Altruism, Pity and Compassion: Significant (and ignored) differences

by W. Teed Rockwell

Two philosophers, Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, have denied the value of both Altruism and Pity, a fact which causes most people to ignore their numerous differences. While I agree with their evaluation of Altruism and Pity, there is a closely related third virtue, which I will call Compassion, the cultivation of which is a necessary part of my vision of what it means to be a good person.


Altruism is the opposite of selfishness; that is, it is devotion to the welfare of others. If we accept that all virtue has its basis in altruism, then virtue is thus considered to be the denial of self, and selfishness to be the root of all evil. If a person helps me in such a way as to help himself at the same time, this has no altruistic moral worth. Actions are morally admirable only if they involve some sort of sacrifice on the part of the doer. Kant took this principle to its logical conclusion, and said that even the desire to help people was morally neutral. Thus, if feelings of pity for a beggar prompted you to give alms, this was of no more moral worth than if the desire for a hamburger prompted you to take that same money and buy a hamburger. An altruistic action is thus not motivated by any desire whatsoever. Altruism is present only when all desires are sacrificed to a sense of duty.

To say that all virtue has its basis in altruism is to say that life itself is evil, for desire for something is the mainspring of all life. According to this value system, some of us are less evil than others, because we mutilate and mortify our desires from time to time, but anyone who is still alive will have a self, with dreams and desires of its own, and will therefore be selfish. As long as we live, we will continue to indulge these desires, and therefore will be necessarily evil.

The most destructive thing about this concept of virtue is that it makes most people think that no one can ever really be virtuous. Just as Puritanism produces prostitution, and teetotalling produces alcoholism, so the continual insistence that the Self is evil produces millions of "selfish" Selves. I once knew a young man who (among other vices) continually ran up unpaid phone bills on other people's lines, and frequently borrowed money that he never paid back. Once every few years he becomes a devout fundamentalist Christian, and talks continually about how all of us are sinners because we only think of our selfish little egos. He includes himself, of course, but he doesn't stress this strongly. He seems to enjoy the fact that in the eyes of God, the differences between himself and an ordinary decent human being are not that noticeable. Altruistic morality demands that everyone should try as hard as they can to do their duty, but common sense tells us that most of the time we can't. This encourages people to believe that "almost" is good enough in everything we do, and that mediocrity is the highest level that anyone will ever actually achieve.

This attitude is by no means limited to Christians, however. Political liberals and radicals have often believed (with varying levels of explicitness) that the system in which we actually live and work (called Capitalism), requires every person to either exploit or be exploited by the people he works for and/or with. According to this way of thinking, anything you get for yourself in a capitalist system is in some sense stolen from the people who have less than you do, and the only way you can morally redeem yourself is to give away what you have to the have-nots. Unfortunately, you can't give away everything you have without starving to death, and even if you did, it would only slightly help the millions of have-nots for perhaps a nanosecond. Consequently, what everybody ends up doing is keeping what they have and feeling guilty about it.

Slogans like "People, not Profits" imply strongly that anybody who was earning profits was necessarily hurting people, and that if more and more people became unselfish, the world would become a better place to live. However, seeing as capitalism supposedly guarantees that the unselfish people will be annihilated by the selfish ones, the goal of increasing the percentage of unselfish people in the world is doomed to failure, no matter how many people become converted in the short run.

This kind of altruistic duty is a much greater burden for the Agnostic liberal or radical than it is for the Christian. The Christian is permitted to believe that no matter how much injustice he sees around him, fundamentally "God is in his heaven and all's right with the world". If he does his part in the world around him (if he "loves his neighbor"), he can have faith that God will handle the rest. An Agnostic altruist has the duties and obligations of God which he must fulfill using the powers and abilities of a single human being. Is it surprising that such a value system would first drive a person to almost insane hysteria, which would eventually burn itself out, leaving only an embittered cynicism?

