altruism perhaps adequately explains some acts of kindness as ultimately self-interested. Perhaps sexual selection leads us to be more broadly and flamboyantly kind as a way of broadcasting how comparatively fit we are.
Some of this stuff is very plausible; some is cynical just-so storying without much evidence behind it. It does suggest some possible avenues for improving one’s kindness. For example: if you are already hard-wired to be kind to your kin, can you become more kind in general by expanding your concept of kinship? “All men are brothers” and other similar sentiments seem designed to hack this mechanism in this way.
Kindness as a virtue
“I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage, or bravery, or generosity, or anything else… Kindness—that simple word. To be kind—it covers everything, to my mind. If you’re kind, that’s it.” ―Roald Dahl
How is kindness a virtue? What connects being kind with being a flourishing human being? There are a number of ways to consider this.
Kindness can be evidence of flourishing. This is for at least two reasons: For one thing, if you are focusing on the needs of those around you, this probably implies that your own life is in pretty good shape: You’ve got slack, surplus, ease. For another, if you are kind it may be because you learned kindness as a child, which suggests that you had a caring upbringing from people who successfully modeled kindness for you. This is indirect evidence that you started out with at least some of the helpful foundation of a flourishing human life. By contrast, if you are unkind this can suggest that you feel yourself to be struggling desperately in an environment where you have to lash out against hostile competitors, or that you were raised by wolves or something.
Kindness is also widely esteemed. People often revere exemplars of kindness, and approvingly share anecdotes of people acting kindly. This suggests that we see kindness as part of being human well. (Though in some contexts and in some subcultures, kindness is looked down on, and cruelty and ruthlessness are admired, so this is not entirely reliable.)
There is also evidence that behaving kindly improves a person’s measurable well-being. A wealth of studies have tried to test the hypothesis that doing something kind makes you better off for it. A recent meta-analysis of 27 such studies tried to be extra-careful to rule out publication bias, mere findings of correlation, and other such potential pitfalls. It found that the interventions studied (usually measuring short-term effects after brief acts of kindness, in WEIRD research subjects) did seem to support the hypothesis that acting more kind improves your well-being.
For many people, this will probably seem a ridiculous thing to test. Does being kind to people make you happy? Does water slake your thirst? Is the sun warm? People tend to behave in certain ways when others are mean to them and life is going sour, and in other ways when others are being kind to them and things are getting better. If you prefer the way people act in the latter case, it takes no great leap of understanding to note that you can facilitate that by being kind to them.
But this preference is not self-evident. Some people seem to prefer it when those around them are miserable, frightened, angry, and discouraged. If anyone has carefully tested the alternative hypothesis that you can improve your life by being mean to someone, I haven’t heard about it, but maybe that works too, or works for some people in some contexts.
Kindness and intimacy
Kindness can be a good opening gambit in an exploration of potential intimacy and friendship. A friend of mine put it this way:
I desire deep connection. Kindness is like testing the waters. If I am kind to someone (based in sympathy and fueled by generosity and general care), the feedback I might receive can inform me if they would like a more brief engagement of shared minds, or if they would like to explore deeper possibilities, wherein we would communicate the vulnerability necessary to be empathetic.… Kindness is sort of a tipping point. Am I going to simply be respectful or considerate, to make sure I don’t make things worse? Or am I going to tip into my deeper sense of humanity and strive to be altruistic and find an empathic connection with another person?
Kindness to animals
I enjoy petting cats. Part of this I suppose is the tactile pleasure of soft fur, but I never find myself going out of the way to pet strips of disembodied fur, at least not since my MDMA phase. Without a cat attached, it’s not nearly so fun. What I like about petting a cat is the obvious delight the cat experiences from being pet. I give the cat delight by scratching it behind the ears just so, and that cat’s delight becomes my delight somehow by some sympathetic magic.
This simple interaction between a person and a cat may help to demonstrate kindness stripped down to its essentials, and also to demonstrate how kindness can contribute to the flourishing of the person who exhibits it.
