Random Acts of Kindness

Should we commit random acts of kindness? There's a bumper sticker that says we should. Oprah tells this story (in the "dog" issue I read in my doctor's office yesterday): she adopted a puppy at the animal shelter and days later the dog was dangerously ill with a parvovirus. The puppy wound up in the animal hospital getting antibiotics, "probiotics" (?) and a plasma transfusion. At huge expense, the puppy survived.

All that money poured into one dog, when a dog is euthanized in an animal shelter every 6 seconds! The same money could have been spread around to lots of animals and saved lots of lives. But wait--isn't it somehow a good thing to treat an individual dog as an irreplaceable being, worthy of every expense?

There's an intriguing story in Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains. Paul Farmer has a critically ill boy airlifted out of Haiti and flown to a hospital in the US, where vast sums are spent to try to keep him alive. The same money could have been spread around at his clinic for the desperately poor, and could have saved far more lives. Farmer's coworkers at the clinic are skeptical, but he's willing to give one individual a kind of "infinite" worth just this once.

So...random acts of kindness in both cases. If we can't always invest that way in every single life, it's good to make an exception when we're inspired to do so...I think. It's puzzling. Good for whom? Good for the honing of a caring attitude in the person who performs the act. Good for the recipient. But not good for the other needy people or animals who might have been helped if the money had been spread around.

Somehow it seems good and right anyway to perform random acts of kindness...thought I can't explain why that is.

* That's Punky having a nap. Parents new puppy. No random acts of kindness there...it's all kindness, all the time.


rtk said...

Empathy, affection, attachment - all one on one feelings which would have to be insignificant in order to do the right thing towards many. It's think or feel. Feel is so dependable; think more flexible with good or bad ends. Save my puppy at any expense and hope the other dogs receive kind attention, too. Of course there are notable exceptions, like The Social Contract, so beneficial to many while its author was a loser in his one on one personal life.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, the one-on-one feelings are what leads to random acts of kindness. If you didn't have them, it might be you'd be semi-robotic, and actually couldn't bring yourself to do anything good for anyone. It's the rare person who can really get fired up about "maximizing good" as opposed to caring about specific people/animals.

Hey, we want to see more pictures of punky. Send me one and I'll use it to illustrate this post.

amos said...

Kindness seems random, unless you're Saint Francis. No one has the time and energy to be actively kind all day, so why not celebrate those random acts when they occur? In fact, if not for random acts of kindness, I suspect that we'd see little kindness in this world. There's obviously a difference between kindness and acts of beneficence carried out by institutions (Oxfam, etc.) whose role is to help others. No one would say that a hospital emergency room practices kindness.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...the randomly kind person could be accused of acting unfairly by not spreading around the benevolence. It does seem impossible to think that way all of the time, though.

amos said...

Kindness isn't fair. Kindness shouldn't be confused with justice.

amos said...

Kindness goes beyond justice and yet is unjust. When one singles out someone for special concern (more than strict justice demands), one is going beyond justice in one's concern for an other and at the same times, is being unjust towards others, equally deserving (the key word when one talks of justice) of concern. I think that Singer tries to convince us that justice demands kindness (extraordinary concern for others), and well, that's not the way most people use the word "justice".

rtk said...

So my only kid's in surgery, no socialized medicine, big cost. My thoughts go into philosophical mode: hmmm, save the little guy or feed 1000 people in Darfur. Kindness or justice. What to do what to do. What would Singer do? Say wha'?

Faust said...

Ahhh this is where all the cool kids went.

I'm reading Rorty right now. I have to admit that his concept of solidarity as being the most practical basis for morality seems...if not appealing...a good description of how people actually proceed on issues of morality. IS there a "rational" way to proceed with morality that doesn't ultimately result in forced problem solving that has nothing to do with the way the vast majority of people behave most of the time?

Which of the following better describes random acts of kindness:

1) People are suddenly moved by abstract universal principles which they decide should govern their behvior and then act on them.

2) People are suddenly moved by the realization that the Other which confronts them has things in common with them (such as simple mammilian pain) and is moved by solidarity, by concrete sameness of kind or purpose, to extend aid or comfort to them.

amos said...

Hello Dr. Faustus. I would choose your alternative 2. Maybe you can help me with Singer. Most everybody would agree that we should always be just. By being just, they mean dealing fairly with others in their daily interactions with others, not cheating, not stealing, not breaking promises, not exploiting anyone. Now Singer comes along and says that what most people mean by "just" isn't just, that we must deal justly with people with whom we have no contact, either directly or indirectly. Behind Singer's reasoning there seems to be a bit of Platonism, that there is something called Justice, which has nothing to do with what people normally call "justice". I agree that at times what people consider to be "just" isn't just, but it only makes sense to criticize normal justice from within its own universe of discourse: for example, racial segregation in the U.S. could be shown to be not just because it contradicts the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Maybe the whole problem goes back to Plato. Rorty, whom you cite, would agree with that. Maybe I'm confused.

Jean Kazez said...

We are certainly very cool here...the air-conditioning is on. Of course. It's Texas.

Anyhow, of my two examples, now I have to admit that only one is truly a case of randomness. Oprah adopted her dog, fell in love, felt special responsibility, so paid for care. Not really random at all.

The Paul Farmer case is different. He's the director of a clinic and an international health care org. It's his job to provide medical care to the indigent of Haiti and elsewhere. So one day, he's moved by a particular patient (a 12 year old with cancer) and has him medevaced to Boston at a price of $20,000. This really is a random act of kindness--something that couldn't possibly be done for all, given the org's budget.

I don't think that either of Faust's two descriptions really seems to fit. It's not a sudden fit of applying an abstract principle, but also not solidarity beyond what Farmer felt for all patients.

By the way--that book is fantastic. Great story, but also great for thinking about issues of morality.

Faust said...

Well I don't know enough about the specifics of the Farmer story to know exactly what his reasoning was...or if he even bothered with a justification of what he was doing beyond "I feel like helping this kid with a disproportionate percentage of our resources and there is no further justification I can offer."

I think, continuing on my Rorty angle, that we can substitute "contingent" for "random" in these examples. Oprah's love for that dog was contingent on a whole range of her specific circumstances. At that moment, for some set of perhaps unknowable but ultimately arbitrary reasons she "fell in love" with that dog. (why that dog rather than another? Why is there not nothing?) To my mind the choice of what we love is the ultimate contingency. As Harold Bloom noted:

All continuities possess the paradox of being absolutely arbitrary in their origins and absolutley inescapable in their teleologies. We know this so vividly from what we all of us oxymoronically call our love lives that its literary counterparts need little demonstration.

So when Farmer was confronted by this boy what was it that moved him other than the raw contingencies of that moment? If he did NOT apply some standard of principle what was going on there other than a kind of "falling in love" with the possibility of saving that child?

Perhaps this is why we find such randomness so compelling? Because we know, deep down, that all we are really resting our hopes and dreams on are arbitrary commitments that rest on nothing but contingent circumstances? And that it is commitment in a radical and Kierkegaardian sense that matters more than anything?

To address Amos's concerns with Singer, I don't have a whole lot to offer in the way of extended argument other than to say:

1) Yes I think from a Rortian perspective utilitarianism is definitely part and parcel of Platonic hopes and dreams.

2) Personally I am deeply suspicious of utilitarianism for several reasons, the most important of which is that it has no component that allows for "character" or "virtue" outside of a calculus that seems to me impossible to resolve in a determinate way. As much as Singer is a valuable theorist I think that utilitarianism in and of itself is actually dehumanizing. I think Huxley's Brave New World shows us the problems with a pure doctrine of utilitarianism.