Altruism, Pity and Compassion

Significant (and ignored) differences

by W. Teed Rockwell

Part 2: Compassion

In ordinary speech, Pity and Compassion are more or less synonyms, but for the purposes of this paper I have made the following distinction between them. Compassion I define as its literal meaning: Com-passion; to feel with. A compassionate person is aware of the feelings of the people around her; when they are happy she feels their happiness almost as vividly as she feels her own, and when they are unhappy she also feels their unhappiness. Because she feels their feelings, she also naturally takes an interest in the ideas and beliefs of the people around her, and so she will, as a consequence, ask them the sorts of questions that will eventually make her aware of their thoughts as well as their feelings. If a compassionate person is around people who are pitiable, she will naturally feel pity for them. But she is not drawn to pitiable people more than to happy people. In fact she is far more likely to want to be around happy people, because she is so sensitive to the pain of unhappy ones.

Hume called this form of awareness "sympathy", saying (perhaps metaphorically) that all of us "vibrate" sympathetically to the feelings of others just as strings tuned to the same pitch will all vibrate together when one of them is struck. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition teaches that compassion is a unique form of awareness that centers in the energy around the heart chakra. It is thus a kind of sixth sense, according to this tradition, which provides a direct awareness of the emotional energy of sentient beings, just as the eyes provide an awareness of electromagnetic energy, and the ears provide an awareness of vibratory energy. There is, at the moment, very little scientific evidence for the existence of the chakra system. For those who do not feel comfortable in believing in something that has not yet been measured by scientific instruments, compassion can be explained as the awareness of people's feelings through ordinary sensory channels: changes in voice tone, skin color, speech patterns, etc.

Each person responds to these "vibes" in different degrees depending upon his or her personality. This is because each person is usually only aware of a small part of what he perceives. To some degree these variations are merely a reflection of personal history and taste: of three people entering the same party, one may notice the clothing of the other people present, another may notice the music being played, a third may notice the food on the buffet. But a morality which values compassion says that there is not absolute freedom as to where your awareness may rest if your soul is to be - what? Good? Healthy? Enlightened? Choose whatever word you like. A compassion-based morality claims it is necessary to be directly, immediately, aware of the feelings of the people with whom you interact on a daily basis: your family, business associates, even the people sitting next to you on the bus. A person may ignore clothes or music without damaging himself, but to go through life without any awareness whatsoever of other people's feelings is a recipe for self-destruction.

Many religious traditions have considered pity to be synonymous with the virtue of compassion, because it is when we are confronted with pitiable beings that we are most tempted to numb our sense of compassion. Unfortunately, if we yield to this temptation, our awareness will shrink, and this will make us narrower, more desiccated people. These terms are as unmetaphorical as any descriptions of feelings can possibly be; one actually feels smaller when in this state of mind, "boxed in", in a way that produces irritability, suffocation, and paranoia. Thus what is commonly called "selfish" is actually a terrible act of self-mutilation. Charles Dickens has shown the effects of this attitude in characters such as Ralph Nickleby and Ebenezer Scrooge: characters who hardened themselves to the sufferings of those around them, and consequently made themselves every bit as miserable as the people they were exploiting.

Of course, most people realize this at some level, and so do not numb themselves to the feelings of everybody they encounter. Instead, they establish compassionate bonds with a small number of people, and ignore the feelings of everyone else. The world becomes thus divided into US and THEM: those people with whom we have an I-Thou relationship and those with whom we have an I-It relationship. Seeing as this is what most of us in fact do, it might not be as easy to paint a rhetorical picture of this state of mind as a living hell. But it is extremely easy to make self- destructive choices as to who is US and who is THEM.

Should I maintain compassionate awareness only of those people who are useful to me, and break that awareness off whenever it is contrary to my self-interest? If I assume that my bonds with a person can be broken any time that I choose, those bonds were never really I-Thou bonds in the first place. Should my choices be based on family ties, or on culture or nationality? The popularity of this choice is responsible for the success of Mafia families and for almost every war between nations. Should my choices be based on rationally shared values? Ayn Rand lived by this formula and alienated herself from almost all of her friends.