“A scout is kind” is part of the Scout Law. The original wording was “A scout is a friend to animals,” and this part of the Law for a long time was defined with kindness-to-animals as the paradigmatic example.
(Contrariwise, cruelty to animals by children is a recognized warning sign that something is amiss.)
Kindness to animals and to children can be some of the biggest bang-for-your-buck ways of benefiting from showing kindness to others. (Some) animals and children express their delight or relief in uninhibited and legible ways (when compared to the often more restrained and ambiguous ways in which adult humans do so). If you take pleasure from contributing to the joy of others, being able to do so by petting a cat or laughing at a child’s joke is a pretty cheap and easy win: it does not require much creativity ahead of time or much second-guessing afterwards. This is in part what makes children delightful (sometimes): they can find joy in simple things that adults are too jaded to notice, and then transmit that joy to us.
The ability to take pleasure in someone else’s joy is a nice trick. Rather than having to figure out how to get off your own hedonic treadmill once again, you can just look around you for someone else you can easily delight or relieve, and then bask in their joy.
Random acts of kindness
The term “random acts of kindness” was coined as a sort of cutely ironic counterpart to news media clichés like “senseless acts of violence,” “pointless acts of vandalism,” and the like. In a random act of kindness, for seemingly no reason aside from eccentric caprice, you make a special effort to do something kind for someone, usually someone you don’t know: sometimes, by design, someone you will never know because by the time the good deed has hit its target you are already far from the scene. Random acts of kindness also invite you to wonder what it might be like if you lived in a world where nobody was safe from the threat that any random stranger at any moment might do something unexpectedly nice for them without warning. (See also “pronoia,” “prospiracy.”)
If “random acts of kindness” are acts of kindness, and this isn’t just a cute name for something else, then this highlights how kindness can be anonymous and at least somewhat distant. You can be kind to people you don’t have preexisting relationships with; you can even perhaps be kind to them without them knowing about it. It might be considered a kindness, for example, to remove a tree branch that has just fallen on a bike path, even if nobody but the person doing the kindness ever sees the obstruction or its removal.
People who perform clandestine kindnesses like these cannot as easily rely on the positive feedback they would get from the reactions of those who directly benefit. If such reactions are important motivators for them, they must use their imaginations (or perhaps hide in the shadows or set up cameras). Alternatively, other motivators may be in play: the actor wants to bolster their self-image as a kind person, for example, or they have philosophical reasons for wanting to increase kindness.
To be kind, are kind intentions necessary, sufficient, both, or neither? I think kind intentions must be at least necessary. If you do something that is unintentionally kind—commit a kindness by accident—I don’t think you’ve really been kind. Might kind intentions be sufficient? I have my doubts. If you are sad and I bake you a cake, but I’m no good at baking cakes and so you now have a cake that you’d rather not eat but feel guilty not eating, I haven’t really done you much of a kindness, have I? Or if you’re sad because you’ve just gotten the news that you’re pre-diabetic and will need to radically adjust your diet and lifestyle to avoid serious health problems, me showing up at your doorstep with a cake to try to cheer you up is not a kind thing to do and I ought to know better. My good intentions were poorly-informed, short-sighted, incurious, counter-productive: insufficiently developed to be the kernel of kindness. Arguably such things do not even demonstrate good intentions: to actually intend good you have to be willing to try harder to get it right.
On the other hand, sometimes the wrong thing to do can become the right thing by virtue of being done with good intentions. A child comes up to you and says “I heard you were sad, so I made you this drawring.” A child’s drawing was not what you needed to feel less sad, but a child handing you a drawing with the innocent expectation that it will help somehow works as a package deal. The fact that someone cares enough to try to make your life a little better might itself be helpful and kind, even if the attempt they make isn’t very on-point. Attempted kindness communicates a message like “I want you to be happy. If you are not, I wish you were. It would give me joy to find that you are. And so I am genuinely interested in helping that come to pass.” If that message comes as news, it is usually good news.
