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Heaven on Earth: The Kindness Maxim

2016 December 19
tags:
by Ian Welsh
Clio, the Muse of History

In the past, I have noted that kindness is generally the best policy and always the best policy default. If you don’t have an ironclad reason not to be kind, be kind.

Let’s run through this.

People who are treated badly, become bad. The abused grow up to abuse. The sick make others sick and cannot contribute to society. Happy people are better to be around. Prosperous people can afford your products and services.

Happy, healthy, loving, and prosperous people are the people we want in our societies.

We evolved in bands. Forty to fifty people running around the Savannah. We would have been friendly to some other bands (those with whom we shared ancestors) and we were hostile to most other humans, who were our competitors. The level of hostility varied with carrying capacity; if resources were short because of too many humans, quite hostile, otherwise not very.

We did not evolve to take into consideration the needs of large groups of people. In order to do so, we evolved cultural methods: fictive kinship, culture, story, myth, and religion. These things created fictional identities which went beyond people we knew of or saw every day.

Theses are all hacks for a fundamental evolutionary problem: We’ve evolved to be pretty good to those we see all the time, and not to care much about people we don’t.

This was fine when were just a particularly clever animal. Even when we got to the point of making wholesale changes to the environment (usually through agriculture), the worst we could do is ruin a local ecosystem–we couldn’t mess up the world.

But, today, for good or ill, we live in that “interconnected world” and the “global society” everyone talks about. What happens to someone in Nigeria, Brazil, or China matters to me. Their happiness, their health, their prosperity affects mine.

And how they affect the environment affects me, too. How I, a first-worlder with a huge carbon footprint, affect the environment, affects them.

Their well-being affects mine. It is in my interest for them to be better off.

This isn’t what you’ve been told. Economics treats the world as a zero-sum game, a matter of managing scarcity.

The world has scarcities: resources, dumps for pollution like carbon, etc. But civilization isn’t, usually, a zero sum game. Instead, it’s usually negative sum or positive sum, or both. For some time for Westerners, and a few other developed nations, it has been positive sum, and there have been many other periods of positive-sum games.

My win is everyone else’s win.

Creating a good society requires both managing actual scarcities and understanding that actual scarcities are scarce, and that most things people want to do are positive sum. It requires turning most of what we do into positive-sum games. A good society is one in which “your win is my win” is made true far more often than not.

“We win together” is a prescriptive statement which must be made into a descriptive statement. (It is also a descriptive statement in general, because if my win isn’t your win more often than not, we don’t live in a good world.)

So humans must see beyond their identities, their tribes, and their nations, to treat all humans as people whom we want to be healthy, happy, prosperous, and loving. For their sakes and for our sakes.

But there is an additional step required to create a good society, a good world, a good civilization.

We must care for non-human life.

The mass-death of trees and plankton affects you, it affects me. The mass death of fish affects you, it affects me. The destruction of marshlands causes floods and reduces water quality; it affects you, and it affects me. Ecosystem collapse—well, you get it.

The problem here is that I’ve given you the rational argument.

Rationality is marginal. It’s not that humans can’t be rational, it’s that rationality is the lesser part of why we do things or how we make decisions. We make decisions based on emotions, and those emotions are based on our ideologies and identities.

Rationality, or “reason,” allows us to weasel out of doing the right thing too often. It is a tool for our emotions; emotions which right now scream: “My interests, my ideology, my identity, my people matter MOST!”

For a good world to exist, we must feel that other humans should be treated kindly simply because it is the right thing to do. We should be revolted by anyone going hungry, anyone being tortured, anyone being raped. The moment we think “They had it coming,” we’re on the wrong track. (Punishment is not the point, removing the ability of bad actors to continue to act badly is.)

And this principle needs to be extended to non-human life. We need to feel bad when animals are dying in large numbers and going extinct–bad enough to do something about it. We need to instinctively, by default, move to protect them. We should be as revolted by images of dolphins being slaughtered as we are by humans being slaughtered. If we kill for meat (and I eat meat), we should insist it be done humanely.

This must be based on values, principles, and identity, of feeling that humans and animals and even plants are all alive–and because they are alive, they must be treated with respect.

