Against Compassion

Andrea Mantegna, detail from Pallas and the Vices

The problem with making compassion into the foundation of an ethic is that compassion by itself does not provide a very solid incentive to conquer one’s fears, to struggle against one’s weaknesses, or to pursue undertakings that are high in risk, low in material reward, and provide gratification that cannot be accounted for in terms of the crude calculus of sex, money, and power. Compassion leads us to feel sympathy for others, but it is of limited use in helping us to understand their grievances, ambitions, and aspirations, and is of even less value in enabling us to determine the extent to which the desires, animosities, and anxieties of the other are justified. The latter task involves two contrary movements, first in the form of detachment, in which we move away from our immediate emotional response to the person, and second in reflecting on our own passions, our own capacities for injustice, anger, and excess. Compassion by itself does not obligate us to look within ourselves, or to confront instances in which we ourselves have been blinded by rage, passion, or humiliation.  Instead, it is a projection of our own softness onto others, which exempts us from engaging with the other in the terms in which he or she sees himself or herself.

In the NY Times review of Steven Pinker’s latest book, we find the following bien pensant commonplace from Peter Singer:

“We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them.”

There is a total obliviousness here to the fact that human beings are comparative creatures, for whom happiness is not something fixed and settled for all time, but changes, often drastically, with the rising expectations and material wealth of a society. It is these rising expectations that arouse envy in people who might otherwise have every reason, historically and rationally speaking, to be happy (steady access to food and reliable shelter, a modest income, a family), but find themselves made discontented by the perception that there are others enjoying an even greater happiness than them in the form of earning vast wealth, possessing a more attractive physical appearance, enjoying a far greater number of  sexual partners, etc.

There is a stronger desire than the desire not to die and the desire to be happy: the desire to be exceptional. This can take the form of violating the dominant values of a society simply for the sake of negating them, even if these values are as enlightened as the ones stated by Singer. The drive for distinction is the source of enormous social disruption as well as immense creativity. If even only one person experiences this desire strongly enough, it is often the case that the many who do not will prove no match for such intensity, as the history of dictators bear out, because the desires of the many for happiness is always a moderate desire, one which is not ready to sacrifice everything for its fulfillment, because it considers unthinkable the very possibility of sacrificing anything. It has no answer for unwavering commitment that risks everything. Tenderhearted liberalism reflects an obstinate determination not to learn what the person driven by a singular passion has learned: that pain is the best teacher.

If the virtue of courage often coexists with a tendency toward impulsiveness and recklessness, then compassion can accompany a general slackening of the spirit. But it is easy to see why people living in an individualistic, affluent, and fragmented society would gravitate toward an ethics based on sympathy, because compassion is the only virtue which arouses no disagreement. It is also the virtue that demands the least of the individual, unlike temperance and chastity, which entail self-control, and charity and diligence, which call for action. The illusion of linking compassion to progress and evolution masks the rigid and ultimately unreasonable demand that the other respect one’s show of tenderhearted feelings.


4 responses

  1. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  2. The most troubling element of your analysis, or so it seems to me, is that you have very narrowly and negatively defined compassion. You seem to have told us what compassion cannot do, rather than what it can. I also believe that you have missed the empathetic element of compassion. If I am correct, compassion does actually allow us to understand all of the aspects of a person’s psyche that you claim it prohibits the understanding of. What do you think?

  3. Max, apologies for the late reply. Compassion, on its own, teaches us very little about others. We need empathy to understand others, to be sure, yet what happens when we turn the gaze back onto ourselves? Should we feel only compassion toward ourselves, or is it not the case that there are aspects of ourselves that we should be ready to judge harshly, if only because we are humans with flaws and make mistakes, act in unjust ways toward others, and believe that we are more deserving of recognition? Yet, at the same time, in contemporary society, there is the widespread sense that one ought not to judge others, but this call to refrain from judgment is not based on the recognition of the fallenness of all human beings or of the condition that we are subject to uncontrollable and disruptive passions. Rather, compassion has become an excuse not to see others clearly, which requires much more than compassion: discernment, a willingness to see the specific flaws in others as well as in oneself, and being attentive to the gap between what people say they value and want and what they actually value and want.

  4. […] How, then, to read it? Compassion is a virtue, though some have argued cogently that it is not the chief virtue. In any case, compassion, like other virtues, must be active. […]

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