Monday, November 17, 2014

Compassion: Its Philosophical Basis

No matter how diverse our philosophies, everyone seems to believe in the need for compassion. However, while some base compassion on our instincts/feelings alone, others regard these as inadequate. Rather, we need to extend the circle of our compassion beyond the limited circle defined by our feelings, our affiliations.

Therefore, it is not enough to simply feel compassion; we need to also believe and think compassion! But what beliefs will promote compassionate behavior?

Several very popular worldviews deny that humanity is responsible for any wrongdoing. If this is so, then we can’t hold people responsible and therefore resent them for their misdeeds. Instead, compassionate becomes the most appropriate response.

According to one such worldview, we are exclusively the product of nurture and nature. Humanity is basically good and would do the good if we could. Why then do we do badly? Because we are irresistibly driven by these deterministic forces to act badly! Consequently, instead of punishing the wrongdoer, society needs to treat him and eliminate those factors that drove him to do badly.

Closely allied to this worldview is the denial of freewill. If we cannot act otherwise, then we should not be held responsible if we hurt others.

Both of these worldviews also tend to be pragmatic, recognizing that dangerous people must be restrained in prison. However, it is not because they deserve this but because society needs protection.

However, this gives a contradictory message:

  • Society must punish you even though you do not deserve this harsh treatment. 
Hence, these worldviews eliminate any concept of justice. Justice is thereby reduced to expedience – what works for the majority. In other words, “We are merely punishing you for our own welfare!” However, this can only breed cynicism, division, and ultimately decay. There is nothing to prevent the outcast from then thinking:

  • Well, if you are going to punish me because of your welfare, then there is no reason for me to not punish you for my welfare! 
Besides, without the concept of justice, there remains no way to win hearts and minds. What can we say to those who want to fight for ISIS? “You must not go and fight with ISIS because of our benefit?” When we sacrifice justice, we sacrifice any rationale to appeal to anything higher than base instinct.

These two worldviews also un-dignify humanity. They proclaim:

  • You are not a free moral agent. You are not responsible for your actions. In essence, you are no more than a sophisticated bio-chemical machine, something that can easily be discarded if it fails to perform a designated function! 
This opens wide the door to abuse. To un-dignify humanity is also to deprive humanity of compassionate behavior. We might instinctively love animals, but we also eat and cage them. If humankind is just another animal, what then is to protect them from the way we treat other animals? Even the honorable Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. admitted:

  • When one thinks coldly I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.
However, we walk on grains of sand and use them in the production of concrete. So much for a philosophical basis for compassion!

Serial killers have also figured out that, if we are no more than animals, then the law of the animal kingdom prevails. Instead, of evolution providing a basis for compassion, Jeffrey Dahmer protested, “I would argue that understanding evolution has the opposite effect, let me explain”:

  • As far as we know, we only have one life and we share this planet with billions of other life-forms that have the exact same purpose as we do. We're no better or no worse than any other individual, ESPECIALLY not other human individuals.”
It was this understanding that enabled him to kill and cannibalize others.

Moral relativism is another closely-related worldview. It too maintains that our concepts of justice, right and wrong are just human inventions, without any existence apart from our own thinking. We merely invented these concepts because they are useful.

Consequently, this worldview also degrades humanity, even our pursuit of virtue and compassion. After all, if virtue is just someone’s invention, why take it seriously – more seriously than my own inventions?

Serial killer Ted Bundy understood this:

  • Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective [it just depends on how you think about them], and that none can be proved to be either “right” or “wrong”…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable “value judgment that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.” (Christian Research Journal, Vol 33, No 2, 2010, 32)
Clearly, moral relativism cannot serve as a basis for compassion. When feelings fail, this philosophy offers no resistance to our selfish instincts. However, these worldviews argue that if there is objective moral law and if we do have freewill, even in the midst of powerful deterministic force, then we re-establish a basis for moral contempt and undermine compassion.

However, the Reverend Martin Luther King argued that there is another solution. In a sermon entitled “the American Dream,” he stated:

  • You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the… “Image of God,” is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected… every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God… This is why we must fight segregation with all of our nonviolent might.
For King, the image of God meant compassion for all. But doesn’t it also mean that some are moral outlaws who deserve punishment and not compassion?

When I was a probation officer, supervising offenders, I would always attempt to treat them with respect, although also with firmness. I knew that I had been forgiven a tremendous debt and was therefore required to treat others with the compassion with which God had treated me.

As any parent knows, compassion also requires correction, even punishment. To raise a child without correction is not compassion. Meanwhile, to reveal to the child your freewill-denying worldview is to teach your child wrongly. It is to say:

  • Because you don’t have freewill and could not have done otherwise, I should not punish you. You do not deserve it. However, I must punish you to correct your impulses, which are neither right nor wrong but merely useful or un-useful. But of course, these assessments must change as society changes.
Instead, we need to know that there are considerations and values that are more important than our feelings. Consequently, maturity requires that we restrain the immoral expression of these feelings.

When I wrong my wife, I must take full responsibility and humble myself by confessing my wrong. A morally relativistic confession would not work. I could not say:

  • I am truly sorry that I hurt you. However, I did not really commit a wrong, because there isn’t any objective right and wrong. However, you feel bad. Therefore, I am apologizing, even though I haven’t really done another wrong. 
Such an apology is as useful as the freewill-denying apology:

  • I am really sorry that I hurt you, but I don’t have freewill and could not have done otherwise. Therefore, you have no right to be upset with me.
Compassion requires taking full responsibility for our actions. Instead, worldviews of mitigation or complete denial are only superficially compassionate. They may look compassionate, but they are unable to achieve the reconciliation required in meaningful relationships. If my wife loves me, her compassion will ask me to take full responsibility.

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