There are sound, pragmatic reasons for doing so; there are also sound moral reasons for doing so (read the Hidden Life of Trees). Anyone who doesn’t think most animals don’t feel pain, or don’t suffer, is on a profoundly unethical, immoral track.

This is the right thing to do, morally and pragmatically, and if we don’t figure out how to do it, we’re little better than bacteria that grow until they destroy their own environment and experience a great die-off.

Be kind. It creates the world you want to live in, and it may well save your life and the lives of those you claim to care about. By granting life the love you reserve only for a few, you give those few (and yourself, as it happens) their best chance at long life and prosperity–and grant it to your descendants as well.


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27 Responses
  1. markfromireland permalink
    December 19, 2016

    Spelling correction “effects” throughout should read “affects”.

    People who are treated badly, become bad.

    The abused grow up to abuse.

    Not necessarily true, most of my children are adopted as you know. Not to put too fine a point on it and without breaking tacet ut potes they were from apalling backgrounds and had suffered horribly. The adult ones have grown into the sort of adult you’d be very happy to see your son or daughter marry. As you also know I was contacted a while ago by the local child welfare department and asked if I would adopt again My two latest sons give every indication of becoming the same sort of person as their siblings.

    People who are treated badly, become bad.

    You are, I think, being excessively deterministic. Your statement is probably true for most people who are mistreated as children or is it? I find myself thinking of my children and I find myself thinking of all the women I know who were abused by male relatives when they were children and who are now nurturing and loving mothers. I think you need to think this one through a bit more and research it a bit more. I think the most you can say is that people who are abused as children have a greater tendency to become abusers in later life.

  2. subgenius permalink
    December 19, 2016

    Commented on the last post before reading this.

    Yes, to the concept (I call it love, but same thing at root).

    And mfi is right, imho…Some of the most developed individuals I know come from extremely rough backgrounds. On the other hand, they are rare – but understanding it is possible is important. Otherwise the we only option is to depreciate them.

  3. subgenius permalink
    December 19, 2016

    Not sure how the ‘we’ got into that last post. Google auto-obscure probably.

  4. Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 20, 2016

    Yes. Quite a bit more likely is the phrase I would use. It is not automatic, but increases the odds significantly.

  5. subgenius permalink
    December 20, 2016

    A couple of other thoughts…

    We developed in tribal societies with trust relationships, which become impossible once the group exceeds ~ 150 (Dunbar’s number) whereupon we have to use proxies (law, economics, social rules) to mediate relationships. I suggest we need to reformulate these to create an equitable frame for civilization.

    My experience has been that kids with bad experiences will tend to overcome these experiences given the opportunity. Creating that opportunity for them is seemingly rare in our society – maybe as a result of the system resulting from the application of the regulations outlined above.

  6. MojaveWolf permalink
    December 20, 2016

    Whatever quibbles I or others might have about some of the details, the gist is certainly true.

    This must be based on value and principles and identity: of feeling that humans and animals and even plants are all alive and because they are alive they must be treated with respect.

    I guess that is the ultimate gist, but all this is worth repeating . . .

    For a good world to exist we must feel that other humans should be treated kindly just because it is the right thing to do. We should be revolted by anyone going hungry, anyone being tortured; anyone being raped. . .

    And this needs to be extended to non-human life. We need to feel bad when animals are dying in large numbers and going extinct: bad enough to do something about it. We need to instinctively, by default, protect them. We should be as revolted by images of dolphins being slaughtered as we are by humans. If we kill for meat (and I eat meat) we should insist it be done humanely.

    A good society is one in which “your win is my win” is made true far more often than not.

    I’m sure we disagree vehemently over some (many) details about how to get there, but hell yeah on the main point and end goal(s).

  7. Chuck Mire permalink
    December 20, 2016

    HUG ‘O WAR by Shel Silverstein

    I will not play at tug o’ war.

    I’d rather play at hug o’ war,

    Where everyone hugs

    Instead of tugs,

    Where everyone giggles

    And rolls on the rug,

    Where everyone kisses,

    And everyone grins,

    And everyone cuddles,

    And everyone wins.