During the 60's, these attitudes actually stirred many young people to political action, although much of it was fairly unproductive. During the 70's and 80's, however, these very same attitudes were very effective in paralyzing any efforts at social change, which is why conservatives, not liberals, brought about most of the social change (for better or for worse) in those years. The reasoning that governed this paralysis was something like this: The system is corrupt, because everyone in it is selfish. I have to be selfish if I am to survive, and there is no point in dying because the system will continue corruptly on without me. Therefore I might as well take up my position in the system, but there is no point in pretending that it is possible for me to have work which will make the world a better place to live. It might be worthwhile to be sure that your daily work has somewhat less moral vileness than working for a munitions plant, but it would be hopelessly naive to assume that anything anyone would pay you money to do could actually have any positive moral worth.

This transition from committed idealist to cynical powerbroker has been gone through by the children of the rich ever since Marxism existed. While young, they become Marxists, and then when they mature they become just the sort of Capitalists that Marx taught them to be. These two attitudes can also be seen operating simultaneously in the San Francisco weekly newspaper called the Bay Guardian. Most of its articles are carefully researched muckraking pieces that demonstrate convincingly that everyone in America with any power has sold out to The Business Interests. The rest of the magazine is devoted to lists and reviews of various places to buy things from those business interests: articles which could all be subtitled "Ten new places to spend all of that money you don't deserve to have."

The writers and editors probably do feel guilty about the necessity to devote so much of the magazine to these subjects, for there is a thinly disguised cynicism that runs through all of these hymns to materialism. They probably justify this to themselves by saying that these pieces make it possible for them to get the muckraking out to these same people, which will hopefully make them somewhat less materialistic. But it is the muckraking which actually reenforces the materialism of the rest of the magazine, by continually underscoring the hopelessness of doing good in a corrupt society. The implication seems to be that you can't do good for others, so why not look out for yourself. (It must be said in all fairness that there are new perspectives manifesting in the Bay Guardian because of the distinction its writers now make between "Big Out-of-own Business" and "Small Local Business". The Guardian now runs favorable articles on business organizations such as Michael Phillips' Briar Patch Network, which teaches how it is possible to have "right livelihood" in a Capitalist society. I heartily applaud those at the who are encouraging this attitude, and hope it continues to grow.).

The basic assumption behind altruism might be phrased as: because greater love hath no man than he who gives up his life for his brother, anybody who is still alive obviously doesn't love his brother as much as he should. By forcing people into an either/or choice between morality and life, altruism has created thousands of amoral lives, lived under the assumption that morality is something that everyone talks about, but never actually lives by.


People who are more driven by their hearts than their heads often advocate a morality based on pity, rather than duty. Pity is the feeling of upset and misery experienced when one confronts a being more wretched than oneself. The feeling of pity makes a person want to help the pitiable being, unlike the sense of altruistic duty which makes a person believe that she ought to help the pitiable person whether she wants to or not.

Seeing as most philosophers are people of the head rather than the heart, there are almost no philosophers who have defended the ethics of pity, and quite a few (including Kant and St. Augustine) who have said that pity and morality have nothing to do with each other at all. There are millions of ordinary people, however, who feel that being moral means only one thing: Helping those people that you feel sorry for, and feeling sorry as often as you can. Popular Christian writers usually compromise by saying that pity and altruism should work in harness together: that of course it is virtuous to feel pity for the wretched, but that emotions sometimes desert us and we should continue to do the right thing even when we don't feel like it.

In one sense, Pity-morality requires less self-mutilation than Duty-morality, because it requires a person to continue to feel. In another sense, however, Pity-morality requires more self- mutilation, because it requires a person to feel bad. Doing one's duty is usually only boring: it might be actively unpleasant on occasion, but even then it requires one to stoically ignore this unpleasantness, not wallow in it. A morality based on pity requires you to act on other people's feelings as if they were your own, and not just any other person's feelings but only those of the most wretched people of the earth. According to the morality of pity, a truly moral person does not fill his consciousness with the thoughts of Shakespeare and the emotions of Beethoven; his soul reverberates only with the wailing of cripples and the moans of the starving. He does not formulate dreams and plans of his own; he merely responds, like a Pavlovian dog, to the ringing of a bell from a sickbed. If there were a God who had pity for the human race, he would have eliminated the morality of pity long ago. It requires every happy human being to soil his soul with the sadness of the most miserable, and thus multiplies human misery far more than any physical disaster ever could.

