The virtue of kindness.
| posted 12/06/2006
Mark Twain reportedly said, "Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can read." His remark is a testament to the power of kindness which we all admire in people and would like to practice more consistently. But as universally appreciated as this trait is, it's not easy to define. Kindness is a general term that refers to a cluster of more specific moral skills, each of which essentially involves a special thoughtfulness displayed toward someone. In discussing what it means to be kind, then, this chapter explores some of these particular moral skills. In addition, ways to develop one's own capacity for acting kindly will be proposed.
Examples of Kindness
What sorts of acts are typically regarded as kind? A person who tenderly cares for children or animals would be described as kind. So would the person who warmly greets a stranger or who shows genuine interest during casual conversation. The person who opens doors for others or who is careful not to interrupt while others are talking also is kind. These are all rather ordinary, but no less commendable, instances of kindness observable in daily life. The characteristic these instances all have in common is that they involve thoughtfulness or considerate behavior. Kindness, then, is a demonstration of concern for others. To be kind is to be considerate, mindful of another's well-being. But exactly why is kindness a virtue?
The great American theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards conceived of virtue as moral beauty, a kind of symmetry or proportion displayed in one's life. For Edwards, to be morally beautiful, or virtuous, is to maintain a benevolent regard for all beings, because everything that exists is created and owned by God. It is only morally proper, then, that we think, speak, and behave in ways that show respect toward everything around us. And the more excellent a thing is, the greater respect it is due.
Edwards' analysis seems sound. Virtue is, as he puts it, "Benevolence to being."1 So to be kind is virtuous because kindness displays benevolence toward being, most importantly beings made in the image of God. This is, however, a general answer to a general question, and it leads to the further question, "What forms does kindness take?"
While an exhaustive list of the categories of kindness will not be offered here, three principle forms will be discussed: gentleness, friendliness, and courteousness. Each of these traits is typically regarded as a distinct virtue, but they are united under the general heading of kindness because they all demonstrate thoughtful regard for the well-being of others.
Gentleness is a disposition to behave tenderly toward others. The gentle person strikes the middle ground between obsequiousness and gruffness.2 He is neither spineless nor insensitive to the needs of others. Jesus exhibits (and testifies to his having) this virtue when he says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30).3 These remarks are especially impressive considering the power at Jesus' disposal. His gentleness—like all gentleness—is not the result of impotence or servility. It is power in restraint. In the words of Andre Comte-Sponville, "Gentleness is strength in a state of peace, serene and … full of patience and leniency."4