Capital-C Compassion Is Immoral

Compassion is immoral. That statement may seem outrageous, but hidden behind the rules of English grammar is an important distinction. That distinction is between compassion and Compassion, very similar in significance to that between love and Love, hate and Hate, science and Science, reason and Reason, power and Power, liberty and Liberty, progress and Progress. The former are all mundane phenomena, sometimes good and wholesome, other times evil and pernicious; the later are pseudo-divine forces, some benevolent, others malevolent, but always and invariably of the same character.

Among this pantheon of false gods stands Compassion, not quite holding pride of place, yet well deserving to be knocked off its pedestal.

Compassion comes down to a single, simple precept: one should be compassionate. Once again, however, there is an important distinction to be made. Is this statement descriptive or prescriptive? In a descriptive sense, the statement is completely unobjectionable, merely pointing out that compassion is a normal human emotion and to be lacking it constitutes an inherent mental disorder, one that can be treated or left alone but which still does not forbid or prevent moral action. A psychopath can still comprehend morality on an intellectual level if not on an instinctual one and adjust his behavior accordingly.

The statement takes on a much more sinister cast when viewed as an imperative. Now, psychopathy is not a mere surmountable obstacle to morality; it is the very definition of immorality. That by itself is not enough to condemn Compassion, so we need look more deeply into moral psychology. Specifically, we need to review our Plato.

Recall from the Republic that Plato divides the human psyche into three faculties: the appetitive, the spirited, and the rational. The appetitive faculty is concerned solely with pleasure and pain, seeking the former and seeking to avoid the latter. The virtue of the appetitive faculty is temperance, based on the realization that vulgar hedonism is not actually the most pleasurable form of life. But vulgar hedonism is exactly the form of life the appetitive faculty most aggressively pursues when left to its own devices.

The spirited faculty, by contrast, constitutes a sense of self, an assertive distinction between a man and his environment. Animals are purely appetitive, slaves to their desires, while men possess the will to shape the world according to their designs and to make sacrifices toward that end. The virtue of the spirited faculty is courage, the ability to bear up under adversity to pursue something of greater value. But just like the appetitive faculty, the spirited faculty does not pursue its virtue without direction from the rational faculty.

The rational faculty is the only one which naturally pursues its own virtue, wisdom. The rational faculty seeks the universal as opposed to the particular; it is the rational faculty which asks the question “Why?” not merely to predict the future and achieve practical ends but to understand. Rules, of mathematics, of science, of morality, are apprehended by the rational faculty. Furthermore, the rational faculty is capable of self-reflection, contemplating not only the starry heavens and the moral law, but also itself.

It should be obvious that the rational faculty is the naturally ruling faculty as well: not only does it know what the greatest pleasures are and how best to achieve one’s ends, but crucially, it also knows the rules of right conduct, which pleasures are right to pursue, which ends to be strived for, and which of these both to shun and avoid. The natural hierarchy of faculties also places the spirited above the appetitive, and the happy harmony of the rational, spirited, and appetitive faculties is the virtue of justice.

Readers familiar with Plato will no doubt recall certain problems with his moral psychology, most notably his twin contentions that men always will the good and that no one does evil knowingly. The first is practically a tautology, and the second is easily refuted by both experience and reflection: an unjust man, one whose rational faculty does not govern his actions, may know a moral rule and still violate it, and to say that he doesn’t really know what he is doing is an abuse of language at best. Neither of these contentions, nor their negations invalidate Plato’s system as we have described it. We can thus put these objections aside and proceed using Plato’s psychology to analyze Compassion.

Compassion claims that one ought to be compassionate, and compassion can be fit into either the appetitive or spirited faculties according to circumstance and one’s own prejudices. Most certainly, however, it does not belong to the rational faculty: it is not the compassionate part of a man which asks why he feels compassion. This means that compassion ought to be regulated and limited, certainly not given free rein, especially since extreme compassion can inhibit right action.

Consider the following scenario: you’re walking down the streets of Paris, enjoying a romantic evening with your wife. Suddenly, a group of men emerge from the shadows and approach you leering and brandishing weapons. A sentimental man may feel compassion for these fellows—born into abject poverty, perhaps driven from their homes by war, yet finding in their new home no prospect of gainful employment—but this feeling does not obviate the need, indeed the obligation, to defend against them, employing even lethal force if that is required. The feeling of compassion, along with the imperative to act on it, is out of place in this scenario.

