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Shambhala Sun | March 2010
You'll find this review on page 81 of the magazine.

Born to Be Kind?

On Kindness
By Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009; 114 pp., $20 (cloth)

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
By Dacher Keltner
W.W. Norton and Company, 2009; 336 pp., $25.95 (cloth)

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
By Rebecca Solnit
Viking Press, 2009; 353 pp., $27.95 (cloth)


Reviewed by Gaylon Ferguson

I love stories. I am far from alone in this. As a species, we human beings delight in narrative—one of the fundamental ways, cognitive psychologists now tell us, we make sense of our world. I remember as a child eagerly looking forward to evenings when my grandmother would tell and retell all my old favorites: the Tortoise and the Hare, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Later, when I could read for myself of the rumpus of wild things, of ancient Greek heroes making the long journey home, and of brave women warriors in China, I learned that stories not only delight, they instruct. Our everyday actions are crucially informed by the stories we believe about ourselves and about each other. Stories are one way we seek to answer the most fundamental questions of life: Who are we really, and what are we really like?

These three books challenge us to rethink some of the dominant cultural narratives of our time, the stories we inherit and then retell ourselves and our children about our basic nature as human beings. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor ask in On Kindness, “Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us? And why are stories about kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter most to most people?” Their book explains why and how we have come to think and speak this way about that fundamental human virtue: kindness.

Turns out it was not always this way. The Roman philosopher–emperor Marcus Aurelius called kindness humanity’s “greatest delight.” We inherit from the ancient Greeks words for the love of humanity (philanthropia, agape) and from early Christians a key term for universal loving-kindness—caritas. In a lively and learned early chapter, Phillips and Taylor retrace the fateful steps whereby classical ideas of altruism and benevolence have come to seem, in modern times, as merely sentimental, soft-minded, and unrealistic. One busy urban physician, for instance, worried out loud during a group meditation retreat I attended: “Won’t I be taken advantage of if I think too much of the well-being of others? If I don’t seem as tough as nails in my field, people will walk all over me!” Taylor and Phillips chart the effects of our ingrained cultural training: “Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.”

Here is the question all three books at hand address: Are we kind primarily out of fear, weakness, and coercion, or is there a natural inclination toward sympathy, literally a “feeling with” others? The images projected in far too many talk shows, movies, and TV series depict an inherent selfishness in human beings. The implicit cultural worldview is: it’s a mean-spirited world out there, in which everyone is primarily—and often exclusively—looking out for No. 1.

Taylor and Phillips question this chorus of modern voices raised against kindness. “An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity,” they assert. “Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad, and dangerous to know; that as a species—apparently unlike other species of animal—we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protection.”

In interviews, these two writers have clarified what they are not saying. Barbara Taylor explains: “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… 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.” Here is the story of how doubt about human goodness came to be so pervasive.

The influential writings of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes played a key role in this decisive cultural shift. Phillips and Taylor say that Hobbes, in his most famous work, Leviathan (1651), dismissed “Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity. Men, Hobbes insisted, were selfish beasts who cared for nothing but their own well-being, human existence was a ‘warre of alle against alle’… With Hobbes, selfishness and aggression were transformed from moral vices into psychological facts.” To this day, we sometimes say of acts of uncaring greed: What can you expect? It’s just human nature to take as much as you can, isn’t it? Phillips and Taylor encourage suspicion of this pessimistic view of humanity. They ask: What if, to the contrary, “the kind life—the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others—is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing?”

Our attitudes toward children and childhood are connected to our attitudes toward kindness. Are human beings born as essentially small versions of the warring adults and aggressive societies around them, bent from birth on one-upping everyone in sight? Or, is there an inborn empathy, a fundamental warm-heartedness only later covered over by fearful and defensive cultural conditioning? Phillips and Taylor are unequivocal:

It is one of the contentions of this book that children begin their lives “naturally” kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society. This is not a new idea: over 250 years ago Jean-Jacques Rousseau made a passionate plea for the rescue of children’s natural kindness from the corrupting effects of a divided society. This is a key point in the history of kindness, which is also the history of childhood. What is new perhaps is how easily people today are persuaded not to take kindness too seriously. How has something so integral and essential to ourselves become so incidental, so implausible to us?

In the modern world, it may be science that determines our views on kindness. Few institutions in contemporary society carry the cultural authority of empirical science. As in many present-day court cases, we grant science the power to adjudicate, to tell us which stories are really true. After all, it’s one thing to believe or feel that we human beings are basically this or that, but—we sometimes wonder—what’s the evidence? What happens when scientific findings weigh in on these old debates about our basic humanity?


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