Is being nice a wise way to start the year?

Photo: reneebigelow, Pixabay.

The new year is here and at least some of you might be thinking about resolutions.

So how about being nicer in 2018? It’s hard to argue with that. But is it also wise to be nice?

According to Dr. Roger Walsh, a UC Irvine professor who has been studying wisdom for decades, benevolence (Merriam-Webster: “a disposition to do good”) is an key aspect of wisdom. In a 2015 paper (What is Wisdom? Cross-Cultural and Cross-Disciplinary Syntheses, a good read if you’re interested in wisdom), Walsh defines wisdom as:

Wisdom is deep accurate insight and understanding of oneself and the central existential issues of life, plus skillful benevolent responsiveness.

When I read that I was pleasantly surprised, since it’s fairly similar to the definition I offered in my original post:

Wisdom is thought, speech, and action tempered by an understanding of the nature of reality, one’s self, other people, and the context in which you live.

Key differences are: 1) he includes understanding of self and “central existential issues of life” whereas I also include other people and context*; and 2) he specifically includes “benevolent” in what it means to respond wisely.

*(to be fair, my shortened version is “Wisdom is thought, speech, and action tempered by an understanding of the way things really are.”, which simply uses “the way things are” to stand in for the key areas of understanding, so perhaps Walsh’s definition is meant to capture other people and context as well)

Do you need to be nice to be wise?

Walsh underscores the importance of benevolence in the paper, notably by writing:

So a central intention of the wise is to be benevolent. But how benevolent? I want to suggest the following hypothesis: The degree of wisdom is correlated with the scope and depth of benevolence. That is, the wiser people are, the greater the number of people and creatures they will seek to benefit, and the deeper the kind of benefit they will seek to offer.

So in his view, it’s not just a matter of benevolence being a part of wisdom, it’s integral to being wise. And the wiser you are, the more benevolent you are.

I don’t disagree with this view. There’s not a bad reason in my mind for encouraging benevolence.

However…

If the aim is to create a concise but comprehensive definition of wisdom, you’d want to include only the things absolutely necessary. Does benevolence fit the bill?

I’m not so sure.

Part of both my and Walsh’s definition of wisdom is an understanding of the nature of reality (in Walsh’s words “the central existential issues of life”). I believe — and after reading just a bit of Walsh’s work, I think he would also believe — that a central element to understanding reality is understanding the interconnectedness of all things.

About that “interconnectedness of all things”

That interconnectedness means that it’s impossible to determine where “you” end and everything else in the world begins. If you’re not sure about this, consider the air around your hand. Now zoom in to the atomic level. Your hand isn’t a perfectly solid object. Can you tell where exactly the atoms of the air end and those of your hand begin? What about when you sweat? That sweat is part of your body, but then evaporates into the surrounding air. Is it still “you” when it evaporates? What’s the difference between when it was “you” and when it’s floating around in the air? You can further consider the air you breathe, the food you eat, the sunshine on your skin. Or how about when you shake hands with somebody. At the atomic or subatomic level, would you know where “you” end and the other person begins? And if you back it up, no longer shaking hands, but standing at opposite sides of a room, if it’s difficult to tell where “you” end and the air around you begins, then the same could be said for the other person and the air around them. So how separate are you really when standing at the other end of the room? The other side of a city? The opposite end of the world?

Put another way, you don’t stand alone, as a “you” silo that appeared in the middle of the world. You are an outgrowth of the world. The conditions of the universe, the liquid water on our planet, gravity, the proximity of the earth to the sun, your parents, farmers, governments securing clean drinking water, thunderstorms, HVAC units, etc. “You” are not an alien plunked down amidst all of this, you are part of it.

Ok, ok, you get it. We and everything around us are interconnected.

Which, circling back around to the topic at hand, means that the care that you show to the things, people, and other living beings around you, is the care that you show to “you”. As such, you should treat all the world around you with the same care, love, and yes, benevolence that you’d show to yourself. This idea can be found through cultures and thought systems all over the world, maybe most succinctly presented in The Golden Rule: Treat others as you’d have them treat you.

In other words, when you understand the aspect of the “true nature of reality” relating to the interconnectedness of all things, then you don’t need to layer on benevolence as an outside aspect of wisdom — you act with benevolence towards all things, because you understand that you arise out of all things, are a part of all things, and therefore the care you show to them, you show to yourself.

If you’d rather, you can take it from Dustin Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees: “When you get the blanket thing [interconnectedness] you can relax because everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.”

But then there’s all the other virtues

There’s another reason I might not include benevolence as part of my definition of wisdom. Benevolence, kindness, and compassion I’d consider virtues on their own. And while it makes sense that somebody wise would regularly practice a virtue like benevolence, why should that be called out specifically while not specifically wrapping in other virtues?

As far as virtues go, I consider wisdom the king/queen of all virtues as it swoops in all of the other virtues. That is, can you be a wise person without practicing benevolence and compassion? I don’t think so. How about honesty? Courage? Generosity? Creativity? Gratitude? I think they all come into the picture when talking about wisdom or acting in a wise way.

What does this mean you should do?

I’ve gotten to this point and realized that I’ve spent this post doing something that I often find annoying when reading philosophers — spending far more time on definitions than on how to live well.

That’s not to say that definitions aren’t important — if the goal is to live with more wisdom, you have to have some idea what wisdom is.

With that in mind, it really doesn’t matter whether you like Walsh’s definition that specifically calls out the need for benevolence, or a definition that doesn’t specifically mention benevolence and instead understand that the interconnectedness of all things means that you should act with care and compassion towards all things.

If you want to live more wisely in 2018, what matters is that you understand that all things are connected. “You”, your coffee table, my dog, a squirrel in central park, jupiter, an Indian-head penny in a sewer in Oklahoma, Bill Nye the Science Guy, a box of Hot Pockets in your aunt’s freezer…

And since everything is connected, being nice, compassionate, benevolent, and kind is a pretty wise idea for 2018.


Originally published at mattkoppenheffer.com on January 1, 2018.