It seems to me that there is only one genuinely viable choice, and that is not to make a choice at all. A sense organ that sees only what we want it to see is a sense organ that lies: to do its job properly, it must tell us what's out there, not what we would like to be out there. One must, in other words, maintain a compassionate awareness of everybody one encounters. One must see all the people one encounters as people, with feelings and thoughts. It is not enough to merely intellectually acknowledge that "of course, they have feelings, now that you mention it." One must to some degree feel their feelings and think their thoughts. The spiritual danger comes from denying our experience because at one particular moment that experience may be unpleasant or painful. When we damage the emotional antennae that make us aware of human feelings, they cannot be regrown at our convenience.

If the need for compassion is a fact of human existence, what sort of maxims does this imply to guide human behavior? First of all, it eliminates the foundations for both altruism and its alleged opposite, because the absolute distinction between self-interest and concern for others collapses. We cannot look out for ourselves and ignore everybody else, because in doing so we doom ourselves to a life of benumbed, mutilated loneliness. It is essential to our own self-interest to maintain an awareness of what other selves are interested in, and thus to feel their feelings and to some degree make them our own.

However, we need not assume from any of this that we are always obligated to respond to other people's feelings, any more than we are obligated to always respond to our own feelings. The compassionate person does not necessarily do what other people want, she merely wants to do what other people want, because to some degree she shares their feelings. A person who possesses compassion without wisdom would indeed respond, "like a Pavlovian dog, to the ringing of a bell from a sickbed" and would possess no life of his own. But a life governed entirely by impulsive response to compassion would be as self-destructive (and as ineffective at helping others) as a life governed entirely by the desire for alcohol. If I gave all of my grocery money to a beggar, and thus let my children starve, this act would not be right, even though it was motivated by deep feelings of compassion for the beggar.

People with wisdom realize that human finitude is a fact, and they take that fact into their plans. In order to have a life that fulfills both self and others, it is necessary to have a goal or an ideal of some sort, and to formulate plans and projects that will turn that goal into a reality. This is true even for people involved in what are thought of as altruistic activities. If one devotes oneself to nursing AIDS patients, one has made a conscious decision to let the starving people in Ethiopia die without lifting a finger to help them. Even Kant admitted that we cannot have an obligation to do the impossible, and seeing as we cannot solve all the world's problems, we have no obligation to do so. This means that we have the right to choose which of the world's problems we will devote ourselves to solving, and no one problem can say "You must solve me. I am too serious to be ignored." Does this mean that we could ignore everyone else in the world if we wish, and devote our talents to the ravenous acquisition of property and possessions, or, for that matter, the pursuit of knowledge? Some people would say no, because to do so would violate the commands of God and/or Kant's Moral Law, but I think that a more compelling argument against this course of action is that it condemns us to the cold loneliness of Nickleby and Scrooge. For the sake of our own happiness then, the wise thing to do is to find a way of working in the world which uses our potentials to their fullest, and keeps us in compassionate nourishing contact with other people.

Compassion and Abstract Values

The rewards of "altruistic" activity

The rewards of so-called altruistic work do not come from obeying some obligation to stop the world from falling apart. They come from the times when one actually succeeds in helping somebody. This satisfaction comes from two different sources. The first is the emotional "charge" that one receives from experiencing the happiness of the person one has helped. One can receive this charge only if one is in sympathetic compassionate contact with that person. When I was a Christian, I believed that I experienced this exhilaration because God was rewarding me for doing a good deed. But there is no need to posit supernatural intervention if we acknowledge that compassionate contact with other sentient beings is an essential nutrient for our souls, and that successful acts of charity intensify this contact in an especially potent way.