Pity-Morality and Duty-Morality both agree on one lethal point: Doing the right thing is not any fun. Both are opposed to the idea that morality could be defined as enlightened self-interest: that being good is actually more fun than being bad. There are people who verbally advocate something like Pity-morality and who themselves lead genuinely happy lives, but I will try to show in the next section of this paper that their morality is better described as a morality of Compassion. There is also the case of Mother Teresa, who is far too complex a figure to be fully explained by the few paragraphs I will devote to her here.

Anyone who values human achievement cannot dismiss or belittle her triumph over day-to-day human impulses. She is a genuinely heroic figure, and an inspiration to those of us who achieve heroism only at our occasional best moments.

Her morality is clearly motivated by pity, for she devotes herself exclusively to the most wretched and helpless, whom she calls "the poorest of the poor". She does not, however, appear to be driven by duty, but rather by some kind of inner prompting which she believes to be the voice of God. The most important thing for her is not to be obedient to some code of law, but to follow that inner prompting: as she said in the documentary on her life, "If it says to help the sick, you should help the sick. If it says to live in a palace, you should live in a palace." As we are talking about codes of morality here, this is not the place to either attack or defend a morality that is based on direct intuitions, rather than codes. At any rate, it is clear from the above quote that she does not believe that every human being ought to live the way she lives, regardless of what might be implied by certain interpretations of Christian scripture. She never condemns those who don't live the way she lives, and in fact she has rejected novices from her service who seem to her to have joined her order out of duty rather than joy. It also seems that she is a genuinely happy person who enjoys the life she has chosen for herself. When I saw the documentary on her life, I did not feel that I ought to help her, but I felt as if I wanted to help her, and I have never felt called to do that sort of work before. It appears that she genuinely loves people that anyone else would find completely hideous and wretched, and that anyone who comes in contact with such pure unconditional love is forever changed by it.

However, thousands of people who were capable of their own kinds of greatness have merely crushed what was best in themselves by trying to imitate hers, and millions of others have given up trying to be good entirely, because her form of Christian sacrifice was the only kind of goodness they believed to be possible. Furthermore, the heroism of her efforts should not blind us to the fact that she has done relatively little physical or economic good for the people she is trying to help. The few people who receive the loving attention of her or her nuns certainly do feel better from having received it, and will probably never forget having been in her presence. But a businessman who built a factory in her neighborhood, provided on-the-job training and medical insurance for the people who worked there, and made piles of money for himself in the process, would do far more to actually alleviate human suffering. However, advocates of the morality of altruism would dismiss that man's achievements because "He only did it to make a few bucks for himself" and advocates of the morality of pity (including Mother Teresa herself) would promptly turn their attention elsewhere, because the people there would no longer be pitiful.

The Foundations of Morality

It is, of course, far easier to criticize an existing system of ethics than to create a new one. Because I am going to articulate Compassion as a positive moral ideal in the next section of this paper, I must first say something about moral ideals and how they should be evaluated.

The traditional way to defend a new system of ethics from a critical onslaught is by sheer chutzpah: to claim that the creator of this system is God, or the son of God, or received it from God on a stone tablet of some sort. This kind of moral foundation is called an unconditional "ought." Kant also tried to formulate an unconditional ought based on reason alone, which he called the categorical imperative. After many months of reading the Critique of Practical Reason, I concluded that either he was wrong or I didn't understand what he was talking about.

Ayn Rand also believed that her morality was based on reason alone. Her claim was that a moral person made choices that aided his (nonparasitic) survival, and that because survival was something that was objectively measurable, morality was therefore based upon objective rational reality. "Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare and injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative life and death,so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative". (For the New Intellectual, pp.131-132).

Unfortunately for this position, Life rarely offers us two such simple choices. There are a variety of things which give us joy, and frequently the choice between them has nothing to do with physical survival. It is true that there are short-term pleasures which are destructive in the long run, and long-term satisfactions that can only be won by choosing short-term suffering. In these situations, the choice between short-term and long-term happiness can be seen as a question of the survival (or at any rate, the health and well-being) of the chooser. This is what Rand means by this passage.

"Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor, corrode your transmission and wreck you on your first attempt to move with a machine which you the driver have corrupted" (ibid p.132).

But there are many satisfying and exciting ways of earning a living, and the choice amongst them cannot be made on the basis of survival, because all of them are capable of giving their practitioners long-term livelihoods. Howard Roark designed buildings because he received more joy from being an architect than he would have from running a railroad. Dagny Taggart ran a railroad because she received more joy from doing so than she would have from being an architect. There is no purely rational method by which either one could have made the choice between those two activities. The reason Roark became an architect was in the long run he felt better building buildings than doing anything else, regardless of whatever short-term suffering his goals put him through. This does not mean that careful deliberation cannot be helpful in coming to a decision as to what would be a satisfying career. Particular "feeling-events" caused by occurrences in daily experience can be traced back to fundamental premises of value (what Aristotle calls irreducible primaries), and then analyzed rationally to see whether the connection is legitimate. (I am angry at a man whom I see beating a horse because I feel that kindness is valuable and cruelty is wrong. The man's behavior is genuinely cruel, therefore my anger is consistent with my values). But these primaries are themselves a deep fundamental kind of feeling, and that is what makes them primary, i.e. irreducible to rational terms. The deliberation which enables one to choose fundamental values involves not only rationality, but also what is called "getting in touch with your feelings". If one discovers through such processes that one feels better about designing buildings than about running a railroad, than one ought to be an architect.

Feelings are not, however, the same as whims. One of Ayn Rand's biggest mistakes was to confuse the subjective and the arbitrary, and thus to assume that a value system built on feelings would necessarily be totally chaotic. Feelings, like everything else in the universe, are what they are. There are laws that govern their behavior, and the person who does not learn those laws is destined to be destroyed by them. Ayn Rand herself had no real understanding of how feelings operated. She believed that if she felt strongly about something, her feeling was a logically deduced fact about it, primarily because she did not have a clear awareness of the difference between reason and rhetoric. Her "arguments" for the immorality of an action usually consisted of dishing out enough rhetorical abuse so that anyone would feel bad if he contemplated himself doing that action. Once she had done this, she then claimed she had rationally proven that the action was morally wrong. For those of us who believe that morality is based on feelings, this is a legitimate technique, within limits. By Rand's own standards, however, this is the worst sort of mysticism, and bears no relationship to the principles of morality she claims to follow. It is possible, I believe, to have a morality based on feelings which is not arbitrary or capricious, but it must be based on: 1) a knowledge of the psychological principles which govern feelings themselves;2) the articulation, using poetical and rhetorical language, of some sort of Ideal way of living, which stirs strong feelings in those who contemplate it; and3) the formulation of Maxims which describe the sort of behavior necessary to achieve this ideal, given that these psychological principles are true.The maxims should be formulated with as much rationality as possible, so that their connection to the Ideal can be clearly and logically seen. The Ideal itself, however, must be formulated in poetic language capable of rousing the reader to follow it and/or flee from its opposite. (Rand's novels do this brilliantly.) If this Ideal is formulated with awareness of valid and reasonably complete psychological principles, and the maxims really do describe the sort of behavior that produces the Ideal, people striving for the Ideal by following the maxims will lead rewarding and satisfying lives. If those principles are inconsistent or incomplete, the followers' lives will be damaged accordingly. What I intend to do is make some general statements about the nature of human consciousness, based on my lifetime of experience as a conscious human. (This activity is sometimes referred to by philosophers as phenomenology.) I will then try to show that given that these statements are true, a certain kind of ideal life would be possible if one followed certain maxims. The "ought" of all my maxims is thus what philosophers call a conditional ought: it is based on the condition that the ideal life I am describing is one that I believe would make you feel good. If this ideal life appeals to you, you would have good reason to try to live by these maxims. If it does not, I would strongly recommend formulating ideals and maxims of your own, and invite you to use whatever fragments of mine you like as raw materials.

End of Part One to be continued.

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