Non-utilitarian gestures of kindness—bringing flowers to someone in the hospital, for example—are a sort of benign harmlessness plus good intentions that may functionally add up to kindness when there isn’t much room for practical intervention. (However such things can also backfire when more practical intervention is called for.)
I’m tempted to say that you can be kind even if your kindness fails to make anyone else’s life any better, if this is for reasons that you cannot foresee or that are out of your control. If you try carefully to console someone who is just plain inconsolable, I think you are still being kind to try. If you do a skillful kindness for someone that they don’t notice because they’re distracted by an unexpected meteor strike or something, I think you have still been kind even if the kindness wasn’t fertile. That was kind of you; too bad about the meteor.
People commonly observe that they are more likely to act kindly when they are relaxed and unthreatened and have been shown kindness themselves, and conversely that they are more likely to be mean when they are stressed or when people have been mean to them. This, along with the observation that people frequently copy the behaviors they see modeled for them by others, has led to the speculation that acts of kindness may have compounding effects: You are kind to person A, which makes person A more likely to be kind to others, and may also influence bystander B to do something similar; A’s and B’s kindnesses then similarly affect C and D and so forth. In this way your kind act has both direct and indirect effects.
This makes intuitive sense, and is pleasant to think about, but it may prove difficult to verify. There must at least be some dampening factor, or by now an out-of-control kindness feedback loop would have made happy saints of us all.
One possible dampener is that it may be only extraordinary acts of kindness that trigger this effect. Ordinary, par-for-the-course acts of kindness only reinforce the ordinary, par-for-the-course status quo. So as the level of kindness in a culture rises and the status quo adjusts, it takes increasingly unusual or difficult acts of kindness to raise the bar further. Furthermore, it becomes easier to do things that now appear unkind that in an earlier regime might have just been considered unremarkable. (This speculation was inspired by KatjaGrace’s “Limited kindness is unappreciated.”)
The advice to “pay it forward” encourages people to amplify the kindness positive-feedback loop by acting kindly toward others as a way of showing appreciation for kindnesses received.
Killing with kindness
“If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink; for by doing so thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.” ―Proverbs ⅹⅹⅴ 21–22
“You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.” ―Tolstoy
Kindness can be a way of blunting the force of an adversary’s attack. You show your adversary kindness instead of the counter-attack they were expecting, and this surprises, baffles, and disarms them. This can short-circuit conflicts that have become disconnected from any grievance beyond the conflict itself—where the point of insults given is just to counter previous insults received. It is also particularly helpful in internet flame-wars or other such situations in which trolls and shit-stirrers seem eager to gin up animosity for its entertainment value. If you out-ridicule someone who is trying to belittle you, you may come across as witty; if you out-ridicule someone who is trying to be kind to you, you probably come across as an asshole. Oops.
Problems with kindness
There are some complications with kindness. For one thing, kindness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but has a context and side effects. It is possible to do kindness to A in a way that is unkind to B, for instance. “I thought you might like a new bicycle so I stole you this one” is a certain sort of kindness, but a problematical one.
Acts of kindness can communicate solidarity. If you are kind to A you may thereby appear to be saying “I am on A’s team.” This in turn may be interpreted as a slight or an unkindness to people who are on the outs with A. You may have to take pains to make known that you are not breaking bread with tax collectors and sinners because you’ve joined team tax collector and sinner.
Outrage mobs and things of that nature use public displays of unkindness to signal disapproval of what a person symbolizes or stands for or is seen as sympathetic with. To be kind instead in such a circumstance can be seen as breaking ranks, being disloyal.
To the extent that you are selective about whom you show kindness to, and in what situations, your criteria for making these discriminations may be interpreted (or misinterpreted) to reveal things about your character or allegiances.
