Small-l liberals always go on about compassion, hailing it as the greatest of virtues (as Kim Campbell famously once did). As if to counter this sentiment, it is a commonplace observation among conservatives that compassion is the easiest of virtues. Lately, after personally observing the sordid dealings of a number of compassionate people that I have long known, I am compelled to go one step further and ask this question, is compassion even a virtue, however easy?
After contemplating the behaviour of these compassionate people, the answer I have come up with is no.
To see why, we have to first ask what morality itself is. I contend that morality is a collection of social rules that have evolved through the ages to prevent people from doing things that they want to do but that they should not do because they have a negative impact on other people and society in general. This is why morality involves mostly negative rules, “thou shall not kill”, “thou shall not steal”, etc. It is also why morality rarely exhorts us to do things that we want to do anyway. Morality doesn’t tell us to make money and have a lot of sex with young women. We don’t need morality to tell us to do that because we will do as much of that as we are able. What morality deos is tell us what to do when we are confronted with the choice between a hard alternative that is beneficial to the social order and the easy choice that is harmful to that order. In short, morality is there to guide our actions when somebody has our nuts in a vice.
So what about compassion?
To answer this question, let’s conduct a thought experiment. Consider a kitten that gets run over by a car. If you see that happen and you feel bad, you are demonstrating compassion, but are you being morally good? The answer is no, because you did nothing; you didn’t choose the hard good over the easy bad. In fact, you could do nothing. By the time you were able to react, the kitten was dead.
So, does that mean that an absence of negative feelings over seeing a kitten die is morally neutral? Well, it’s hardly something to brag about. The act of not empathizing with the kitten may be morally neutral but it is also strong indication that you are a sociopath - a potential danger to society because you can’t empathize with other people. And if you actually enjoyed seeing the kitten get run over, well that puts you into the 1% of mankind who are active sadists – the lowest of the low. Similarly, having feeling of compassion for the doomed kitten doesn’t make you good, but it does mean that you belong to the 95% of the human race who aren’t sociopaths. But finding out you belong to the 95% of people who are normal is hardly something to shout from the rooftops either. It’s like getting a good attendance award for showing up to work. Unlike the number of sociopaths in society, which seems to be fixed by the laws of genetics, the actual portion of people who are good and bad varies with the times. In good times, when little is required, the good greatly outnumber the bad. When the times change for the worse, and morality demands more of people, the proportions change, but the compensation for the fact that there are fewer good people in bad times is the fact that the remaining good people will be more virtuous.
In bad times, nobody cares that those compassionate people who I observed, and who precipitated this discussion, are compassionate. They only ask, what have you done? And that - not what you feel - is the real moral question.