Monday, January 12, 2009

'The Condescension of the Entitled'

Rob Horning speculates upon the evolution of 'kindness':
A theory: When kindness is performed out of social necessity by those without the privilege of inward-looking selfishness and individualist isolation, it doesn’t register as “kindness.” When one finds they must make a conscious effort to be kind and must trumpet their efforts to have it recognized as such, it’s probably already too late for them to be worrying about kindness—they have already become the beneficiary of an unequal society to the degree that they are conscious of being or not being kind. If you think, “how kind of me,” how kind have you really been? Being kind has already become an expression of class privilege, not human fellow feeling.
Indeed. I don't encourage my friends to assist those in need out of 'kindness,' either in myself or in others; I do so because of an innate understanding that 'there but for the grace of God go I.' Aspiring to some sort of moral virtue in doing so strikes me as hubristic.

It seems obvious to me that some human beings are born with a well-developed sense of empathy; others, not so much. It seems equally obvious to me that codified moral systems, whether they be religious or secular, attempt to lay out a rule book for conducting oneself as though one were motivated by empathy, as though one's neighbor were oneself. This is why I believe that following one of these systems to the letter does not guarantee one the moral high ground, nor do I think that such system-following is the pinnacle of human morality. Religion and law are a training ground for the conscience, no more and no less.

Furthermore, I see that when a sufficient number of citizens in any society follow an empathy-encouraging moral system for an extended period of time, that society continues to extend its empathy in more pervasive ways--by setting up a universal healthcare system, for example. This is an organic process, not a revolutionary one; witness that the brutal feudalism of the Russian empire produced the brutal levelling and totalitarian failures of Marxism, whereas the gentler Christian traditions of Western Europe gave rise to more or less functional socialism. The difference, in my view, is not just one of degree but of genesis.

Moreover, the word 'kindness' itself encompasses such a wide range of acts, feelings and motivations that it is almost pointless to argue whether society is becoming kinder, or more callous. As Horning points out, kindness aligned with power produces the condescension of the entitled; kindness unaligned with power is just common decency. (via Sullivan)


David said...

Good post PL. Love the new portrait btw. Obey.

k said...

Yes. I shall go a-librarying and get a copy of that book. It inspired that reading hunger in a big way.