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Kindness and Justice

March 21, 2009

“It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice.”

Chesterton (1905)

It always fascinates me that those who express disapproval of punishment take such a self-righteous tone. To me a belief in desert, and with it a belief in rewards and punishment, is an integral part of believing in right and wrong. If good deeds did not deserve to be rewarded, and bad deeds did not deserve to be punished, then it would be very doubtful whether “good” or “bad” would have any meaning at all. So why would somebody who denies desert, see themselves as occupying the moral high-ground, rather than denying the existence of any moral highground?

My theory is that it comes down to different virtues, in particular: being kind and being just. On the surface there is a similarity. Both kindness and justice require a concern for the worst off, and a belief in either might lead one to help others, particularly those who are suffering. However, there is a major difference. If you help others out of kindness you are helping because you feel like it. Ultimately it is about you. If you help others in the interests of justice, you help them because they deserve to be helped. It is about them. Kindness, while still a virtue, is limited by the extent of your compassion. Justice can only reach a limit by being satisfied. Acts of kindness serve our desire to do good, acts of justice serve goodness itself. Kindness seeks to order our actions; justice seeks to order the universe.

In practice the two are very different. Kindness suggests that we harm nobody, while justice requires the guilty are punished. Kindness might endorse feeding the starving; justice asks why they are starving in the first place and demands we do something about it. Kindness asks what we can afford to give; justice asks if there is anything we deserve to keep. Kindness can be given to anybody, even to cats and dogs; justice can only be given to the wronged. When you are praised for an act of kindness it is natural to say “that was the least I could do”. That is the most accurate description of kindness. We all, to some degree, live our lives in a kind way. None of us, to any degree, live our lives in a just way. It would take a deliberate effort never to make a kind action. It takes a deliberate effort ever to make a just action. If we listened to justice we might give away all we own to those who deserve it more. If we listened to justice we might have to give up control of our lives for the benefit of others. If we listened to justice we might have to get ourselves killed, by challenging those with the power. A little bit of kindness here or there is far, far easier.

Now, I don’t mean to dismiss kindness. In our day-to-day lives kindness improves the lives of those around us, particularly when it is born of love. In fact, very little else, does more to improve the lives of our friends, families, pets or acquaintances. It is good to be kind, and it is good that it is within our reach. But it is a personal quality. We can live kind lives; we can’t build kind institutions. We may have a kind mother, a kind friend or even a kind boss. We don’t shop in kind supermarkets, get educated in kind schools or live under kind laws. Even those institutions, such as charities, churches and families that might consider the practice of kindness to be part of their purpose would soon fall apart if that kindness was unconstrained. A charity which attempted to serve all good causes would soon cease to function. A church which embraced sin as much as sanctity would cease to be a church. A family into which everybody was adopted would cease to be a family. Justice, however, is something we can strive for in institutions. In fact this is about the only place we get to serve justice. Where we have power and authority over others, when we are making decisions between the conflicting interests of others, we are able to make decisions that aren’t about ourselves. A judge can be just. A politician can be just. A teacher can be just.

It is at this point we can turn to education. An education system can serve justice. It can seek to ensure that all receive what they are entitled to. It can give opportunities to those who lack them. It can provide education to the poor. It can judge the merits of different parts of the curriculum, and pass on a valuable heritage. It can make sure that nobody profits from harming the chances of others, and can see that children are governed in a fair manner and protected from each other. Unfortunately, these are not the aspirations of our education system. Kindness has taken over. No longer are children to be given greater opportunities or a chance to improve themselves. They are encouraged to feel good about themselves as they are now and their situation as it is now. No longer is hard work to be inflicted on the lazy; that would be cruel. The difficult choices involved in being just are to be replaced with the conviction that every problem could be solved if only everybody could be a little kinder. Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty, even at the expense of their victims. Nobody is to be given what they deserve, when they can be given what seems nice. Even the word “education” is being sidelined, and replaced with words that suggest that schools are there simply to look after children not to improve them. An education system that was just in its actions would do far more for more children than one which simply allows the chattering classes to foist their kindness on the young. However, this is not on the horizon. Worse, if you dare cry out for justice, then you will be branded as uncaring. We live in a topsy-turvy world where it doesn’t matter how much harm you do as long as you appear to care about the people you are harming.

Reference:

Chesterton, G.K., Heretics, 1905

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25 comments

  1. Why are there no comments here (25/3)?

    I think this is one of your best (excluding “The Driving Lesson” & friends). In fact, it’s one of the best expositions of moral clarity in education that I’ve seen.

    Nice work.


