The Nature and Nurture of Kindness

An Essay on the Ethics of Relating to Others

I raise the subject of kindness in the context of moral motivation and social relations. We often hear people minimize or dismiss the role of kindness as a consideration that is naïve, like “being nice.” Thus, even when kindness is accepted as a positive quality in social life, it can be seen as secondary to self-interest as a basic or natural source of motivation.  

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun…  Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun… Robert Frost

As with many aspects of human nature, there may be some truth to this appraisal of kindness and other motivations that are grounded in moral emotions. So, I’ll begin by briefly examining motivation and how emotion and reason play a role in its mature expression. We’ll then consider some traditional sources of wisdom on this topic before closing with practical implications.  

The implications I refer to concern our natural potentials to cultivate moral motivations. We can trace this line of thought to ancient Greece and Roman Stoicism. It then emerges again in Italy, France, and Britain in the Enlightenment era. Because this moral philosophy and psychology predates modern psychology, it avoids some of the narrowing that occurs with modern moral psychology. 

A Question of Moral Emotions & Motivation

What is it that motivates people to behave the way they do? Whether conscious or unconscious, what is it that moves us to act as we do? If we say there are reasons for our actions, does that mean that our motivations are purely rational? Isn’t the energy that moves us emotional? As it concerns social relations and interactions, which comes first, emotion or reason? And what about free will?  

About Emotion

Plato and Socrates in 5th century B.C. Greece and Buddha Gautama at about the same time in Central Asia were independently exploring pathways to enlightenment. They cautioned us about how emotions (“the passions”) can overwhelm our rational or “wise” mind, blocking our access to enlightenment.  

This theme recurs in Western philosophy, leading to an ideal of rationality in the modern period and to a mistrust of emotion and intuitive (nonscientific) modes of knowing. Etymology reveals more about how the meaning of words evolve to express the phenomena that we seek to designate and signify:  

emotion (n.) In the 1570s, "a (social) moving, stirring, agitation," from Middle French émotion (16c.), from Old French emouvoir "stir up" (12c.), from Latin emovere "move out, remove, agitate." Sense of "strong feeling" is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

We see in this historical usage of the word “emotion” how it is believed to play a role in motivation by stirring us, moving us to act. It manifests in less rational and conscious form as impulsivity. But feelings can also become the focus of conscious reflection. Its motivating effects are then rationally mediated. The emotional “data” of experience call for our attention, and we then become free to consider them: “What’s going on? Something is feeling important, urgent. Something is at stake.”  

This mediated form of emotional meaning yields the “reasons of the heart” that Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) had in mind: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” In the course of reflecting upon these felt reasons, we can find ways to express them in words. We may try out or “play with” a variety of words and find those that best capture the sense of what we mean. In that way, we bring our felt experience into rational deliberations on action.     

About Motivation

There’s been a tendency in modern times under the influence of Thomas Hobbes (English, 1588-1679) and his moral psychology of egoism to explain away kindness, arguing that it’s not an original or natural moral emotion and source of motivation. Instead, this theory insists that there must be self-interested motives at work that explain acts of kindness. This egoistic psychology was the basis for the modern definition of “rational economic man” so popular in economics.   

But others, including Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Anthony Cooper (the Earl of Shaftesbury 1671-1713), both of whom were influenced by Stoic philosophy, recognized kindness as a moral emotion that is cultivated and fundamental to our social nature as persons. Thus, kindness is a matter of both nature and nurture. It’s in our nature to be social, to want and to seek attachment, even to care so much about those we love that we place their interests above our own. And our social nature must be nurtured.  

kindness - having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others: wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

kindness (n.) In c. 1300, "courtesy, noble deeds," from kind (adj.) + -ness. Meanings "kind deeds; kind feelings; quality or habit of being kind" are from late 14c. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Vico, drawing upon Stoic philosophers, characterized our moral emotions and our cultivated social values as rising from a sensus communis. Sensus communis was understood to be a natural attunement to what is morally good, right, and proper. Drawing upon Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) called this a moral sense. It is a sense that is not reducible to any or all of the five senses of perception; rather, it’s specific to our inborn potential for beneficence, a social virtue.  

Hutcheson was critical of Hobbes and his ilk for encouraging the belief that we are only capable of acting out of self-interest. Hutcheson argued that just as we must cultivate our rational capabilities, so we must also cultivate our moral sense. To discourage such moral development by promoting an egoistic psychology and depending solely on the coercive force of laws and punishment to wrest control of baser motives is to give up on our natural potentials to become free and responsible moral agents.   

Even Adam Smith, a student of Hutcheson and the father of capitalism, never believed that market forces and self-interest are sufficient to realizing a good society. He assumed that we must also draw upon our moral sense (“sympathy”) to inform our actions and achieve a life of virtue. Indeed, these moral ideals of freedom and equality are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.  

Practical Considerations

Feelings matter and words matter. Those are two practical consequences of the foregoing discussion of moral emotions and motivation. They inform our practices in two important ways. First, we must have patience and appreciation for attending to our feelings and hearing what they have to say. Second, we must reciprocate that attentiveness through dialogue, which is intended to yield mutual understanding.  

But dialogue is about more than understanding one another’s individual, subjective feelings and thoughts. It involves discovering how a discussion of our experiences of a common situation spawn a larger whole, a further truth. In that way, dialogue is what allows us to arrive at a something greater than either of us would have arrived at absent dialogue.  

This quality of understanding is what Vico would characterize as eloquence – not just “pretty words” or a plausible narrative, but an articulation of the situation that is truer and more adequate to inform our actions. It requires that both participants are of good moral character, that their intentions are good, that they feel a duty to arrive at an enlightened understanding upon which to base action.