The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Default to Kindness

If there is one policy point I’d like to make it isn’t a policy point, it’s an ethical one: default to kindness.

Or try kindness first.

In policy terms, the kind thing to do is usually the right thing to do.  I’d go so far as to say, almost always.

Treating prisoners with kindness nets Finland half the recidivism rate the US, with its punitive prisons gets.  That is, only half as many prisoners, once released, commit a crime in Finland.

Single payer or comprehensive universal healthcare has costs about a third less than the US system, and produces better results.

Not committing war crimes makes people much less interested in killing you.  Not torturing enemies means they are far less likely to torture your people.

Helping other nations improve their standard of living makes them less likely to kill us, and better trade partners.

Happy employees are more productive and produce more profit, yet we deliberately treat employees horribly in the assumption that we get more out of them that way, despite reams of evidence to the contrary.

High minimum wages do not decrease employment, there is even some evidence that they may increase employment.

Torture does not get useful information out of people compared to regular interrogation.  It is extremely unreliable, this is understood by most professionals in the business.  You torture to send a message, and that message is “we torture”.

The first thing you should do, in any policy situation, is ask “what would the golden rule have me do?”  Most of the time, this will be the correct policy, which will produce the best results.  People who are treated with kindness, in general, reciprocate and are productive.  Yes, there are exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions.

Further, kindness is the default position even with the worst people.  If you allow rapists to be raped, you become a rapist.  If you torture torturers, you are now a torturer.  You do not, in the old phrase, sink to their level.  That doesn’t mean being a pushover, it doesn’t mean no justice, it does mean that the State has no business seeking revenge and that the rules, which should default to kindness, apply equally the worst people and the best.  This is not just the right thing to do, it is the only thing to do, because the State often decides the best people are the worst people, as even a cursory examination of history will attest, and it very often makes mistakes, as the many errors in capital cases have brought to light.  But, again, even if someone is the worst of the worst beyond even the shadow of a doubt, they must be treated with kindness even as they are incarcerated, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because doing anything else degrades those who do it.  Torturers are always corrupted by torturing, occupying armies always become weak, corrupt and brutal.  You cannot do evil and not be, yourself, scarred by it.

Be kind, and remember, what you insist on your government doing to others changes your government, and will effect its treatment of you.

Originally published Nov 26, 2012. In some ways this is the most fundamental piece I’ve ever written, or ever will write.

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AOC Is Right About Hawley and Cruz & America Is A Coup-able State


Open Thread


  1. Celsius 233

    Heartily agree; we’ve become a divisive, mean spirited, greedy, and ignorant society.
    We’ve completely lost the sense of community and gone to a bunker mentality.
    A very timely piece, Ian. It speaks volumes to a vast conundrum…

  2. Charles D

    This is the simplest and best policy advice I have ever read. If we need a single idea that can unite left and right, this should be it.

  3. John

    Thank you, Ian. We all need to be reminded of this constantly. A good start for a Monday morning. Start with the Golden Rule.

  4. David Kowalski

    Great advice. It will be interesting to see how many “Christians” and other openly “religious” follow the Golden Rule and how many do not. Maybe we would be better if more people tried to be Christ-like than Christian. Jesus notably forgave those who crucified him from his cross. That is a tough standard to equal.

  5. nihil obstet

    Tragically, use of kindness depends on feeling that the other person is like you. Many persons, especially conservatives, believe that in a hierarchy that ranks people according to their value. Kindness can never convince the other person that he or she is less valuable than you are. But inflicting pain on the other can reassure yourself that you are more valuable than her. Despite the avowals that fewer prisoners, more productive employees, better cheaper health care, what have you, are the results they’re looking for, for many persons, the “best results” are the visible ranking of more valuable people above less valuable people. This is what we call accountability and personal responsibility.

  6. No one ever believes it. Do the right thing not because it is the right thing, but because it is the thing that is in your long term best interest.

    No one ever believes it. We must not torture the captive. It has nothing to do with who the captive is. It has to do with who we are, and with who we will become.

  7. DWBartoo



  8. two beers

    Capitalism, imperialism, and racism have no use for kindness.

  9. Steelhead

    The best solution to any problem is usually the basic one. Unfortunately, there are too few people who are willing to abandon total self interest in order to benefit the common good.

  10. Giving the homeless a place to live costs less than providing shelters and emergency services–giving-the-homeless-a-place-to-live-costs-less-than-providing-shelters-and-emergency-services


    I’ve always been a highly idealistic person, but as I’ve grown older I’ve been surprised to find that the idealistic, good-hearted, compassionate decision is usually, as you say Ian, the right decision. People need to be made aware of that, if they aren’t already.