  2. There may be some interesting points here, but unsurprisingly they are swallowed in hyperbole. To suggest that “Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty” is clearly an emotive comment rather than anything founded in reality.

    I agree that justice needs to be high on the agenda. However, education is about, erm, education.

    ” Even the word “education” is being sidelined, and replaced with words that suggest that schools are there simply to look after children not to improve them.” — such as?


  3. “There may be some interesting points here, but unsurprisingly they are swallowed in hyperbole. To suggest that “Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty” is clearly an emotive comment rather than anything founded in reality.”

    I have to admit that I am baffled why people read the posts that analyse what is going on and ignore the posts that simply describe what is going on. If you think every example on here of kindness being lavished on the guilty is an invention, then why bother reading? I can certainly see no point in saying “why are you analysing the same situation you have been describing, when actually things aren’t like that?”

    “I agree that justice needs to be high on the agenda. However, education is about, erm, education.”

    Where did I ever say otherwise? My post was about different moral theories that inform education, it was not a proposal to replace education with moral theory.

    “” Even the word “education” is being sidelined, and replaced with words that suggest that schools are there simply to look after children not to improve them.” — such as?”

    In local government “children’s services” and in central government “children, schools and families”.


  4. “If you think every example on here of kindness being lavished on the guilty is an invention”

    What examples?

    “In local government “children’s services” and in central government “children, schools and families”.”

    Each of which covers more than just education. Where *in the field of education* has the terminology been replaced?


  5. “There may be some interesting points here, but unsurprisingly they are swallowed in hyperbole. To suggest that “Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty” is clearly an emotive comment ”

    OA may disagree with me on this one. But I think it is perfectly valid practice to ‘reward’ trivial instances of improved behaviour in students guilty of chronic bad behaviour – but not in a school setting.

    Now I’ve written this, it’s actually an example of distinguishing kindness and justice. Don’t know if I can write this as well as OA would if he agreed with it.

    It *is* unjust for badly behaved students to get trips, chocolates and other treats when well behaved students get none. However, if you remove the badly behaved from schools to let the majority get on with their education, they can go to a therapeutic or managed environment where different rules apply. Extra kindnesses for those who’ve received little in their own lives (and probably shown less to those around them) are appropriate when included as part of a program of modifying antisocial behaviour.

    But pointless kindnesses to unruly thugs in a general school situation – the poor thing’s had a hard life – is *both* unjust and unkind to the rest of the class or school. Unjust is obvious. Any kid can work that out. Unkind? It’s an insult! I behave well, carry my bruises quietly and get on with my work. HE gets to play video games.


  6. “Each of which covers more than just education. Where *in the field of education* has the terminology been replaced?”

    Local Education Authorities and the Department of Education were replaced.


  7. Hell’s teeth this is all highly philosophical!
    Very well-written, OA, and as usual I agree with every word. Adelady, you make a good point about the issue of rewards in a setting where the sheer spread of behaviour is the main stumbling block to consistency and common sense.


  8. You appear to be receptive to using philosophical ideas to back your claims, OA. I’d like to point out (again) that philosophy does not always back up your intuitions. Here is the Roman Catholic G. E. M. Anscombe’s 1968 paper “Modern Moral Philosophy”.

    “the concepts of obligation, and duty-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.”

    I found this quote in Tanner’s Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction. Tanner makes it clear that Anscombe is arguing, like Nietzsche, that Christian moral principles do not apply for those who are not Christian (although they still try to use them). They therefore do not apply in a generally secular world.
    This problematises your use of Christian moral principles outside of Christian thinking. (Education is not a Christian domain).

    I found an interesting discussion of Anscombe here: http://grundlegung.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/ethics-and-the-moral-law-part-i-anscombe/


  9. I can certainly see no point in saying “why are you analysing the same situation you have been describing, when actually things aren’t like that?”

    I find it fascinating that you cannot accept that the experiences of others differ to your own. Do you believe that you have a God’s eye view of what happens in schools?

    adelady: “It *is* unjust for badly behaved students to get trips, chocolates and other treats when well behaved students get none. However, if you remove the badly behaved from schools to let the majority get on with their education, they can go to a therapeutic or managed environment where different rules apply.”

    If it is unjust by reason of unfairness for badly behaved students to receive the reward of trips/chocolate/etc. in a mixed school setting, it is equally unjust to favour them by removing them to a therapeutic/managed environment with ‘different rules’. Either way, the ethical need to establish equality has been broached, whether it is public or private.

