Close up of a white woman's hand. She holds a card that reads: "Kindess. Pass it on." The beach is in the background

Kindness and the Ethic of Care

In a 2012 national survey of over 2,000 Australians, a team of sociologists found that 95% of people believe that being kind to one another is highly important. A slightly higher percentage of people said they saw themselves as a kind person (97%) and most said they performed an act of kindness at least weekly (90%). Most say that Australian people are kind (82%).

A white man and white woman have their arms around another's backs. Text reads: Why being kind matters

Writing about his team’s study in The Conversation, Nicholas Hookway argues the idea that society is less caring is not true, but changing values (for example the fact that Australians are less religious) make kindness a less visible point of community discussion.

In a follow up study, the researchers find that Australians have a higher rate of helping others: two-thirds of Australians helped a stranger in the past month, compared to the average of 48% for developed (OECD) nations. Then again, there are some nuances. Australian women are more likely than men to think that showing kindness to others is important. While younger people are also more likely to think kindness is important, but tend to see Australians in general as not being especially kind.

Ethic of Care

I see that the problem is that kindness is perceived as more of an interpersonal quality. People think it’s good to be kind to people we know but we take less personal responsibility to be kind to people outside our personal networks.It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sociology uses the idea of “an ethic of care” to show that kindness and empathy should inform all social relationships, including public issues managed by the law (the latter is known as an “ethic of justice” and stands in contrast to the ethic of care). An ethic of care says that it’s important that society and its institutions look after the emotional and socioeconomic needs of all individuals with the same level of kindness we show our friends and family members.

This means proactively looking after people rather than letting them slip through the cracks of society until they wind up in the criminal justice system.

So what does kindness mean to you? Is it about being nice to people we know or can we use kindness as one more ethical tool to change social systems?

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