  11. Alcuin

    On a personal level, try a little kindness. Give away “soup. Consider setting up a community garden. I’ve had enough of politicians to last me ten lifetimes – I’ll never vote again.

  12. Michael Roe

    Civilization is when the group behaves civilly toward one another. It is nice when the majority behaves compassionately but it is imperative that it behaves justly. There is however the problem of score keeping which requires losers to define winners. We are a species of scorekeepers, hierarchy is our organizational method. Review the Tragedy of the Commons, we always choose self interest over the common good. Most religion is used to plea bargain our way out of serving the greater good by assigning responsibility for doing good to some deity that requires tribute to set things right.

  13. Ian Welsh

    Newer research shows that the tragedy of the commons is often not the case, and that commons are often well cared for over long periods (ie. centuries).

  14. Elizabeth

    Great piece, Ian. I wish everyone of our so-called “leaders” would read this. I feel that as a country, we have become numb to violence, suffering, and hatred. There is a certain “rawness” to living today because our society has become indifferent and callous, and blinds itself to its own inhumanity.

    My father taught me to treat others as I would want to be treated. What a blessed place this earth would be if this simple message would be spoken. We really are all in the boat together.

  15. Celsius 233

    This is from Huffpost (sorry);

    It’s not getting better. We could change that; but we won’t.
    I would highly recommend Joe Bageant’s book; Rainbow Pie.
    It’s a compelling read…

  16. This is exactly how I feel and I have written many blog post about this (not as artful formulated but equally heartfelt). We cannot expect kindness if we ourself are not kind.

    This position is not only supported by common sense but also by neuroscience. We humans take our cues from fellow humans. We imitate, mimic, parrot them, we learn from our parents and teachers, we follow our role models. This is made possible by so called “mirror neurons” in our brain and it is not a very special human trait, we share the ability to imitate and learn from our peers with many higher developed animals.

    Mirror neurons are also involved in the feelings of empathy, compassion, love — any thorough analysis of human behavior shows that imitation and empathy are closely related. Imitation allows us to learn necessary social rules, empathy make us treat our fellow beings kindly, both abilities are necessary to live together in communities, both are absolutely necessary for the functioning of societies.

    Yet there is one serious problem:

    Weapons in the hand of psychopathic killers, as they are: Terrorists, mercenaries, soldiers, militiamen, policemen, hunters, etc.

    There are tons of weapons around, and factories all over the world produce constantly more and more. Two billion US$ are spent each year for the military, 711 million alone by the USA.

    There are an estimated 8.000 active nuclear warheads waiting to be deployed at any time.

    In human history there were always stable and peaceful societies, there were matriarchal societies, there were societies who were harmoniously integrated into nature and who could have been sustained indefinitely. But the hordes of barbarian tribes (the Huns, Genghis Khan/Kublai Khan), the conquistadors of Spain and Portugal, rampaging armies and military expeditions of colonial powers overrun them and destroyed them.

    What can one do when one stands in from of a gun barrel? What can one do against a monstrous, well armed enemy? What can one do against bombs and hellfire missiles, against an occupying army, against preventive wars and just wars, against well armed religious fanatics directed into the country to destroy the social fabric and make the place ripe for neocolonial exploitation?

    Run and hide? Sabotage and obstruct? Play the most intelligent strategic game to outmaneuver the armed psychopaths? Search for new technologies to disable wagons (microbes like the diesel bugs, nano-particles and gases, electromagnetic beams of various wavelength)?

    Any novel idea is appreciated!

  17. Actual psychopaths are a relatively small percentage of the population (current estimates run around 5%, or 1 in 20). Arguably civilization – especially industrial and post-industrial – produces this relatively high number, at least behaviorally.

    As to “mirror neurons” – I wonder how much of this development is affected by popular culture, particularly movies and television drama, as offset by actual interpersonal communication. If you look at the characters as portrayed in these dramas – take your average “staple” cast member in your average police drama, for example – these folks invariably do horrible things, but are then portrayed as “complicated” people with whom we are invited to feel empathy for the “complicated” situations they have to deal with. There’s usually an idealistic foil around, and these nice guys/gals need to be rescued – if they survive at all – by one of these “complicated” heroes who know how to deal with the “practical” world.

    Real life isn’t like that – I have personal anecdotes, one of which involved a knife at my throat, that refute this narrative. People do respond to goodness, even in “complicated,” “practical” situations. This message is not good drama (it’s Pollyanne-ish, (some) Disney fodder, scorned by “serious” audiences.) And it’s rather boring, really.