  8. Lisa permalink
    December 20, 2016

    “People who are treated badly, become bad. The abused grow up to abuse. ”
    Do you know how many people I know, physically and/or sexually abused that fight to protect others from that?

    Those LGBTI people, been rejected, bullied, hurt as kids that fight for kids to never have that?

    Heck we had an entire country (Australia) where the entire LGBTI community united to protect our kids..sacrifising themselves and their wishes..for our kids…

    Speak for yourself here. I got unlucky and was both bullied and sexually abused.. and I will ..and have .. stood beside people to fight against that…and actually have fought physically fighting against people that do that…and even gone down fighting.

  9. paul permalink
    December 20, 2016

    I agree that we should be concerned for all life. But we aren’t . We never were and we never will be.
    What you see is what you get with our and any other species.

  10. Jay permalink
    December 20, 2016

    @Paul – There are people who are concerned for all life.

    That simple fact denies the validity of the dis-empowering story “We never were and we never will be.”.

    Anyone who believes in that story denies themselves their own power and attempts ( but fails ) to hold others in to a fixed unchanging position.

    @Ian – “People who are treated badly, become bad. The abused grow up to abuse. ”

    As someone who was abused and a friend to several people who were also abused I can attest to the risks of an abused person becoming some type of abuser in some arena of their life ( doesn’t have to be physical ) but I also recognise the power and effectiveness of therapy to help individuals overcome the cycle of abuse.

    In my case, many years of psychotherapy and learning to forgive were my routes to healing.

    So yes, the cycle of abuse exists on all sorts of scales ( from the individual to the tribal on up to the national groupings ) but the cycle can be broken.

  11. Effem permalink
    December 20, 2016

    The challenge is that “kindness” is often in the eye of the beholder. I would take the animal cruelty argument much more seriously if it were not perpetuated by people who, at the same time, are comfortable with aborting 700,000 unborn humans each year in the US (including a number of 3rd trimester abortions equal in magnitude to gun deaths).

    I understand that people disagree on such things, and am comfortable with that. But that also means that most versions of “kindness” cannot be pushed too hard because they are simple “preferences,” not “universal truths.”

  12. Tom permalink
    December 20, 2016

    Electoral College has spoken. Only two Electors dumped Trump and voted someone else.

    4 Electors dumped Hillary, all four from Washington State. So Hillary has the record of most faithless Electors in history.

    Trump is now formally President as the Simpsons had foreseen back in 2000.

  13. December 20, 2016

    Most people are wired to like similar people, a few are word to like different people. It is partially genetic, but also upbringing. The people who are wired for difference have to make their case.

  14. Peter permalink
    December 20, 2016

    I doubt this Dr Phil like pop-psych will deter hard cases such as RC or myself from abusing the snowflakes with truth, a mirror and a little mockery. The breaking bad even insane behavior we are seeing in this tribe has its roots in the past certainly but their liberal conditioning and the false idols they were attracted to may be the source of their malaise not beatings or verbal abuse.

    We have a pretty good record of how people, groups and tribes behaved since history was written down but ideas about prehistoric behavior are guesswork and imagination. Some groups probably got along some didn’t, some groups probably didn’t fight and kill while others made it a sport or ritual. Some groups surely helped feed their neighbors while other groups ate their neighbors.

  15. Herman permalink
    December 20, 2016

    Ian,

    Doesn’t this come back to the culture of meanness issue in America? Perhaps the biggest reason why the Right succeeds in the United States is because we are a mean, bullying society. Being kind is seen as something for suckers.

    The decline of the middle class has only worsened matters because now people feel squeezed so they are doubling down on “I’ve got mine, fuck you” philosophy. For those that don’t have theirs yet, the Right has a list of scapegoats to explain why you are not doing well. Of course, the list never includes powerful actors like corporations but it is always your fellow workers, like government employees.

