Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Can kindness be motivated by self-interest?

This blog is taking a long holiday, but a few days ago I thought it might be a good idea to draw attention to some posts that I felt deserved more attention than they have received so far.

The first post I came across that I thought might belong in that category sought to answer the question: How should we encourage kindness?

However, when I read it again, I was not quite so impressed by what I had written.

The line of argument was broadly as follows:

·         Kindness is the greatest of all virtues.
·         There is evidence that kindness is good for those who practice it as well as for those who benefit from the kindness of others.
·         Kindness should also be encouraged because benefits of kindness spread beyond those immediately involved in kindly acts. Kind people tend to be trustworthy and trust facilitates mutually beneficial interactions, even among strangers. (In economic terms, kindness is the opposite of opportunism. It reduces the transactions costs of engaging in economic activities and enables people to enjoy the benefits of specialization and trade to a greater extent that would otherwise be possible.)
·         It isn’t clear whether kindness is increasing or decreasing in western societies. There is evidence of a secular trend toward less violence, but also some evidence of increased incivility in workplaces.
·         It is doubtful whether greater kindness can be encouraged by imposing more rules of conduct. The apparent increase in incivility in workplaces has occurred at a time when there has been increased regulation to enforce politically correct behaviour.
·         The best way to encourage kindness is to make people more aware that kindness is good for those who practice it.

My problem is that the bottom line seems too glib.

How would you respond if someone you had just met told you, “I know I am an arsehole”?  When I met such a person a month or so ago, it didn’t cross my mind to tell him that it was in his interests to be kind because kindness benefits the people who practice it. A person who sees himself as an arsehole is not likely to be receptive to such a message. I just suggested that he was not doing himself any favours by having such a low opinion of himself. He seemed to listen. Perhaps if he heard the message more often it might have some impact on his behaviour. If we want to influence the behaviour of such people it may be more effective to speak to their better selves than to try to appeal to their self-interest in reaping the benefits of kindly behaviour. (There is, of course, also the possibility that such people can be influenced by pointing out any penalties they might suffer as a result of bad behaviour.)

The other reason why I think my bottom line was too glib is that I doubt that the claimed beneficial impacts of acts of kindness apply when a person is just going through the motions of appearing to be kind. I suspect that in order to benefit you need to have your heart in it. Nevertheless, we all have to begin somewhere.  We may never change if we wait for our hearts to lead us. As Aristotle said, people acquire virtues by putting them into action. We become kinder by practicing kindness.  

To answer the question posed at the beginning, I think kindness can be motivated by self-interest if that is understood as the interest every individual has has in becoming more like the person that he or she would like to be. The main problem is that too few people ever give serious serious consideration to the question of what kind of person they would like to become.

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