Why bother being nice?

A somewhat limited look at Western thinking on altruism

The book marries the perspectives of its authors, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (above) and historian Barbara Taylor. The book marries the perspectives of its authors, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (above) and historian Barbara Taylor. (Jerry Bauer)
By Ann Harleman
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2009

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This slim volume by British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and British (Canadian-born) historian Barbara Taylor is an extended meditation on the question: Why should we be kind? Folded around this question is a more fundamental one: Why should - why do - we love at all? If “On Kindness’’ takes more than a hundred pages to arrive at, essentially, the answer Woody Allen offers at the end of “Annie Hall,’’ this book, like the 1977 movie, is nevertheless a fine ride.

The very different perspectives of the two authors marry happily here. Phillips’s earlier books - pithy and evocative, but often cryptic - explore various ideas not unrelated to the theme of kindness: “On Flirtation,’’ “Monogamy,’’ “On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored,’’ “The Beast in the Nursery: Curiosity and Other Appetites.’’ A lifelong practitioner of the talking cure, Phillips announces in the preface to “On Flirtation’’ his view of psychoanalysis as “of a piece with the various languages of literature - a kind of practical poetry.’’ In his earlier books, Phillips’s own prose style - a unique amalgam of the succinct and the wayward - takes on the teasing rhythm and slippery texture of the very thing he seeks to explain. The result captures but doesn’t necessarily clarify the nature of the human psyche.

“On Kindness,’’ in contrast, harnesses the beguiling energy of Phillips’s prose to Barbara Taylor’s historical perspective. Taylor is the author of “Eve and the New Jerusalem,’’ an award-winning study of 19th-century feminism, as well as a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. “On Kindness’’ opens with a capsule history of the concept of kindness from Marcus Aurelius to Freud, touching on philosophy, literature, religion, psychology, and biology along the way. Added to this is a capsule history of the practice of kindness, with stops at the early Christian church, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Victorians, Darwin, and Max Weber. The remainder of the book explores the psychology of kindness, drawing on the attachment theory of psychoanalysts like John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. Without slighting the complexity or ambiguity of their topic, Phillips and Taylor illuminate Western thinking about it. Seen in this light, our contemporary confusion about the issue of kindness - indeed, about the larger issue of good and evil in human nature - makes sense.

At the same time, the roots of our confusion become clear. Kindness, in today’s thinking, is “either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative), or the lowest form of weakness . . . a virtue of losers.’’ Our suspiciousness of charity, our doubts about the possibility of altruism, our “ghettoization’’ of kindness by relegating it to women, even our sexual hang-ups, according to Phillips and Taylor, are different faces of the same essential error. What makes us want to shunt kindness off to the sidelines? Fear, of course. “The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities. . . . particularly the vulnerability we call desire.’’ Following Winnicott, the authors advocate “a more robust version of kindness.’’ “It is kind to be able to bear conflict, in oneself and others; it is kind, to oneself and others, to forgo magic and sentimentality for reality. It is kind to see individuals as they are, rather than how we might want them to be; it is kind to care for people just as we find them.’’ This version of kindness accommodates ambivalence; it makes room for, and thereby transcends, frustration and hatred. It is the poet’s (or the novelist’s) version - Tolstoy, rather than Dr. Phil. In short, it’s human.

In the course of Phillips and Taylor’s discussion, then, the concept of kindness has widened to take in every human emotion. Yet their answer to the question that sparked the discussion is less satisfying than it might have been. For anyone struggling to construct an ethics outside the framework of religion - an ethics, let’s say, for the 21st century - “On Kindness’’ offers an alternative foundation. But this foundation is itself limited. Surprisingly, the authors’ restriction of history to that of the West goes almost unmentioned. Phillips and Taylor offer no rationale for ruling out any thinking outside the Western tradition or prior to the first century A.D. This truncated trajectory leaves the impression that the only alternative to Christianity is psychoanalysis. What about the Judaic, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim views on kindness? On humanness?

Most, if not all, fiction and poetry asks in some form the question raised by Tolstoy: How, then, shall we live? “On Kindness’’ explores this question thoughtfully, if too narrowly. Why be kind? Filmmaker Allen’s character in “Annie Hall,’’ Alvy Singer, would say that we do so because, like the man who refuses to get help for his brother who believes he’s a chicken, we need the eggs.

Kindness - literally and etymologically being of the same kind, being kin - is an essential human instinct. To exercise it brings pleasure and meaning to our lives. Without it, we become less than fully human.

Ann Harleman ( is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’

By Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 114 pp., $20

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