Random Acts of Kindness: Displaying Moral Character or the Pursuit of Likes?

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By Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategy and Integration
Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue, University of Birmingham

“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention”.

Saturday 17 February 2018 is National Random Acts of Kindness Day, where people are encouraged to perform acts of kindness either at random, or for random people. It began in New Zealand in 2004, is celebrated worldwide, and has grown in size, scope, and popularity over the past 14 years. Examples of Random Acts of Kindness, or RAKs, include paying for the coffee for the person behind you, letting someone go ahead of you in the queue for the bus, donating to a food bank, or complimenting a work colleague. Today, millions of people post their RAKs on social media and online.

Originally regarded as a day to ‘celebrate kindness’, it has produced infinite offspring; created RAKtivists, produced teaching resources, and facilitated millions of people, often including celebrities and high profile persons, to share their own RAKs via social media. Now, it doesn’t just ‘celebrate’ kindness, but seeks to develop ‘cultures’ of kindness around the world.

Kindness is a moral virtue, manifesting itself in situations that require an ethical response, often ones in which the individual feels compassionate or empathetic to another person. The ‘random’ element of RAKs places the action on the RAKtivist, forcing them to act, but also to consider their act, and the benefit to both the receiver and themselves. This ‘double benefit’, as recognised in the Jubilee Centre’s work on youth social action, works towards the positive character development of the RAKtivist, the recipient of the RAK and the development of a flourishing society as a whole.

In order to grow year on year, organisers naturally ask for those engaging, or experiencing RAKs to share their stories via social media, with the hashtag #randomactsofkindness and its derivatives sure to trend online this weekend. However, there is the temptation to reduce RAKs to the pursuit of ‘likes’, with the RAKtivist being more motivated by their post ‘going viral’ than actually practising any form of kindness. Some cynical Twitterati even rank RAKs, dismissing those deemed too inferior. This is where the day risks becoming devoid of meaning, and the moral intentions of any act become lost in the fog of social media ‘glory’ and critique.

Many of us will see artfully presented quotes about kindness across social media this weekend, similar to the Aesop quote “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”. However, it is important to recall Oscar Wilde if we choose to become RAKtivists, and not clamour for likes and retweets; “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention”.

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