The politics of kindness trumps the politics of selfishness

A compassionate way forward

Colm O'Doherty20/07/2020

The Pandemic has shown us how important kindness is in our daily lives.  Our gratitude to front line  workers in hospitals, care homes , supermarkets and public services shows how much we appreciate kindness.  Kindness is a pro-social resource which strengthens relationships, develops community, deepens solidarity and promotes positive mental health. It is a cornerstone of our individual and collective wellbeing.  Applied  kindness can have a transformative impact on our public services.

The discussion of wellbeing as a policy platform for government formation between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Green is a welcome development.  A wellbeing budget boosting the core economy of countless undervalued and priceless human and social assets that make it possible for society to flourish is long overdue.  In the core or interpersonal economy each person adds something to the collective value that makes up society.   We are seeing and appreciating that fact now as we adjust to the reality of life under Covid.  However for a wellbeing budget promoting a relationship economy as well as the material economy to succeed requires an underpinning operational principle. The starting point for a coalition between the Greens, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail must therefore be a shared commitment to the practice of kindness across all policy implementation delivery systems What people want now is a shared conception of a better society, a vision of a better future.  How we should treat each other and how the government should deal with us must be central to any negotiations.  Policy formation should be guided by agreement between the three parties to see relational values driving the government in the direction of radical kindness. A new social contract recognizing that public services are always about relationships and trust will result.  Kindness, a new way of thinking about the organization and delivery of public services, will improve public service outcomes by building confidence and trust in policymaking.    

Awareness of the value and importance of kindness- being considerate and generous-for public health has been increasing as the Covid virus has curtailed our lives. This is an unforeseen but positive feature of the new human landscape that we inhabit.  

Unkind Policymaking

However while the crisis has produced a compelling existential argument for kindness as intrinsically valuable there remains an ingrained belief in our society in traditional economic valuation methods (based on utilitarian principles) which focus on monetising public value.

These measurement and quantification approaches to the social realm are not neutral representations of reality. They constitute objectivation techniques which translate social life into numbers.  These techniques do not measure important intangibles that we are benefiting from at the present moment. The value of kindness, trust, positive relationships is not captured. The vocabulary of policymaking is often dominated by transactional thinking based on facts and figures which allow for scrutiny and challenge. In line with other countries the Irish state is now a data manager utilising the science of numbers to facilitate greater control and encourage self optimization of citizens. This cult of numbers –data never lies- changes our everyday perceptions of value and social policymaking. Numbers are reliable, non-partisan and compelling. Quantification of social phenomenon is considered an essential activity of rational and enlightened states.  Hence the organization of politics around numbers has gathered pace as opportunity and access for collecting data has increased. 

Two key drivers of this changing approach to public and social value are digitalization and economization.  Personal and social dimensions of people’s lives which were previously off limits to the markets  are now routinely collected, stored and analysed by commercial operations.  Our most private interests, personal relationships, emotional states or day to day concerns have become measurable.  Consequently  operators who are in a position to access the data and determine how they are used are now deciding  on what is and isn’t relevant and telling us what counts as value in our society.  Economization –the relegation of non-economic aspects of human activity to a subordinate position while organizational forms, structures and approaches based on profitability criteria are prioritised – thrives on the quantification of our lives.  The market valuation methods central to economization are now being applied to areas such as childcare, the health system,  cultural life, housing and education.  Economization is a function of the neo-liberal agenda- society works best when each person individually seeks to maximise their own utility or satisfaction in the marketplace. A culture of self-optimization side-lines collective responsibility and directs individuals towards  taking responsibility for themselves.  Continuous self-improvement and self -auditing using new reporting equipment allows those in charge to regulate and quantify the lives of others.  These new regimes of quantification are displacing other approaches to describing and evaluating social affairs. Narrow criteria with an overreliance on targets and performance measures and indicators have driven out a focus on relationships in key public services such as childcare, housing and health.

These unkind delivery systems, which have failed to recognize the importance of relationships between citizens and the government, must not be allowed to crowd out the kindness in our lives, that has flourished during the Covid crisis.

Investment in Radical Kindness

Public policy is engaged with human emotions- with the needs, feelings and hopes of people. It is concerned with the fabric of people’s lives- shelter, health, care, parenting, personal and private relationships- and the emotional values of kindness, love and compassion. We are all familiar now with the kindness which has brightened our day during the Covid crisis. As a society  we all benefit from the actions of citizens shopping for elderly neighbours,  the altruism of community  and voluntary workers, staff in shops and supermarket selflessly keeping us supplied and the institutional kindness of health and care workers  However radical kindness requires major changes in the way that the state runs and manages services.  The power of kindness cannot be underestimated and action on widening the radius of kindness from individuals and communities to all our institutions can help to humanise and improve the effectiveness of the policies urgently required to create a more egalitarian, environmentally sustainable co-operative society .  

What is required is a removal of the barriers in systems, procedures and regulations to authentic connections between service providers and citizens.  Kindness is not a vague and wimpy notion, but something that questions the very essence of what is valued in society.    

Governments do many things which are valuable to the public and they generally fall into three main categories.  The first category is the direct value provided by services  such as roads or water  which can be quantified using private sector benchmarks. The second category is outcomes like lower crime. A third category of value is trust and the creation of social capital – whether the work of government and the institutions it supports is seen as just, fair and kind.

Clearly kindness is not something that can be mandated –it must be enabled.  It cannot be forced into being because it becomes something else when it is approached in this manner.

The Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework (2018) is a statement on what kind of nation its people want it to be.  Kindness is central, expressing a commitment to put relational values at the heart of public policy.  The emotional intelligence displayed by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern  has coaxed and persuaded citizens to participate in a severe lockdown which has reduced the impact of Covid to just 21 deaths and a few dozen active cases.  Her political empathy  has enabled her to demonstrate real kindness and concern for all citizens.

 No matter how sound the policies of any coalition are, unkind delivery and implementation systems, will jeopardise their success. Systemic change is urgently needed by any new government in order to put kindness and humanity at the heart of the way we live and work.  Ireland post Covid will face major challenges but a commitment to a new social contract incorporating the value of kindness across all public policies can help us transition to a society which is better for all of us.   








Posted in: Politics

Tagged with: covid19KindnesscompassionaltruismpolicyIrish policyIrish politics

Dr Colm O'Doherty

O'Doherty, Colm

Colm O’Doherty is lecturer in the Dept of Applied Social Studies, IT Tralee. A qualified social worker with extensive practice experience, he has researched and published in the areas of social policy, child protection, domestic violence, community development, social work, family support and parenting. He is the author of A New Agenda for Family Support, Providing Services That Create Social Capital (2007) and co-editor of Community Development in Ireland: Theory, Policy and Practice (2012) and Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland (2015). He holds a PhD from UCD.



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