Goodness versus Kindness

We often use the words “good” and “kind” interchangeably to qualify a person based on their actions. Someone who smiles, asks us how our day was and seems genuinely interested in talking with us is deemed a “good person.” Basically, we give anyone who isn’t an asshole this mantle.

Consequently, the meaning of “goodness” has been twisted into one almost synonymous with kindness — wherein one now rarely exists without the other and their meanings have become one and the same.

Yet, it is vital that we recognize the subtle differences in the implications of each of these words.

First of all, I need to clarify how I am defining the words “good” and “kind.” For the purposes of this piece, goodness and kindness are virtues which refer to the nature of a person’s actions. In other words, I am using them as a description of what we do, distinct from our internal selves.

Kind acts are those that make our day-to-day social interactions pleasant and genuine. Take the gym at Amherst, for example. To make this shared space a positive one, those who use it must share the equipment, respect one another’s space and be non-judgemental toward others using the space.

Meanwhile, good acts are those that exist beyond interpersonal, face-to-face relations like those we experience in the gym. Rather, they affect people outside of our immediate social bubbles. We live and exist within social bubbles in which we see and interact with people we know. At work, at school, in our neighborhoods, we are not insulated by these social bubbles. Kindness and goodness exist on different sides of this insulation.

Both kindness and goodness generally come from places of compassion, but the root of the act is not what concerns me. What really distinguishes good acts from kind acts is the idea of where these acts are felt and by whom.

Kind acts, which inherently occur within our social bubbles, have a more personal nature. We see how they are received and how they affect our relationships. They are necessary to maintaining these relations and fostering friendship, trust and community.

However, good acts take place outside of our social bubbles. This is not to say they are not social by nature, but rather that the social relations they affect are obscured, unknown to we who do the good act. They feel farther away and less important. We are far less likely to be good than kind.

While kindness is a valuable virtue, conflating it with goodness is dangerous to our self-perception. When we believe ourselves to be good because we are kind, our subsequent self-perception ignores the fact that we do not extend our active reach beyond what is in our immediate vicinity.

Kindness is necessary to strengthen one’s own individual community and normalizes courteous behaviour and healthy relationships.

I am not making a qualitative claim of which is better or more useful than the other. Instead, we should strive to be both good and kind, and in doing so become people who work toward the betterment of our own communities as well as those that do not appear to us daily.

The first step toward this goal is recognizing that being kind does not suffice for being good and asking ourselves how we can act beyond what is right in front of us.