Benevolence or Kindness?

Some people pile up good deeds. Others focus on friendship. Which is the better virtue – benevolence or kindness? Is one of these ever a sin?

The last blog stated that sins can be either private or interpersonal. Private sins are limited in scope to an individual or a single group that is less than all. Interpersonal sins reach further, involving relations between one individual and another, between an individual and a community, or between two or more communities.

We explored the thought that all private sins might be considered variations on stupidity, laziness, and cowardice – regrettable traits of will that show disrespect for the past, present, and future, respectively.

While there may be 3 forms of private sin, I’m able to come up with only one form of interpersonal sin: unkindness. Let me try to explain why I think unkindness might cover the entire range of interpersonal sin.

Like the private sins, unkindness has a jingle:

It’s not unkind if you can’t help it.
It’s not unkind if it’s in the past.
But it may be unkind when you think it’s not.
Pray to grow your soul.

The first 2 lines are analogous to those of private sins, because sin always demands a rule of competence and a rule of immanence. The 3rd line differs from the earlier ones. It’s not a matter of individual ownership of sin or virtue. The social aspect of kindness and unkindness demands that the voice of the other person or the other group speak and be heard. The 4th line? I’ll attempt an explanation below.

A synonym for kindness would seem to be benevolence; likewise, malevolence would seem to be a synonym for unkindness. These words derived from Latin seem to capture a person’s will toward others, amounting, respectively, to “good-wishing” and “bad-wishing.”

However, the resemblance is superficial. Benevolence and malevolence are problematic notions that lack the clarity of kindness and unkindness. Implicitly “good-wishing” and “bad-wishing” assume that good and bad represent commodities to be dispensed.

But good and bad are not commodities. Instead they are correlates of directions of the will, or more simply, choices made. If “good” signifies “that which one chooses” or “what is wished for,” then “good-wishing” becomes by substitution “what’s-wished-wishing” and thus becomes a puzzle. Malevolence is equally problematic.

Kindness has a different derivation. It stems from the judgment that giver and receiver are “of a kind.” Kindness happens when recognition of kinship drives the deed.

David Brooks finds this same type of distinction in Jane Addams’ philosophy for Hull House, an institution founded in Chicago by Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. It was the birthplace of a kind of career, or calling, that we know today as “social worker.” Brooks begins with this general description of Hull House, where affluent, idealistic young women

…lived among the poor and working classes, serving as counselors, assistants, and advisers and taking on projects to make their lives better. They offered job training, child care, a savings bank, English lessons, even art classes.[1]

Jane Addams intensely critiqued the attitudes of the young women who provided services in Hull House. Here are snippets of Brooks’ description:

Addams… [was] deeply suspicious of compassion…. She… rejected the self-regarding taint of the emotion, which allowed the rich to feel good about themselves because they were doing community service. “Benevolence is the twin of pride,” Nathaniel Hawthorne had written. Addams had no tolerance for any pose that might put the server above those being served…. She wanted them to hold their sentiments in check and to struggle relentlessly against any feelings of superiority. At Hull House, social workers were commanded to make themselves small. They were commanded to check their sympathies and exercise scientific patience as they investigated the true needs of each individual…. The idea was to let the poor determine their own lives rather than becoming dependent upon others.[2]

Jane Addams

Why such harsh views on compassion and benevolence? Addams, as well as Hawthorne, recognized that benevolence could be practiced without kindness. The social workers at Hull House were to see themselves as helpers and partners with their clients, not as dispensers of blessings (commodities) that the well-off might shower upon the poor. They were to see themselves as of-the-same-kind, or more simply put, as kin, with needy sisters and brothers.


Almost everyone I know can recite the Golden Rule, generally as Jesus expressed it in the Sermon on the Mount – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There can hardly be a better description of kindness. It even provides a needed refinement of benevolence, because it personalizes “what’s wished-wishing.”

A common view of social ethics analyzes the motivations and goals of transactions between independent individuals. According to this view, the individual is the molecular unit of society. The underlying assumption is ontologic individualism, a philosophical position that connects will, or decision-making, uniquely with individual persons. Communal notions such as family values or national will are derivative notions in this typology, traceable to individual human choices. The individual will is real. Everything else is derivative. Building upon such assumptions, one must analyze friendship, family, patriotism, even altruism from the point of view of individuals who negotiate transactions at varying levels. Society becomes a construct built via summation of individual goal-seeking and reconciliation of interindividual conflict.