    If you are not confused, and do not mean this, then you must be talking about the consequences of such public ‘favouring of bad behaviour’. If it is unjust by reason of consequence, then changing the rules of schools to ‘reward bad behaviour’ will have a negative consequence – e.g. envy and disappointment from the good children. They might even want to copy the bad behaviour to get a slice of the action!
    This is where your argument needs evidence, as this is an empirical claim. Do children really do this? From my reading of Educational Psychology, it has been found that when children who generally behave badly are rewarded for behaving better, other children are not envious but actually helpful. This has been found in observational studies by psychologists. For example, please read Andy Miller’s Teachers, Parents and Classroom Behaviour: A Psychosocial Approach. Have you found any published research that finds otherwise?


    • “If you are not confused, and do not mean this, then you must be talking about the consequences of such public ‘favouring of bad behaviour’. If it is unjust by reason of consequence, then changing the rules of schools to ‘reward bad behaviour’ will have a negative consequence – e.g. envy and disappointment from the good children. They might even want to copy the bad behaviour to get a slice of the action!”
      Good grief! Have you ever seen what happens in these behaviour modification environments? I’ve always admired the ruthless, invariable enforcement of 3,2,1 countdowns for instant compliance with instructions. These teachers are really a special breed. Even with the psychologists and others backing them up, they’re absolutely terrific.

      And they exercise fantastic judgement in doling out appropriate rewards for behavioural improvements. The kids -never- get away with bad behaviour, and good behaviour is noticed, commented on and encouraged.
      No normal kid wants this relentless supervision of their every move.


      • “And they exercise fantastic judgement in doling out appropriate rewards for behavioural improvements. The kids -never- get away with bad behaviour, and good behaviour is noticed, commented on and encouraged.”

        It still sounds to me like these students are rewarded for improved behaviour, when in already good students this behaviour would often pass without reward. How come it’s stopped being unfair now?


  10. This problematises your use of Christian moral principles outside of Christian thinking. (Education is not a Christian domain).

    If you want to label a principle as “Christian” then that’s up to you. It is not, however, a rational argument against the principle. In fact if the correct principles happen to be Christian then that is an argument for Christianity, not an argument against the principles.

    Similarly, talking about philosophy in relation to an idea is only useful if the philosophy is sound and provides reasonable arguments. I have never said anybody should accept an argument simply because it is backed by a philosopher. I simply find some philosophers to be a good source of sound arguments.


    • “I simply find some philosophers to be a good source of sound arguments.”

      Is G.E.M. Anscombe’s assertion that the moral concepts you use “are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it” not a sound argument?

      I do believe that you are required, to satisfy the rules of a debate, to explain why. Unless you just want to assert your position emptily.


      • Is G.E.M. Anscombe’s assertion that the moral concepts you use “are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it” not a sound argument?

        In the form you have presented it, it is not even an argument. It is an attempt to characterise a point of view rather than to consider arguments for or against that point of view.

        Much like your previous effort to dismiss points as “Christian” without saying what is wrong with them.


  11. I find it fascinating that you cannot accept that the experiences of others differ to your own. Do you believe that you have a God’s eye view of what happens in schools?

    If I relate an experience on here, I am quite prepared to listen when somebody says “my experience was more like this…”

    What I was complaining about is when people wait until I talk about the philosophy of what’s happening in our schools and then say “but that’s not happening in our schools”. If you want to doubt my experience, or the generality of my experience, then why not do it when I am describing my experience?

    It is really noticeable when people only find reason to doubt that things are how they are, when I point out why things are like that. I start with the reality and then analyse the principles. Others clearly start with the principles and get upset that the reality doesn’t fit them. I object, not because I have a monopoly on what reality is, but because it is clear that some people don’t have even an interest in what the reality is.


    • “If you want to doubt my experience, or the generality of my experience, then why not do it when I am describing my experience?”

      Describing your experiences is not generalising them.
      When you generalise them, however, as you do in this post, it is time for people to point out that you can’t generalise them.

      Imagine a child sitting in a stationary car without the keys, playing at driving. People walk past uncaring.
      Then imagine the child with the keys starting to drive.
      It is not a sound argument to state that “you did not seem concerned when the child was playing at driving”.

      I hope you can now see that there is a difference between describing and generalisng.


  12. Describing your experiences is not generalising them.
    When you generalise them, however, as you do in this post…

    Where?

    It was you who suggested that what I acknowledge about the education system in this post is based on my own experience and generalising it. I never confirmed that this was the case I just commented on where would be appropriate to discuss such a claim. I was saying that there are plenty of posts where I discuss what the education system is like, why not disagree with those instead of trying to hijack this one?