    This is more of an observation about the ubiquity of the one-way transmission of dramatic media.

  18. S Brennan

    Good to see you are back at it Ian,

    The thing that bugs me the most (and this is true top to bottom) is the people who engage in mean behavior even when it is of no gain to themselves…and often to their detriment. I am not talking long term here, although that applies doubly, I’m talking short term to immediate. It’s easiest to observe this behavior in cars…and often the a-wipe is nobody of importance who has never seen the inside of a gym. I laugh at their pathetic behinds, (which seems to infuriate them), but I wonder what drives pathetic people to display like this?

    Petro makes a good point on the Media being complicit. I do recall a time when US Citizens were much more compassionate before media restrictions were lifted.

  19. Senescent

    I used to believe in this, used to believe in the Golden Rule, but I was one of those types who prided himself on an evidence-based outlook. So eventually I thought about all the petty personal dealings I’ve experienced, all the political developments I’ve seen pass me by, all the history I’ve read. And I asked, “in retrospect, the people who got what they want, were treated well, did *they* give others what they wanted, treat them well?”

    And the answer was obvious. So, do unto others as you would do unto them, insist on being done to as you would have done, be forceful enough to make it stick.

    The ironic part was that I couldn’t have reached that conclusion without immersing myself in, and taking seriously, the ideas of left-leaning fairness fans. Who undermined every counterexample of benevolent dominion I could think of, presenting it as a mythology by and for the powerful. Who, in turn, thrived at the expense of others with stories less recorded, less respected, less repeated.

    (And after all, what is this blog but a litany of the ways in which the comfortable are ruthless and the ruthless find comfort; the imperiled remain high-minded and the high-minded are imperiled?)

  20. @Steelhead, “Unfortunately, there are too few people who are willing to abandon total self interest in order to benefit the common good.”

    But benefit to the common good actually is in the best interest of self. The statement might be more accurate if it said “unwilling to abandon short term, unintelligent self interest.”

  21. stephen benson

    about the only thing that saved some tiny shreds of my soul during my time in combat was that while i could be violent, and all the things that war called for, i tried mightily not to be cruel.

    i know that might be a small thing to some, but over the years, and many dark nights, it has become larger and larger.

    kindness is powerful.

  22. Celsius 233

    stephen benson PERMALINK
    November 28, 2012
    about the only thing that saved some tiny shreds of my soul during my time in combat was that while i could be violent, and all the things that war called for, i tried mightily not to be cruel.
    i know that might be a small thing to some, but over the years, and many dark nights, it has become larger and larger.
    kindness is powerful.
    Spot on; one of the best posts I’ve read here.

  23. Stephen Kriz

    Excellent post, Mr. Welsh and good advice to live by.

  24. @Senescent – I’m sorry you feel that way. One hopes that you aren’t paying that forward.

  25. Formerly T-Bear

    Kindness is but one of three necessary legs supporting civilized life. Eliminating falsehoods, (or being truthful) is equally important, deceit allows all forms of evil to pass unremarked. Integrity being the third support, having a consistent standard of conducting the affairs of living. And as the old philosophers once held – the unexamined life is not worth living.

  26. Dimitry Orlov has a good and simple explanation of anarchism. It is anti-hierarchical and self-organizing. Anarchism has been the norm in the past and in some places today. It is the preferred organizational model for most of nature. He makes the argument that it also works best for humans and for discovering new ideas. Working together is not only kind but makes for better results all the way around.

    I find his examples of the Protestant Reformation attacking the hierarchical model of the Catholic church, as he says, an obvious one but one I forgot. And his example of what happened in computer technology another good one. It gives one hope.

  27. Rob Grigjanis

    An excellent example of a kind, smart idea; Guaranteed Basic Income. See Senator Hugh Segal’s speech, broadcast on TVO’s Big Ideas.

  28. “in retrospect, the people who got what they want, were treated well, did *they* give others what they wanted, treat them well?”

    Does everyone who steps on people and takes what they want end up well? Sure, there are a handful of rich pricks on Wall Street, but there are also thousands upon thousands of total bastards locked up in prison for refusing to treat other people decently.

  29. Qanon

    but there are also thousands upon thousands of total bastards locked up in prison for refusing to treat other people decently.

    Doesn’t describe current U.S. “justice” very well. The total bastards are as likely to be wearing a guard’s uniform.

  30. Qanon

    An excellent example of a kind, smart idea; Guaranteed Basic Income.