Intended acts of kindness can misfire in various ways. You may intend to be kind by doing something for someone else, but they perceive it as condescending or as a way of putting a spotlight on their neediness or as an affront to their pride. You may try to make supportive statements but you don’t realize that they are not perceived as intended (a friend gave me this example: “when someone tells me they can’t tell my son has autism I know they mean it in a nice way, but it really doesn’t improve anything and their perception wasn’t the point in the first place.”) Ostensibly encouraging sentiments like “look on the bright side,” “it’s not so bad,” “you’ll look back on this and laugh” often fail to be perceived as kindnesses.
Sometimes kindness can exacerbate dependency and ultimately be unhelpful if doing something kind for someone prevents them from learning how to do it for themself. Occasionally you may do a kindness for someone who then interprets that kindness as something they are entitled to and you as a resource that they can tap in a sort of parasitic way, which can be awkward and inconvenient.
Kindness can sometimes ironically make people suspicious and defensive. What’s your angle? Who are you trying to impress with that Mother Theresa act?
Kindness can be a surprisingly complicated mechanism, and so it is not a simple matter to describe how to build or repair it. In this section I’ll briefly describe some possible angles for tinkering with this mechanism.
To become a kind person it helps to have been raised that way: to have been under the care of adults who were kind to you, who modeled kindness for you, and who valued kindness in you. Nobody is surprised to learn that some person who has been caught being cruel and awful turns out to have had a childhood inflicted on them in which kindness was rare. There are also some explicit things you can do to help a child learn to be kind. For example, you can notice, praise, and reward kind behavior in a child when you see it (I expect something of this sort probably works in grown-ups too).
If you’re reading this essay it’s probably too late for you to correct your own childhood: you either got a good upbringing or you didn’t, and there’s not much you can do about it now. So what can you do as an adult to improve in the virtue of kindness, to be characteristically kinder? To become habitually kind means either ❶ to deliberately practice kindness, as one practices playing an instrument, from an aspiration to become a kind person; or ❷ to engage in kindness in a way that is itself rewarding and so self-reinforcing.
In case ❷ maybe you are kind ⓐ because you desire the other person’s well-being and so contributing to that well-being directly via kindness helps you to satisfy your desires. If not, maybe you are kind ⓑ because their well-being rewards you in a more indirect way (they are more pleasant to be around, they are inclined to do nice things for you in return, the world around you runs more smoothly when it’s occupied by people having good days). I’m not sure if ⓐ can be forced. If you don’t give a fig for the well-being of another person, can you decide to change your mind about that somehow? Perhaps. Some forms of mettā meditation seem like they are trying to brute force a sort of empathetic imagination in this way. Meanwhile ⓑ is indirect enough that it may require close attention for you to trace the path from your act of kindness to the eventual desired result. On the other hand, maybe an “a ha!” moment is enough: Someone points out to you that life seems to go a lot more smoothly when you’re nice to those around you, and you think “you know, that makes a lot of sense. Why didn’t I think of that before?” However, ⓑ is vulnerable to an additional layer of frustration: you might succeed in being kind, but then that kindness fails to bring about the hoped-for fringe benefit. If you’re not careful, such a thing could disincentivize your kindness.
Back to case ❶, in which kindness is not (sufficiently) inherently rewarding to make becoming kind nearly effortless. You have to work at it. There are several reasons you might want to. Perhaps you have a hard time caring about particular people, but philosophically, in the abstract, you are philanthropic, and you see kindness as a way of advancing this. Or maybe you believe that kindness is admirable (or recognize that it is at least admired) and so you like the idea of being kind even though practicing kindness mostly leaves you cold. Perhaps you do care about the well-being of individual people, but something is broken in the feedback circuit such that even when you are kind to people successfully you do not get the sort of reward that reinforces your kindness and so you struggle to form the habit.
In case ❶ you may first need to strengthen your motivation for being kind. You might want to motivate yourself by artificially tying some reward to your acts of kindness: give yourself a gold star, take yourself out for ice cream, pat yourself on the back, write it down in your book of kindnesses. In case ❷ the motivation is there but maybe there is something else that interferes with you being as kind as you’d like to be: another motive that overrides the motive to be kind, perhaps, or a lack of skill in translating your motives into kind action. It may take some sustained inquisitiveness to discover where the snag is.