    Do you understand my point? There is a difference between a discussion of why things are the way they are and a discussion of how things are. The act of trying to change a discussion of the former into a discussion of a latter suggests a lack of coherent arguments about either.


    • “Kindness has taken over. No longer are children to be given greater opportunities or a chance to improve themselves. They are encouraged to feel good about themselves as they are now and their situation as it is now. No longer is hard work to be inflicted on the lazy; that would be cruel. The difficult choices involved in being just are to be replaced with the conviction that every problem could be solved if only everybody could be a little kinder.”

      I apologise. I read this as you generalising from your experience. I now understand that either you have such a comprehensive knowledge of the education system that you are reliably convinced it is true everywhere; or you are simply making an value claim disguised as an empirical finding in order to support your own argument (or point of view, depending on what you want to call it).


      • My point is that I am referring back to what I have already covered in great detail and with post after post of explanation and discussion.

        Trying to challenge it when I simply mention it in passing without even bothering to look at why I think it to be the case looks like you are simply grasping for reasons to deny inconvenient facts, having failed to find any reason to challenge my analysis of those facts.


      • “My point is that I am referring back to what I have already covered in great detail and with post after post of explanation and discussion.”

        Posts and discussion about your own experiences, or the experiences of a significant number of teachers?


  13. “In the form you have presented it, it is not even an argument. It is an attempt to characterise a point of view rather than to consider arguments for or against that point of view.

    Your definition of argument is faulty as it is self-referential. If arguments “consider arguments for or against”, there couldn’t be any arguments at all. Can you see why?

    I put it again that G.E.M. Anscombe’s assertion was indeed part of an argument, and can be used to illustrate her wider argument, which should be clear to you from that small quote.

    “Much like your previous effort to dismiss points as “Christian” without saying what is wrong with them.”

    ‘That’s not an argument, that’s a point of view!!!’
    An excellent point. I would like to reply that your effort to show that Christian values apply to a world that is not overall Christian and does not involve actors that self-identify as Christian was also not an argument – it was a point of view.


  14. Your definition of argument is faulty as it is self-referential.

    I have not defined argument, therefore, it cannot be faulty.

    I put it again that G.E.M. Anscombe’s assertion was indeed part of an argument, and can be used to illustrate her wider argument, which should be clear to you from that small quote.

    That quote was an assertion not an argument. Maybe Anscombe has a good argument for it but you have failed to present it.

    I would like to reply that your effort to show that Christian values…

    Bored now. I am simply going to ignore any comment from you where you describe my values as “Christian” instead of presenting an argument as to whether those values are right or wrong.


    • You did not define arguments? I apologise. I took this as a definition of ‘argument’: “In the form you have presented it, it is not even an argument. It is an attempt to characterise a point of view rather than to consider arguments for or against that point of view.” Obviously “considering arguments for or against that point of view” is NOT your definition of an argument. But that means that it was merely a misleading proposition that was not at all related to you assertion that what GEM Anscombe said was not an argument, and only confused me. Can you please stop trying to mislead me, then? Especially when you seem to do so in order to tell me off for trying to incorporate your misleading statements into our discussion.

      Bored now. I am simply going to ignore any comment from you where you describe my values as “Christian” instead of presenting an argument as to whether those values are right or wrong.

      That’s fair enough. Not all of us understand that it is hard to generalise from one situation to another (e.g. from individual experience to common experience; from Christian values to secular/mixed religious settings). I can hardly blame you for a common failing! I just wish I had been more successful in educating you on this matter.


      • Can you please stop trying to mislead me, then?

        For pity’s sake. I’m not trying to mislead you. I never presented a definition of an argument. I assumed that you knew what an argument was. If I was wrong that doesn’t mean I was misleading you.

        Not all of us understand that it is hard to generalise from one situation to another (e.g. from individual experience to common experience; from Christian values to secular/mixed religious settings). I can hardly blame you for a common failing!

        When I refused to accept a broad generalisation as an argument it was not that I failed to understand how a broad generalisation works. Far from it. It was because I understood that a broad generalisation is not an argument. Calling my opinion “Christian” tells us nothing about whether it is right or wrong, it just suggests you don’t have any actual argument against it.


  15. Posts and discussion about your own experiences, or the experiences of a significant number of teachers?

    It’s usually abundantly clear from the posts themselves. But why not discuss it on those posts, instead of hijacking this one? Either my account of British schools is reliable or it isn’t. Turning up on this thread (which is not such an account) and basically saying “well you have assumed your account is reliable” is just a waste of time. Frankly. if you think I’m such a liar I don’t know why you were reading this in the first place.



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