    Unlike the current programs, GBI doesn’t throw up a large class of glorified parole officers to “help” recipients by humiliating and bullying them in the furtherance of “improving” their character. This endears it neither to the bullies on the right or the bullies on the pseudo-left, so it has a hard time getting traction anywhere in U.S. power circles.

  31. S Brennan

    I know from previous posts the opinion of many here on Police, but having spent a portion of my teen years living on the street, sleeping in alcoves and parks that many a cop are decent people…here’s an example of a cop makes the phrase “to serve & protect” real:

  32. Alcuin

    @MM – thanks for the link to Orlov’s blog. Anarchism must be getting more popular if it has reached the Peak Oil people and Orlov. I was intrigued with James C. Scott – hadn’t known of his work before.

  33. bigbear

    This reminded me of an interview I heard with the late Studs Terkel, who said something similar.

    Digressing again to American history, Terkel holds up Roosevelt and his “New Deal” administration as a model while criticizing Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He emphasizes that America should feed the world instead of wage war, and in so doing “we’d be one of the most beloved nations on earth instead of the most disliked.”


  34. S Brennan


    I agree with you a return to FDR policies is what true liberals should be calling for…under it worked before we abandoned it, it can be made to work again. However, there are commenters on this board who will insist that FDR didn’t change much [the old “it’s alawys been like this*] and whole new paradigm would be an easier sell than a proven product had perfectible flaws.

    *However, these folks usually use a pre-1933 example to make their point…just saying

  35. Greg

    Thank you for this post.

    Ive been having similar sentiments lately, trying to figure out a nice little bumpersticker slogan that points the way forward out of this economic/social morass that *we have created for ourselves*

    I think my last sentence is crucial, we must understand that all this is of our own creation so we can UN create it. There IS an alternative. The TINA crowd is wrong. Some are misguided, MOST are lying.

    So my little phrase Im starting with is “Generosity first”. Its the opposite of austerity which promotes miserly behavior. No town full of misers has ever been a growing thriving place to live. Its the generous people, those willing to give more than they can get, that drive a society forward.

    Maybe its not even that they can give more than they get, maybe they have some sort of ability to turn what they get into something worth even more than everyone else thought possible. Maybe they are the only ones who can properly value the potential returns.

  36. infidel

    Yes, there is no evil or irrational people in this world. Let’s just be kind and nice and everything will be OK.

    Why doesn’t the president be nice to republicans? If only he would cut taxes for the rich the tea parties wouldn’t be so angry and everything would be OK.

    The world is so simple, and so easy. Why doesn’t anyone else get it?

  37. Ian Welsh

    You’re rather stupid, Infidel. I said “try kindness first”.

    And the president, by and large, is kind to Republicans. Also to bankers.

    Learn how to read, and think.

  38. Ian Welsh

    As an aside, the last couple months I’ve done something I didn’t do before: started deleting comments. If your comment irritates me, usually because you’re acting like an asshole or a moron or spewing dishonest BS, I may delete it. I also may not.

    This does not mean anyone is “on moderation”, if your comment is held that is an automatic process. If I were to move to a moderation system (I’m unlikely to) I would do it the way that Roger Ebert does: I would hold all comments for approval.

  39. Tracey

    Robert Fulghum: Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

  40. Mary Bess

    Ian, your comments above seem at odds with the sentiments expressed in your post, with which I completely agree.

  41. Ian Welsh

    A fair enough point, Mary.

    Being kind doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour – Finland does lock up criminals. The correct response probably would have been, instead of insulting him in return, either simply deleting his comment for its rudeness, or giving him one chance to be polite.

    Having been online a long time, my reaction to people who say something which indicates either dishonesty or deliberate stupidity is often incivility in return. I’m not sure that civility and kindness are precisely the same thing, and one of the rallying cries of the early political bloggers was that people were hiding behind civility to say and do horrible things. They counted on people not being willing to call them evil, or stupid, or corrupt, because that would uncivil. So we learned to call a spade, a spade.

    There have to be methods of dealing with shills and liars who infect our discourse system. We tolerated (and in many places still do tolerate) climate denialism for far too long, and hundreds of millions of people are going to die because we wouldn’t call people corrupt liars. In 2000 the NYTimes wouldn’t let Krugman call Bush a liar, when he was lying about his economic #s (he was spending the money twice.) Given how close the election was, perhaps that unwillingness to call a liar, a liar, is why we got George Bush and all that followed from that.

    I’ll think on it more and likely write on the subject again. Defaulting to kindness doesn’t, I expect, mean turning the other cheek. Once a person has shown their intentions, you are no longer in the “no data” situation. Sanctions are required for those who act badly. Where I erred was in being rude, not in applying a correction.

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