The unselfish gene

On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

14 January 2009

12:00 AM

14 January 2009

12:00 AM

On Kindness Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

Hamish Hamilton, pp.117, 14.99

On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

Whenever I say to someone that I do not believe that there is a universal human right to healthcare, that person always asks whether, then, I want to see people dying in the street from treatable disease. I in turn ask that person whether he can think of any reason for not allowing people to die in the street other than that they have a right to treatment. The fact that, as often as not, the person has great difficulty with this question suggests not only that our state, but our minds and moral imaginations have become highly bureaucratised.

There is no doubt, I think, that we have difficulty with the notion of kindness nowadays. Kindness is apt to be capricious; the deserving may be excluded from it while the undeserving may be smothered in or by it. It easily turns syrupy; or alternatively may become a weapon in the hands of the passive-aggressive, to establish their power over others. It is hard to legislate for kindness, and we live increasingly in a world where what is not required by law is not required by anything else.


There was therefore scope for a short book on kindness: it is a subject that soon leads to profound questions of moral and political philosophy. This book, alas, is not the book required. The reason for this is that, sandwiched between two sections that are clear, succinct and readable, even where (in my opinion) they are mistaken, is another irrelevant one, written in the barbarous locutions of psychoanalysis, with all its evidence-free abstractions. There is, moreover, nothing like the prose of psychoanalysts for making the brief seem long and for turning interest into tedium.

The first section, which is very well written, is a brief history of the notion of kindness. The question boils down to this: is man by nature good or bad, is he by nature altruistic or concerned only for himself? Personally, I am an Original Sin man, in the sense that I believe that, without proper induction into society, men are inclined to be vicious and selfish. But I agree with the authors that such viciousness and selfishness are not inevitable, even if I do not share their admiration for Rousseau’s thought.

The middle section is the psychoanalytical one. As I have intimated, a little psychoanalysis goes a long way, and it seems to me that its categories do not help in understanding either the origin, the need for or the ways of promoting kindness. Out of charity for (I almost said kindness to) the reader, I will illustrate with one of the more comprehensible passages:

It is our unkindness — our lack of affection and regard — that makes our desire possible; kindness is the way we stop ourselves desiring. (In childhood, we should remember, kindness is the medium of appetite and relating.) When we are being kind we know we are dealing with forbidden objects; kindness is what children and parents do with each other. We associate kindness with frustration; unkindness with satisfaction.

I hesitate to push myself forward as a moral exemplar, but the other day I helped an old lady off the bus with her shopping, a small and not completely characteristic (alas) act of kindness on my part. I think, however, that I can put my hand on my heart and say that this act had nothing whatever to do with suppressing my desire for her as a sexual object, unless the word sexual be emptied of all meaning in an attempt to preserve a preposterous theory.

The last section, entitled Modern Kindness, returns to comprehensibility and raises interesting questions that require much more detailed treatment than the authors can give them in so short a scope. They rightly see a rise in egotism in our society, perhaps even of solipsism. They attribute this largely to Thatcherism and the decline of the Welfare State. They do not see that the Welfare State itself induces egotism: for once I have paid my punitive taxes, I have transferred my duty to others to the agencies of the state which, as they themselves admit, dispense cold charity indeed.

Their criticism of capitalism is too schematic and crude. It is true that capitalism often permits or encourages vile behaviour; but it should never be forgotten that its founding theoretician, Adam Smith, was a moral philosopher who commenced his great book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, with the following elegant, and even beautiful, words:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

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Show comments
  • Vithal C Nadkarni

    Thanks for a characterstically brilliant review and thank you for saving me the enormous bother buying the book (I live in India and it would take 8 weeks to float to our shores at considerable expense)!
    Vithal C Nadkarni
    Senior Editor
    The Times of India

  • harold stevens

    The Adam Smith quote at the end of the review is a pretty good definition of “empathy” – and is evidently the answer to the question posed by the reviewer in his opening sentence. I wonder if he realised that….

  • Andrew Dib

    You speak of evidence. Where’s your evidence for this drivel?

  • Robert Burns

    I’ve read Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” which attempts (in a well-thought out manner, IMHO) to deal with the matter oa altruism as a survival trait. I’d assumed that this book was a spinoff. Evidently not. So I guess I won’t read it after all.
    BTW, my novel, “The Unselfish Gene” (unselfishgene DOT com) does try to deal some with the Dawkins’ concept, albeit in a kind of dramatized thought-experiment form. I dread the thought of what this reviewer might do with it,however.

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