  16. gnokgnoh permalink
    December 20, 2016

    @Peter
    The observable patterns of social and group behavior you describe are polarities of survivability arguments in the face of plenty or scarcity. You are stating that the sources of bad behavior (eating others) in our modern world are liberal conditioning and false idols, more than beatings or verbal abuse. Your far more abstract reasons for bad behavior seem to be much more contagious. This very strongly supports Ian’s argument that scarcity breeds bad behavior.

    Whatever broad labels you want to place on competition for economic resources (capitalism, neo-liberalism); when there’s plenty, that competition feels exhilarating, almost healthy, at least to predators. When fewer resources are available, the predators widen their territory.

    Socially predatory behavior is contagious, the data for which is probably best illustrated by the massive increase in wealth by the very rich and the subsequent drop off in the size of the middle class, over the last 20-30 years. See this Pew article. Conversely, the data about the cycle of personal abuse is not as clear. See this research study. In other words, personal abuse does not seem to be as contagious as socially predatory behavior.

    We are facing increasing scarcity. Ian is arguing for rationality and compassion, even though we are acting like bacteria.

  17. Billikin permalink
    December 20, 2016

    Herman: “Doesn’t this come back to the culture of meanness issue in America? Perhaps the biggest reason why the Right succeeds in the United States is because we are a mean, bullying society. Being kind is seen as something for suckers.”

    I don’t think that things are quite so bad, but we have certainly become meaner in the US. The question is, how did we get that way? Despite its greater racism, the US in the 1950s was not a mean society. You can see that reflected in TV shows and movies of that time. A local station used to run Have Gun, Will Travel reruns, which, IMO, are pretty revealing about the US culture then. By the 1970s audiences cheered the vigilante killings in the movie Death Wish, but in 50s the good guys shot the guns out of the bad guys’ hands, showing not only remarkable marksmanship, but remarkable kindness.

  18. Billikin permalink
    December 20, 2016

    Oh, shooting the guns out of hands occurred in Westerns, not real life. 😉

  19. scruff permalink
    December 20, 2016

    There is an odd issue with your ideas in this post that I think about fairly often: at any given time, biomass on the planet is essentially a zero-sum game. Sure, there are lichens slowly moving matter from the lithosphere into the biosphere, along with some other processes doing the same and others reversing the trend. But generally speaking, if you want to grow the human population, it’s going to come at the expense of every other population.

    And maybe people aren’t deliberately trying to grow the human population, but the cluster of behavioral traits they exhibit amount to the same thing: if you are unwilling to allow humans to die, their numbers will increase at the expense of everyone else. If you are unwilling to allow humans to starve, then their numbers will increase… etc. If you believe that all humans should be supported in their ability to raise a family… etc, etc.

    If there was ever a point at which humans and non-humans were ever mutually engaged in a “we all win” scenario, it would therefore have had to be prior to agriculture, and prior to the advent of “we all win” thinking within human societies – those cultural methods you mention. Indeed, it seems to me that the best outcomes for everyone occurred when people were not taking into consideration the needs of large groups of people, because that left room for the needs of everyone else to get met.

  20. Steeleweed permalink
    December 20, 2016

    When the group sizes exceed Dunbar’s Number (100-300, depending on culture and ecological niche), the process of relating to those outside the group is what I consider the beginning of Politics. Unfortunately, the tacit rules in place which create harmony and success within a group are seldom used as a basis for relations among groups. ‘Dunbar groups’ have the disadvantage of a small gene pool, sometimes compensated by periodic get-togethers with related groups (Native American PowWows, for example) which allow the young to find mates. Stealing women from ‘enemy’ groups was also fairly common. Each person may indeed be affected by every other person in a very remote way, but if the affecting is not personal and obvious (i.e., local), the ‘connectedness’ is seldom taken seriously. Yes, everyone matters – but some matter more to us than others.

  21. MojaveWolf permalink
    December 21, 2016

    @scruff — maybe people aren’t deliberately trying to grow the human population, but the cluster of behavioral traits they exhibit amount to the same thing: if you are unwilling to allow humans to die, their numbers will increase at the expense of everyone else. If you are unwilling to allow humans to starve, then their numbers will increase… etc. If you believe that all humans should be supported in their ability to raise a family… etc, etc.

