Saturday, February 4, 2012

Origins of Compassion

A small child slips and falls down a well, breaking his arm.  We feel a strong pang of compassion for the boy.  A grown man, after a night of drinking, walks out onto the thin ice of a pond and falls when it breaks, nearly drowning before he is finally rescued.  We feel very little sympathy for him.  In both cases, someone has experienced great pain and anguish, yet our emotional response is different.  Though they may seem to come to us almost instinctively, an expression of our purest selves, our emotions in fact precede from a framework of logic and reason, albeit one that is often hidden in our unconscious and only discoverable through careful analysis.

So why the different emotional responses to the circumstances of boy and the man?  The question is one of agency.  There is little a child can do to control his reality.  Even if it was unwise for him to have been playing near the well, his actions can be viewed in terms of a clear lack of intellectual and behavioral development.  Past a certain point, we cannot blame him for acting in the manner he did.  We would be assuming in him too much agency.

Like wise, our lack of compassion for the adult stems directly from the sense in which we assume in him greater agency.  He should have known better, i.e. because of his age, he should have been intellectually and behaviorally developed enough to have made different choices, and not gotten so drunk and taken a walk on think ice.

Interestingly, when human action is viewed in terms of agency, as a matter of intellectual and behavioral development, it becomes difficult not to have compassion for everyone; if there is a clear cause of their actions (their relative cognitive and behavioral agency), there is no reason not to mourn any suffering they cause, either to themselves or anyone else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is logical to feel less compassion for one who brings suffering on himself.  Which brings us to Mitt Romney, whose most recent campaign gaffe was to appear to be saying that he did not care about the poor.  It's debatable what he was actually saying, whether he was literally making that claim.  I'm inclined to believe that he - a profoundly religious man running for president of the free world - did not intend, in public remarks, to say that he didn't care about the poor.  We all know that sounds terrible.  But here's the thing: it is true.

Well, in large part.  It is an incontrovertible fact that Republicans embrace a view of human development and behavior that tends to view the poor as responsible for their own lack of success.  They will be the first to point to all the opportunities for success out there, and how this or that individual overcame great personal difficulty to find it.  The implication is that if you are poor, you are probably to blame for your own situation.  It is entirely logical with someone who has such a view to have little sympathy for the poor, i.e. to "not care about them".

Thus, much like our drunken man who falls through the ice, and relinquishes a good deal of our compassion, Republicans feel the poor have given up much of their claim on our collective sympathy.  In so much as this is true, there is no real moral weakness on display, just as there is no moral weakness on display when we feel more compassionate towards an innocent, suffering child than a stupid adult who "should have known better".

Now, we can argue against this naive view of human development by pointing to any number of empirical facts about how the brain develops, and how this process is determinative of individual human agency.  But until we win that argument, Republicans will continue to be perfectly morally coherent in not feeling compassion for those who they genuinely feel have brought pain on themselves. 

We can imagine a number of ugly reasons for why Republicans might stubbornly hew to this view.  Many of those reasons no doubt reside in the unconscious as biases, and are self-reinforcing and appeal to the worst of human nature.  But as with any unconscious process, because of its inaccessibility, it cannot be said to be a freely-chosen line of reasoning.  It is greatly ironic that the same appeal to the unconscious nature of human development and thought that points to compassion for those who seemingly make bad choices, is no less forgiving to those who fail to find their own compassion, as they too are likely caught in a causal web of unconscious bias.

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