Magazine article The Spectator

The Unselfish Gene

Magazine article The Spectator

The Unselfish Gene

Article excerpt

ON KINDNESS by Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, pp. 117, ISBN 9780241144336 £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

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. …

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