The most long-standing suspicion about kindness is that it is just narcissism in disguise. We are kind because it makes us feel good about ourselves: kindly people are self-approbation junkies. Encountering this argument in the 1730s, the philosopher Francis Hutcheson dispatched it briskly: “If this is self-love, be it so, … Nothing can be better than this self-love, nothing more generous.”
This quote is very near the end of this short but dense book about where Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s philosophy overlaps with Freud’s writing and his followers’ later analysis. There was so much argument and counter-argument about what kindness was and is in this book, indeed often within a single sentence, that an American reader must assume the authors’ native language is academic German. At the bottom of the paragraph things become clear again. “People think that they envy other people for their success, money, fame, when in fact it is kindness that is most envied, because it is the strongest indicator of people’s well-being, their pleasure in existence.”
The recent posts on this blog have been exploring the concept of kindness, how it comes into being, what are its effects, how to give it to other people and how to make it grow in one’s self. The assumption, of course, was that kindness was a good and desirable thing, that it was something we would wish to cultivate. That it was something big enough to share with visitors to our garden as a tasty treat, like a fresh watermelon.
The post-Freudians somehow converted kind acts into disguised aggression and made kindness into subverted aggression. Those modern Freudians seem to be reverting to a pre-Hutchenson idea of narcissism. It would appear that helping other people, with no hope of an economic transaction taking place, would be an unacceptable total loss to the giver. The way these Freudians cope with that conundrum is to assume the giver has taken so much that he feels guilty, and he can afford to give a tiny bit back. His payoff is that his conscience is soothed. In fact their supposed guilt is so soothed, the giver can live a perfectly contented life. And, it is that contentment which bothers the nit-pickers so much; it is the apparent unearned and therefore undeserved pleasure of the virtuous that releases the greedy ones’ inner bile.
This line of reasoning leads into an abyss for those with a greedy temperament, but it is easy enough to change to the path which leads to contentment. When a person cultivates the ability to be kind, and that means to help another person grow toward greater physical and mental freedom, they simultaneously help themselves to those ultimate goals. The super-reward is that while doing the kind act they are cultivating the habit and they themselves become the most frequent recipient of the kind acts. Thus the kind person achieves the kind of wisdom which puts them on the path to contentment. They make other people more content and so those people who are successful at true kindness live in a more contented world, and they themselves become more contented.
For an economist a kindness would be maximizing everyone’s profit and so it does.