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No act too small

October 01 2023
Our reporter-in-the-field Mat Amp snapped a picture of the infamous ‘skip house’ in Bermondsey, London, a renovated skip designed and lived in by an artist protesting the cost of living crisis © Mat Amp Our reporter-in-the-field Mat Amp snapped a picture of the infamous ‘skip house’ in Bermondsey, London, a renovated skip designed and lived in by an artist protesting the cost of living crisis © Mat Amp

What constitutes an act of kindness? And will a true act of kindness please stand up? Asks Mat Amp

Just about every time I sit on a panel at an event focused on homelessness I get asked the question, “Is it right to give cash to someone begging on the street?” What people seem to want to know is whether or not this is a true act of kindness.

It is such a difficult question because first you have to define exactly what it is that makes something a true act of kindness.

Recently someone told me that they thought there was no such thing as a true act of kindness. He wasn’t just referring to the obvious cases of manipulation. You know, when people give something to someone else to get something immediate and specific in return, or those times when people make a show of giving in order to improve their moral standing in the community.

No, he was referring to every act of giving, to every act of kindness. When I pointed to the numerous acts of human kindness that have no obvious reward he brushed me away by saying “the reward is the way giving makes you feel. It makes you feel good within yourself so surely all acts of giving are nothing more than an act of self-gratification.”
It took me a while to get my head around this logic and form a counter-response because although his argument felt flawed to me, it was difficult to dispute.

But then it hit me. You may derive pleasure from an act of kindness but the pleasure is derived from the brain’s production of four primary chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins, sometimes referred to as – one of the best acronyms of all time – D.O.S.E.

At a glance it seems like these chemicals are some form of pre-programming, forcing us to be happy in response to acts of kindness and generosity. And while these chemicals do drive a positive emotional response, they are not the reason we want to share in the first place. They are simply our reward for doing so.

It’s my opinion that there is a bigger, more primal impulse at work here. We want to share with each other because it strengthens the community, tribe, family or whatever we belong to. Giving presents can be a symbolic expression of this desire, whereas mowing an elderly neighbour’s lawn is this desire in practice. And sure, while the big picture may be that we give to people so that they will give to us, it’s not in the selfish and immediate way that my friend’s argument supposes.

Over the last 50 years or so we have built a world culture based on the awful supposition that we are all better off if we put ourselves first. After all, nobody knows what we need better than ourselves.

The American author Ayn Rand was massively influential in putting the self at the centre of modern American culture. She believed that unfettered self-interest is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one's life. Altruism, on the other hand, she saw as self-destructive.

“You can fake virtue for an audience… It's easier to donate a few thousand to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. It's simple to seek substitutes for competence – such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence,” she writes in the Ayn Rand Novel Collection.

What she’s saying is that people use giving as a lazy way of trumpeting their own achievements. And for some people she ain’t wrong. Acts of philanthropy accompanied by massive publicity can be insincere, old-school charity at its worst. Where she loses me is when she starts talking about love, charm and kindness as substitutes for personal achievement. Charm perhaps, but true love and kindness are ways of sharing at its deepest level.

She totally fails to recognise the power and impact of sharing and working together.

The friendships we form throughout our lives are built on a cycle of giving and taking, appreciation and forgiveness that are the expression of mutual support. The absolute expression of mutual kindness is the love we feel for those we shack up with. Or at least it should be if we’re doing it right. 

I mean nobody, other than the purest of rank narcissists, would see the expression of true love as selfish. Your partner’s joy and happiness become yours as you give and take emotional, spiritual and practical support. But the fact that you also share their puzzles and their pain is proof to me that there is far more to giving than self-gratification.
‘Giving makes us happy, therefore giving is selfish’ is the type of reductive thinking that ignores the complexity of the human condition.

Where I think we go wrong, and where Rand was right, is the way we award people for giving. ‘Isn’t he kind because he gave a shit-load of money to a charity. Isn’t that person kind because they spent six months building a school in Africa!’

Acts of kindness are a lot more than massive gestures and for me at least, true acts of kindness are often the small things that we do when nobody is watching or rewarding us.

Giving should be something we do for the sake of it and as part of an ongoing cycle of give and take. Our reward should come from being part of the process itself and in belonging to the strong communities we build if everyone does their fair share of both giving and taking.

And so back to that question. Should people give to people who are begging on the street? That is a question that only you can answer.