The Selfishness of Kindness

Kindness is generally considered the most important personality trait to possess. But why are people kind and altruistic to each other? Is there selfishness behind the kindness?

Motives for kind actions.

It seems to me that there are four motivations for kindness, some better than others:

  • Empathy and compassion: You feel their pleasure by empathising ie. you feel happy because they feel happy. I think this is the most pure motive.
  • Principles: Following your philosophical principles (religious, humanist etc.). Also a good motivation in my view.
  • Ego: You are trying to boost your sense of self worth and define yourself as a “good person”. People with this motivation usually have low self esteem and depend on others to feel good about themselves.
  • Personal gain: You want something from them; Money (directly or indirectly), trust, acceptance, love, sex, opportunities. The effect of this drive for self gain could range from relatively harmless to cruel and selfish manipulation.

I see this as a spectrum of “pure intentions” with empathy at the “good” end and personal gain at the “bad” end. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we have all used kind actions to gain something or satisfy our egos. Using kindness for personal gain is not always wrong; for example if you have a sadistic boss at work it may be the only way to survive. But I think the ultimate way of being is where our motivations are driven by empathy, compassion and principles.

Why does it matter?

A kind action is a kind action regardless of the intentions behind it, the outcome is the same.

I guess it says something about a person’s Selfish Kindnesscharacter. Are they primarily empathy driven or ego based in their motivations?

The wrong motivations.

There are people who shower others with kindness with the ego centric motive to feel loved and accepted. They will give you what they think you want so long as you make them feel good.

There are those who are more interested in creating the perception of being kind than in the kindness itself. Battling their low sense of self worth by being kind so that they are able to define themselves as a “good person” – it will be very important to them that others are aware of these kind actions validate this.

And then there are the deliberately manipulative. The pick-up artist, the office suck up, the phoney salesman. Their kindness is not genuine, it is based on self gain. The irony is that in all these examples they would do better for themselves in the long term if they were genuinely empathetic.

The kindness from people with the wrong motivations tends to be conditional on getting something back. If they don’t get what they want they will seek it from someone else. Their kindness may even suddenly flip into outright cruelty and apathy.

Empathy is best.

A highly empathetic person will be kind because they really feel the happiness within others through empathising. Their actions will also be based on strong principles of how they believe they should live. They will almost never use kind actions as a tool for getting things out of people because they will know that good things will flow their way as a by-product of being kind in general, since everyone loves kind people.

So thinking on it more, we always get something out of being kind to others. We always get something positive out of everything we do otherwise we wouldn’t do it; whether it be something material, fulfilling some kind of abstract philosophical belief or just mirroring a good feeling from someone.

I guess to me this matters when determining what place a person should have in my life. I respect those who are more empathetic in their motivations and aren’t just using me for personal gratification.