We can call this common view transactional ethics. If transactional, then what is exchanged or negotiated? To borrow a word from economics, goods. In transactional ethics, goods are likened to credits in a bank account, and pending promises of goods, or lack of delivery, can be viewed as debits.

It goes back at least as far as Aristotle:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and every pursuit, is thought to aim at some good, and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.[3]

In the second clause, “the good” may be a composite notion, referring to all the goods that humans crave. Even if composite, however, it has a mark of universality implicit in the words, “that at which all things aim.”

An early blog in this series disputed Aristotle’s proposition quoted above. The second clause does not follow logically from the first. Nevertheless, it is a common way of thinking about ethics.

I want to advocate for an ethics that avoids the weak foundation of traditional transactional ethics, built as it is upon ontologic individualism and the notion of goods as quantities much like money or commodities.

Let me provisionally call this other type distributional ethics. The name risks misinterpretation. Distributional ethics is not about the distribution of goods. It concerns instead the distribution of attention and will.

It asks about the places where you look for decisions of the will in your individual and social life. It examines how a person distributes attention – a concept important to William James’ understanding of the will. It asks – What is the distribution of will in time and space? From what sources in my life, my family, my group, or my world shall decisions come?

Benevolence is a virtue of transactional ethics. It concerns the individual motivation to bestow some good upon another individual or set of individuals. Kindness, defined here to signify “being of the same kind,” belongs to distributional ethics.

Kindness determines how much of my life engages my social self – my participation in marriage, family, friendship, church, country, or joint enterprise – as opposed to how much of my life engages my individual self. Kindness has the effect of enlarging the scope of life. As the jingle said earlier, “Pray to grow your soul.”

Meanness is an apt synonym for unkindness. Today we usually think that a mean person is malevolent, or “ill-wishing.” But an older definition of “mean” refers to a poverty of circumstances. Today we still understand “a person in mean straits” to signify a person who has few choices available. So unkindness breeds meanness, and meanness describes a smaller life.

Transactional ethics runs according to rules and negotiates goods as commodities. Ontologic individualism, which underlies transactional ethics, provides a scant foundation for solid, enduring values, because it leaves every human value to be a matter of singular individual choice. It makes every person a beggar, ethically speaking. It’s not surprising that those who subscribe to ontologic individualism often also assert absolute, universal values, which have nothing to do with human choice, but are imposed from above. Or at least, so we are told. These values, whether we consider them from nature or from God, remain subject to interpretation in the actual world by human translators, often self-appointed.

Distributional ethics is consensus-seeking. It engages the will at the level of couples, families, regions, countries, cultures, religions, the human race, the world. The questions of distributional ethics concern how greatly to attend and participate in varying domes, at varying levels.

Distributional ethics connects people together in webs of decision-making. This ethics warns of an emptiness in wealth and power, which too often disconnect individuals or elite groups from the general community.

Solidarity is a term born in France around the time of the Revolution (1789-1799) and subsequently adopted in other nations as well as international charters. Distributional ethics not only affirms individual rights and responsibilities, but it also embraces solidarity, which signifies shared responsibility, decision-making, and respect for the rights of others.

Recall the beginning of the small book, I and Thou, by Martin Buber:

kindness-martin_buber_portrait-3The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I-It wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

Hence the I of man is also twofold.

For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.   [4]

Unkindness, or finding myself not of-a-kind with another, treats the other as “It” instead of “Thou.” Buber’s insight is that such a lack of relation with another leads to a different kind of “I” as well. Self is diminished. The description of meanness fits.

Benevolence might reach out to another as I-Thou, but not necessarily so. Sometimes benevolence is self-serving, and the relation to another remains I-It or I-He or I-She. The chance for a larger “I” is missed. Kindness, on the other hand, reaches out always as I-Thou, as it recognizes that I and Thou are of a kind. Kindness enlarges self.


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Featured image: Handshake, by johnhain, Pixabay, CC0 Public domain. Hull House in Chicago, from a contemporary postcard, by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co., Wikimedia Commons, CC0 Public domain. Jane Addams, 1906 by George de Forest Brush, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia commons. Martin Buber, Images from the Central Zionist Archives (via Harvard University Library), Wikimedia Commons, CC0 Public Domain.

[1] Brooks, David. The Road to Character, Random House, New York, 2015, Kindle edition. location 723.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1, in The Pocket Aristotle, translated under the editorship of W.D. Ross, copyright 1942. Washington Square Press, New York, p. 160.

[4] Buber, M. I and Thou. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1958, p. 3.


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