TCS Daily

The Uses of Compassion

By Lee Harris - December 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Since the capture of Saddam Hussein last Saturday, there has arisen a debate over whether we should feel sympathy or pity for his fall and subsequent humiliation; and no less a moral authority than a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church weighed in, asserting that he felt genuine compassion for Saddam Hussein, and berating the United States for its moral insensitivity in releasing the video tape made immediately after he was taken captive. This discussion made me start thinking about the use -- and abuse -- of compassion, and the first thing that came to my mind was a simple thought experiment.

Suppose you are walking down a street and you suddenly see an old man being beaten by two adolescents. You rush forward and chase away the boys and lift the old man to his feet. You see that his glasses have been shattered and that his face is bloody. Will you feel compassion for him?


Yes, of course you will.


But now imagine a friend of the boys coming up behind you and tapping you on your shoulders. "Hey, Mac. Don't you know who that guy is? He's the Butcher of the Balkans; and he is personally responsible for the death of hundreds of children, including those two boys' older brothers."


Will you still feel compassion?


If you are like most people, you will find yourself subjected to a sharp clash of emotions. On the one hand, you want to respond to the individual who is suffering right in front of your eyes -- the bleeding and humiliated old man -- and this response, at least for most of us, appears to be virtually hardwired into our nervous systems by the decency of our upbringing: we literally "cannot help feeling sorry for" the old guy, as the telling American expression puts it, meaning, Yes, I know I shouldn't feel this way, but I can't stop myself -- any more than I can keep my leg from jumping when a doctor taps my knee at just the right spot. It is, so to speak, like a natural reflex.


On the other hand, there is a part of your mind that resists this automatic outpouring of sympathy. It tells you, "Don't pay attention to what is in front of your eyes. Try to focus on the children that this old man condemned to death. Let their suffering blot out the image that is so vividly and palpably before you."


Instinct and Imagination


The clash that occurs within us at such a moment is caused by a conflict between our moral instincts and our moral imagination. The former is automatic and unthinking; the latter is deliberative and reflective. Our moral instincts prompt us to emote and to act; our moral imagination causes us to stop and think.


Our moral instincts are exhibited in their purest form during our day-to-day conduct with those strangers that we chance to interact with on a face-to-face basis, and it is wholly and exclusively absorbed with what is immediately in our presence. When we hold a door open for someone, or try not to jostle them with our elbow; when we help to her feet an old woman who has slipped on a wet floor, or reach an item on the top grocery shelf that a child could not reach himself, we are responding generically to the Other simply as another human being, and do not trouble ourselves with whether the particular individuals we are helping are "worthy" of such respectful consideration. We do not first ask whether the old lady we are lifting to her feet beat her kids unmercifully or was unfaithful to her husband, or, indeed, whether she might have slipped him arsenic in his tea. We do not ask because we do not care; and we do not care because, at the moment, she is the one in need, and we are the ones in a position to help her. Hence to begin asking ourselves, "Does this old lady really deserve my help" is to set off on the wrong track: it is to engage the moral imagination when what is called for at the moment is the moral instinct.


Our moral instincts operate on the exact same principle as an emergency room in a hospital: you help those who need help, and help those the most who need it the most. Hence you do not trouble yourself with the particular moral history of the patients that come to your attention: the man with the severed artery may be a serial killer, while the girl with the mild abrasion may be a living saint, but it is the severed artery that demands your immediate attention, and it is the abrasion that can patiently wait.


Should we lament that we are made this way? Not at all, since otherwise none of us would ever lift a finger for a stranger, nor pay any mind to the suffering of those who were not already intimately known to us. We would require a detailed history of anyone before we would judge them worthy of our assistance, and if we could not be certain that they deserved our help we would not offer it to them.


In short, no one should be ashamed to have felt a stirring of pity or compassion at the fall and humiliation of Saddam Hussein: such feelings are the natural result of the automatic moral instinct that compels us to reach out and try to help those whose suffering is immediately before our eyes -- as Saddam Hussein's suffering was rendered before our eyes on the video tape made after his capture. Such feelings are simply a moral reflex whose general utility is so self-evident that we are willing to accept the fact that occasionally this reflex will be directed toward those who scarcely deserve it, like Saddam Hussein himself.


Our Full Moral Humanity


Here is at the point at which the role of the moral imagination becomes clear. It does not exist as a substitute for the moral instinct, but rather as a check upon it. The moral imagination permits our moral instinct to go to work, to busy itself with the task at hand-picking up the old man and wiping the blood from his face and even giving him medical attention-but it refuses to accept the verdict of the moral instinct at face-value. The moral imagination sees the humiliated figure of Saddam Hussein, and it acknowledges the automatic stab of sympathy; but it refuses to let this stab of sympathy be the last word on the subject. Because the whole purpose of the moral imagination is to remind ourselves that our moral sympathies cannot be exhausted in the here and now, in the immediate present, but must be expanded to take into account the claims of the past and the future as well as the present, and of those who are invisible to us as well as those who are right before our eyes. We see only Saddam's face, but the moral imagination compels us to evoke the faces of those whom Saddam butchered and terrorized, to force ourselves into visualizing them as vividly and keenly as possible, so that their faces will command our moral attention, rather than just the flesh-and-blood face of their murderer. But this is a difficult task, especially when there are so many victims' faces that our imagination is taxed even in trying to evoke a handful of them.


Yet it is a task that we must all force ourselves to accomplish if we are to become true moral agents, and not merely moral automatons. We must not only react unthinkingly to the suffering before us, we must take into consideration the suffering that we cannot see, and especially, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, when the visible sufferer was the cause of so much invisible suffering. But the only way we can do this is to keep our moral imagination in good repair, and to refuse to permit our moral instincts, no matter how well-meaning, to displace our capacity for reflective judgment. We must feel, but we must also think -- otherwise we fall short of our full moral humanity.



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