Compassion is most pernicious, however, in placing man upon a slippery slope to self-destruction.

Any logician worth his salt can tell you about the slippery slope fallacy: if we accept X, then we’ll have to accept Y, and Z, and W, and so on without limit. In truth, however, there is no such thing as the slippery slope fallacy: genuine slippery slopes exist, and the “fallacy” is at worst a misidentification. X implies all its logical consequents, so if Y is a consequent of X, Z a consequent of Y, and so on, then if we accept X, then we must accept Y, Z, W, etc.

The slippery slope of Compassion arises from the fact that it places no limit on how compassionate one should be. The bum on the street, the youth in the ghetto, the hardworking dreamer crawling through pipes, the starving African child in Cambodia—all these and more are deserving of compassion, indeed demand it. Nor is there any bound on how much one should sacrifice: your wife doesn’t need that nice a ring, your children will do fine with a less expensive education, your house doesn’t have to be that big, you can survive on a less nutritious diet, your car will last another year just fine. There is no point at which to say, “I have sacrificed enough.” Compassion without serious judgment leads ineluctably to either Peter Singer-style self-abnegation or Peter Singer-style hypocrisy.

Astute readers will notice a similarity between the slippery slopes of Compassion and leftism, and this is not by accident. Lawrence Glarus is currently chronicling the SFSU strikes, and a similar pattern can be found in every pet leftist cause at least since the Second World War. Their opponents do not oppose the leftist radicals in principle, and the task of the activists is not to persuade anyone of the correctness of their views, but rather to berate their lazy compatriots into actually carrying out the programs they ostensibly espouse.

Ultimately, compassion is an impulse, to be indulged or restrained depending on the circumstances. Elevating compassion to the level of a moral imperative grants it a stature beyond its nature. Compassion is not a moral code at all; it as an anti-morality, forbidding the proper consideration and actualization of genuine moral duties.

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  1. I’m not sure the meat of this is fleshed out enough. Why do reasonable forms of compassion devolve into unreasonable ones? What is the cause of the slippery slope? I agree that much of leftism is neurotic compassion, but I am missing the flow of your argument.


    “the starving African child in Cambodia”

    Is that sarcasm?

    1. Yes, that part was sarcastic.

  2. Peter Whitaker April 13, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    This essay has ended in a miscarriage. The real object of your contention is not Compassion but instead what is called the demandingness objection. Excessive demandingness is an objection usually made against consequentialism. Your essay applies the objection to the deontological moral precept, “one ought to be compassionate.” Deontological ethics are usually considered as a less demanding alternative to consequentialism. The demandingness of Compassion can be limited in several ways. Perhaps the best form of limitation is a time limit. You describe the spirited faculty as having the ability to tolerate adversity in pursuit of goals, which the appetitive faculty cannot do. In other words, the spirited and rational faculties can perceive the future and can plan for it, but the appetitive faculty is limited to the present moment. If we consider compassion as an appetite, then it is in this way limited. The demands of compassion become far greater when it is augmented by the planning abilities of one’s higher faculties. With planning, the moral precept becomes, “one ought to put themselves into situations where one will be presented with the opportunity to be compassionate.” Without the obligation to use one’s higher faculties to plan for maximum compassion, one can live their life normally, and limit themselves to being compassionate when opportunities to do so arise spontaneously.

  3. Have you read Against Empathy by Paul Bloom? Some of the arguments are similar.

    1. Difference is he says empathy needs to spur people to action.

  4. The issue we get with compassion from the scholastics is that compassio is not caritas. Compassio is the feeling of sympathy one gets because you envision yourself in the situation of the other. It is inherently inward- and self-oriented. Caritas is the love of another because you love God and love the image of God in them. It is up-ward and God-oriented, therefore is the true expression of love for another. Compassio leads to navel-gazing and virtue-signalling because the object of compassion is never the other and always the self.

    1. Similar to the issue of the difference between pity and love. Pity is an emotion – a signal – about the condition of another person. But as a principle it births Munchausen-by-proxy. Extremely immoral by any rational standard.

  5. Love absent wisdom goes astray.

    Wisdom absent love puffs itself up.

    Those are a paraphrase of something I read long ago. They appear to be quite true as we see many instances of each in the past and in the present.

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