Compassion is Not for Suckers Anymore (It Never Was)
“And [Jesus] had compassion upon them because they were as sheep who did not have a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34b, my translation).
Is human compassion normal or exceptional? Are we humans wired for selfishness or altruism? These questions have fascinated and frustrated philosophers for as long as there have been philosophers – and before. The generally accepted answer during the Enlightenment was that human compassion is exceptional and that compassion in the so-called “natural” world is non-existent.
Alfred Lord Tennyson popularized the phrase that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Brutal competition was thought to produce the “survival of the fittest” (a concept that was not really part of Darwin’s evolutionary theory). In human affairs, the state of nature was the “war of all against all” according to Thomas Hobbes. The chief function of civilized society was to restrict and regulate these bloody impulses, so we all didn’t just kill each other daily.
For Hobbes, the solution to this issue was the creation of the Leviathan, the all-powerful, autocratic state that would provide a measure of protection in exchange for total control. It should come as no surprise that this view of human nature was part of a political argument. Hobbes used it to support the institution of absolute monarchy in the face of nascent democratic sentiments in the European monarchies.
The assertion that compassion is for suckers was (and is) used as well to support and argue for the highly individualistic and rapacious neoliberalism which has driven our economic life in the West since the late 1970’s. Credit is usually given to Adam Smith for “inventing” such capitalism in his The Wealth of Nations.
Few people have actually read Smith’s far more important work (at least in his own estimation), entitled A Theory of Moral Sentiments. In that book, Smith argues that human morality is rooted and grounded in what we would now call “empathy” (although Smith, following the usage of the time, called it “sympathy”). Here’s a quote from Smith’s work that says it well.
“Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations…His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”
In fact, Smith was certain that his brand of capitalism was sustainable only under the influence of such empathetic imagination and the actions that imagination would produce in people. Without the operation of compassion, Smith believed, capitalism would create the very war of all against all that Hobbes predicted and would lead to social chaos rather than social progress. Smith may not have believed that such compassion was “natural,” but he certainly believed it was necessary.
It is in the twentieth century that compassion is most clearly regarded as a political and economic liability. The works of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek provided much of the theoretical foundation for this view of human nature and human flourishing. In The Fountainhead, Rand writes this monologue.
“Compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar. An elevating experience. One can let oneself go and spread–you know, like taking a girdle off. You don’t have to hold your stomach, your heart, or your spirit up–when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down. It’s much easier. When you look up, you get a pain in the neck. Compassion is the greatest virtue. It justifies suffering. There’s got to be suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion?”
Hayek was certain that libertarian, individualistic freedom was the most reliable path to overall human flourishing. He was also certain that efforts to organize human beings into caring collectives (by governments) was the most reliable path to human misery. “I am certain, however, that nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom,” he wrote, “as the striving after this mirage of social justice.”
We live in a time when large numbers of people in the Western world believe that compassion is for suckers. If they don’t admit that, they are certainly ready to believe that compassion is, while admirable, exceptional – the realm of saints and martyrs, not of real people who need to get their hands dirty on a regular basis. That perspective is part of the larger framework that elected a man to the American presidency who clearly believes that self-giving love is for losers.
The field of Positive Psychology paints a far different and evidence-based picture of human nature and human flourishing. I could refer you to a number of authors and scholars in this regard. However, I want to talk about the work and writing of Dacher Keltner, particularly in his book, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In this work, Keltner tries to show “how survival of the kindest may be just as fitting a description of our origins as survival of the fittest” (Kindle Locations 67-68).
Keltner notes that neuroscientific studies suggest we are wired for the “complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people” (Kindle Location 153). Giving, cooperation, and other compassionate actions light up the reward centers in our brains. “People around the world will sacrifice the enhancement of self-interest in the service of other principles: equality, a more favorable reputation, or even, God forbid, the advancement of others’ welfare” (Kindle Locations 298-299).
Neuroscience continues to show that we are more “wired” for compassion than for selfishness (for good evolutionary reasons). More than that – and more to the point for our conversation – the emotions that wire us in that way are grounded in our guts. Studies of the human autonomic nervous system reveal, Keltner reports, “that our emotions, even those higher sentiments like sympathy and awe, are embodied in our viscera. As this line of inquiry shifted to the ethical emotions,” he continues, “emotions like embarrassment and compassion, a more radical inference waited on the horizon—that our very capacity for goodness is wired into our body” (Kindle Locations 917-919).
We humans are made with what Keltner calls “the moral gut.”
Human moral judgments are not, Keltner argues, primarily rooted and grounded in our conscious brains. “Our moral judgments of blame are guided by sensations arising in the viscera and facial musculature” (Kindle Locations 949-950). It’s not that our brains are trumped by our guts, however. “Reason and passion are collaborators in the meaningful life” (Kindle Location 975-976).
My point is that compassion is not an exceptional human characteristic. It is, rather, key to fully human flourishing. Suppressing compassion renders us less than human. When Jesus feels compassion for the crowds because they are lost, he is demonstrating what fully flourishing humanity looks like. Disciples need to watch and learn.
But often we don’t.
In fact, “survival of the kindest” is a far better explanation of evolutionary processes than is “survival of the fittest.” Survival of the fittest is an excellent theoretical framework is your goal is to show that human beings exist to produce a few powerful, privileged, propertied, and positioned people at the top of the heap. Survival of the fittest is the theoretical foundation for policies such as “trickle-down economics” and practices such as chattel slavery.
An egregious example of this sort of thinking is the infamous “Mud Sill” speech delivered in the U. S. House of Representatives by James Henry Hammond in 1858. Hammond, an ardent pro-enslavement apologist, was debating the admission of Kansas to the Union as an enslavement state. The paragraph below captures all we need to know about the speech.
“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.”
Survival of the kindest is a more accurate reflection of authentic human flourishing. Based on numerous physiological, psychological, and sociological measures, “our survival depends on healthy, stable bonds with others” (Kindle Location 1228). Life that is rich, meaningful, happy, and joyful is based on kindness, gratitude, service, altruism – compassion.
As we move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant, we move from human degradation to human flourishing. Jesus is not only the true King but also the truly human one.
References and Resources
De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.