Making Kindness a Life Philosophy
The term ‘philosophy’ can have multiple meanings depending on the context. It can mean the kind of academic study done by professors in universities. But it is also often used to refer to each individual person’s outlook on life. What do you value in this world, what are your principles, how do you treat yourself and others, what are your guiding goals in life?
Philosophers – that is, philosophers in the first sense – take great pains to ensure that their argumentation is logical and that there are no embarrassing gaps in the reasoning. This is how many of philosophy’s greatest results have come about. Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred Whitehead’s book Principia Mathematica, which tried to build the foundations of mathematics from as few assumptions as possible, took over 1,000 pages of extremely rigorous reasoning to prove something as outwardly simple as that 1+1=2.
However, to me it seems that many people, insofar as they can be said to possess a life philosophy, have arrived at this philosophy not through this kind of rigorous reasoning and argumentation, but through the accumulation of life experience, almost by accident. I do not deny that this kind of experience is important and even essential for having a life philosophy that you can rely on. However, I do believe that we can greatly benefit from applying some of the methods of philosophical thinking to our own lives (though perhaps not to the same extent as in Principia Mathematica). As Socrates said at the trial in which he was sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting Athens’ youth: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. We should take care to examine our values, goals and principles to build up to our idea of who we are. To give another ancient Greek aphorism: “Know thyself”.
How is this done in practice, then, and how does Kindness relate to any of this? Most of us value being Kind to ourselves and others to varying extents depending on the person. How central the concept of Kindness is to our lives inevitably affects our life philosophy, and vice versa. If your life philosophy puts Kindness first, your actions and interactions with others will be coloured by this fact. And if you are someone who constantly embraces and practices Kindness in your daily life, then it is no wonder if Kindness seeps into your life philosophy as well, being elevated as one of your life principles. There are many who wish that they were Kinder than they consider themselves to be, and many who are so disillusioned with the state of the world that they consider Kindness to be an ultimately useless or futile thing to include in their life philosophy.
This is where I believe philosophy can help. In recent years, movements that apply philosophical thinking to problems in the world have sprung up. Take Effective Altruism, for example. It is a philosophy that advocates for the use of reason and philosophical thinking to incorporate Kindness in your life to achieve effective results. For example, what is the best way to use your money and time to improve the world and other people’s well-being? Questions such as this are ripe for philosophical analysis. Many have adopted similar principles of effective Kindness into their own lives. In doing so, they have changed what their life philosophy means to them.
In philosophy there is an entire field of inquiry that focuses on issues very closely related to Kindness: ethics, or moral philosophy. In ethics we ask questions about what we should do. How should we act with others, what is right and what is wrong? It is a vast field with as many opinions as there are ethical philosophers. And yet, though the field has not reached anything close to consensus about any of these questions, there is something inspiring in the effort to think about these things as hard as you can to try to figure out what you should do in life and in any particular situation.
It is this same kind of hunger for answers that I think we should sometimes try to apply to our own lives. It is easy to live lives of complacency, going with what seems right at the moment. It is harder to take a step back and critically evaluate yourself and your own actions. But I do think that the rewards for doing so are great: if through this process you find what really matters to you in life, you can be more certain than you otherwise would be that this is something that you truly value – that this is what you are like. And with this kind of self-knowledge comes a certain self-assurance as well – the understanding that no matter what happens with your circumstances, which you ultimately cannot control, you at least know who you are and what you want, and having a clear idea of this can ultimately help with navigating your circumstances as well.
To have something as part of your life philosophy means that it acts as a sort of overarching guide to your choices. It is something you consult, either consciously or subconsciously, whenever you are faced with difficult decisions in life. This is why I urge people to examine their lives as best they can. Whenever you choose one way of interacting with the world instead of another way, how much of the underlying decision-making process was based on your principles, and how much of it was in the spur of the moment? It is in pondering questions such as these that we map out a clearer picture of who each of us is as an individual person. And without knowing who you are, how can you change who you are? How can you achieve your own ideal self, or at least something closer to it, if you don’t know who you are now and don’t know what your ideal self is?
In essence, what I am saying is no more than that if you wish to be Kinder than you are, you should consider promoting Kindness from the peripheries of your life to the front and centre, to include it as a basic tenet of your life philosophy. Live it through your actions towards yourself and others. When you do, and this is something that no doubt requires dedication and practice like anything else in life, you will hopefully find yourselves taking actions that are more closely aligned with who you want to become. To take an honest look at yourself, identify where you think yourself lacking, and then to make a conscious effort to fill in the gaps – this is philosophy for the heart.