    While this makes a bit of surface sense, at this particular point in the world, the opposite seems true. Japan and the Northern European social welfare states were exhibiting small-to-negative population growth, but for immigration. Meanwhile places with huge poverty/misery/starvation saw massive increases in unsustainable population growth (Africa, the poorer parts of SE Asia). Wherever education and increased personal security go up, it seems people feel more intent on enjoying their lives and less of an urge to produce multiple offspring to take care of them in their old age. This is not an ideological observation but just a pragmatic one.

    The best and most humane and kindest way to reduce the world’s population would be to provide everyone with a solid education and convince them that they were reasonably safe with a secure personal future. And to give them more free time to educate themselves about the world to see what the effects of too many of us have on the rest of the planet. When people are scrambling to survive they don’t tend to take the long view so much.

    @Effem — People are going to disagree about all sorts of things, for example, you & I on (I’ll assume from your comment) both the personhood of the fetus and the relative prioritization of womb-inhabitant vs. pregnant woman, regardless of how one considers the womb-inhabitant (I’m trying to be neutral in phrasing here, if anyone wonders where that term came from). Doesn’t mean we can’t agree on the fundamental principles of treating people and animals and plants all well, preserving the biosphere for the common good or not being pointlessly cruel.

  22. December 21, 2016

    Ian,

    I strongly agree with the goal of getting people to see beyond their identities. I think our principal major disagreement has been the method by which this is to be accomplished. I don’t think there’s any way to do it without going through, at some point, a careful, methodical public accounting of what those identities are, what they mean, how people feel about them, etc. That is going to colour/taint/condition everything else.

  23. Peter permalink
    December 21, 2016

    @Gnok

    The behaviors I described have been recorded in abundance societies as well as during times of scarcity so other parts of human nature are involved.

    The snowflakes/Clintonites I addressed are hardly in the scarcity class in fact they seem to mostly from the class that has prospered from inequality although they have attracted some rubes from the lower class. They are certainly led by one of the winners in this class struggle and the Red Queen is part of and paid by the 1% and also the .01%.

  24. scruff permalink
    December 21, 2016

    @MojaveWolf:

    Yes… kind of. My assessment was mainly focused on the big picture historical view of how things have worked out, but as you say there are aberrations in certain places currently. Not all places, and overall on a global scale the trend is holding true. We also haven’t seen what impact human biological immortality would have, yet. Additionally, the argument can be generalized beyond population numbers to environmental impact. My bigger point was that humans taking the longer view is uncommon, and the results of doing so uncertain, but before it was a possibility the results were much better for everyone else, and it wasn’t nearly as much trouble as we’re having now.

  25. MojaveWolf permalink
    December 22, 2016

    @scruff — certainly agree w/you that humans are not currently taking the long view and most of us haven’t in the past, either. But there have been pockets that managed it and we’re going to HAVE to now or all die along w/most or all the rest of the biosphere (or get some sort of miracle or be saved by space aliens, and I’m really not wanting to count on those options).

    I think we only did less damage in the past because, as Ian said, there were fewer of us and we only had the power to destroy local ecosystems. The First Nations people in the Americas learned to live in harmony with the land, but before that their ancestors wiped out all the megafauna, and humans generally have been good at wiping out ecosystems and species wherever we go. If you haven’t already read them I strongly recommend either of a couple of books named The Sixth Extinction, or Guns Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond (and Collapse by same author) off the top of my head.

    The extra damage we’re doing now isn’t because we’re trying to think long term but because we developed technology and based our society on it before we had any clue about the long term damage it could cause. Hopefully we are not realizing too late.

  26. markfromireland permalink
    December 22, 2016

    @ Effem December 20, 2016

    Indeed. It never seems to occur to these people that instead of celebrating life and kindness that they’re helping build a culture of death and suffering.

  27. linda amick permalink
    December 22, 2016

    Adding to this essay is chapter 15 in Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman where he discusses the good. Two key passages read:
    “But if we think about it, we realize that this private, senseless, incidental kindness is in fact eternal. It is extended to everything living, even to a mouse, even to a bent branch that a man straightens as he walks by.” and later at the end of the Chapter:
    “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

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