If you have kind intentions but fail to put them into action, this might be from a sort of timidity or fear of failure, in which case you may want to put some effort into improving virtues like boldness, initiative, or courage. If you want to be kind to people, but you fail to notice opportunities to do so, maybe working on attention would help. A lot of missed opportunities for kindness (and a lot of small, thoughtless unkindnesses) come from inattention and insensitivity.
It is easier to attend to (or just to notice) the needs of others when your own needs are not desperate for your attention. If you can satisfy or reduce your own needs, you will better be able to be kind to others. If you can accumulate a surplus of resources, you can more easily deploy those resources in kind ways. Being in a good place in your life also helps to make kindness more motivating: contributing to another person’s good fortune might have a bitter taste if you have to compare it to your own bad fortune. In short: you may be better able to help others by first shoring up your own life. (And being kind to yourself may be good practice for being kind to others.)
If you find that your attempts at being kind often misfire, you may need to work on imagination and empathy. I know someone who has kind intentions, but his imagination usually begins by coming up with something he would think was kind if it was directed toward him, and then jumps immediately to imagining how grateful the recipient will be if he directs that kindness toward them, without carefully examining the middle stage: will they find it as kindly as he would? It might take more careful attention for you to imagine a way to intervene in someone else’s life that will be seen as a kindness by them. It’s a real art to be able to imagine and empathize with another person’s point of view. You might consider asking for advice from someone you know to be kind: tell them about someone you would like to be kind to and ask them if they can walk you through their thought process as they consider ways to do that well. Another option is to choose simple ways of being kind that don’t require as much subtlety and second-guessing.
More about mettā
Mettā or “loving-kindness” meditation is an attempt to deliberately evoke kind motives and thereby provoke kind behavior in oneself. At first glance it seems tailor-made for someone seeking to improve their own kindness. However, mettā meditation often explicitly aims at much grander goals than mere kindness—loving all living things, aiming at the end of suffering for all beings living and yet to live, and grandiose things of that nature. I don’t have a good feel for whether it would be appropriate or useful in strengthening more ordinary, secular kindness, but it seems worth investigating.
A typical mettā meditation takes you through a sort of expanding circle visualization. You begin by looking at your own life and its fundamental needs and your desire for fulfillment and relief from suffering & anxiety. You hope that these desires will be met and this relief will come. You then consider certain people that you care about, their needs and so forth, and extend this hope to them. You then consider mere acquaintances, strangers, even enemies, members of other species, and so forth, pushing the boundaries of your kind wishes and intentions along the way.
I hope this has suggested some ways in which the virtue of kindness can be a valuable thing to develop, and some possible angles you can explore if you want to strengthen or widen your kindness. In researching kindness, a lot of what I came across amounted to applause lights that didn’t strike me as very actionable or insightful. I would welcome your recommendations for resources I have overlooked.
quoted in Laura Huxley, This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley (1975)
“Try to always be kind because you never know when you’re incompetent” DePonySum (22 September 2020)
interviewed by Brian Sibley, BBC World Service (November 1988)
Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A.Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, & Harvey Whitehouse, “Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2018)
Joni E Johnston, “Children Who Are Cruel to Animals: When to Worry” Psychology Today (27 April 2011)
Jamil Zaki, “Kindness Contagion: Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus” Scientific American (26 July 2016)
Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom (~1910) January 30
See, for example, u/thecontradictin, “Is it bad that I'm always suspicious of kind acts that are recorded?” r/Stoicism
I just want to point out that your model of their enlightened self-interest can be severely wrong, e.g. some people see suicide as a rational means to avoid fates worse than death (including fates only slightly worse than death, which comprises a lot of ordinary human life that you're not supposed to complain about). This is why I value suicide as an option. And if you give yourself permission to coerce others to lose this option without their consent, you might be making them worse off according to their enlightened self-interest while motivating them to hate you at the same time.