The second kind of reward which automatically comes from successfully performing a so-called altruistic act is the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done, which is essentially the same as the experience that comes from building a well-designed building, or learning a complicated and demanding dance step. A therapist or social worker who has used her skills to help solve a client's emotional problems feels an exhilarating sense of self-worth because she has accomplished something that is good in terms of her own values. This has nothing to do with being able to brag to somebody that one has accomplished something. The act itself, and the actor's awareness that it was performed skillfully and well, is intrinsically satisfying in a way that is independent of whether or not the act was acknowledged by anyone else.

Values - shared and unshared

These two goals of shared happiness and self-esteem are less easily met (both at once) when the activity is creative rather than "caring." It may seem that Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead cares nothing at all for other people, and only for buildings and the abstract values which determine how he builds them. This is why Rand refers to his values as "selfish". However, she makes it clear that Roark is inevitably concerned about the people who will eventually inhabit his buildings. When Austen Heller moves into the house that Roark designed for him, he says "... thank you for all the thought you seem to have taken about my comfort. There were so many things I notice that had never occurred to me before, but you've planned them as if you knew all of my needs. ... You were very considerate of me." Roark's reply was "you know, I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house...Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you." (The Fountainhead p.137). A building is by definition something that people live and work in, and therefore a well-designed building will take into consideration what the architect thinks is best for its inhabitants. Similarly, a well-made painting or symphony is designed for the edification and delight of those who share the values of the creator. In fact, anything whose creation is successfully governed by a value system will necessarily give pleasure to anyone who shares that value system.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that customers who share the creator's values actually exist when the work is created -hence the neglect and suffering which is Roark's story in The Fountainhead and the story of countless other creative people. The contact that a creative artist receives from an audience gives the same kind of nourishment that a doctor receives from curing a patient, and is every bit as essential for the artist's spiritual health. But there are frequently times when an artist must sacrifice the quantity of the contact for anticipated future quality. In other words, an artist must frequently create for a very small audience (and sometimes for an audience that does not yet exist), because she wishes to create an experience for them that only a very few people are capable of appreciating at that time. But an artist always suffers when she is forced to do this, even though it may sometimes be necessary. This suffering is often so great that an artist may decide to tailor her own values to appeal to an audience of real human beings, so that her art will be admired and/or paid for. To balance the demands of the ideal audience, who may exist only in one's mind for many years, and the real audience, with whom one could be in direct compassionate contact, is the hardest task that any genuinely creative person must face.

This same choice is present for anyone in any profession, not just in morally glamorous activities like social work or art. A person who manufactures ice cream because he enjoys doing it, and wants to give people the happiness that comes from eating really good ice cream, is faced with a choice of values very similar to any other creative person's: Do you create for an ideal customer, who may not actually exist, or do you give the customer that is already there what he wants? There is a very real satisfaction in knowing you make the best ice cream there is, and an equally real satisfaction in knowing that people are enjoying what you make. Some businessmen take the attitude of Willoughby MacCormick, who said about his spices "If you make the best, someone will buy it." Others devote themselves to market research and make only whatever the public is already buying. It is tempting for those of us in the so-called creative arts to think that we have a rougher time with this choice than do other professions. After all, a lot more people eat ice cream than read books these days. But everyone, regardless of his calling, must decide how much he adapts himself to the world and how much he persuades the world to adapt to him. It is the fundamental moral choice, and both Ayn Rand and Nietzsche did a tremendous service by showing the inadequacy of answering this question by saying only "live for others".

The view that we must live for others is neither true nor false, because it is confused. It is true that we cannot be happy unless our life positively benefits other people in some way, for we are by nature social animals. We define ourselves, however, by choosing our own specific way of benefiting other people. I claim that it is essential to sanity and survival that one's work eventually be experienced as valuable by a concrete social network of real human beings with whom one is in sympathetic contact. To live on the assumption that no one's opinions and feelings matter but your own is a useful attitude when one begins to define oneself as a creative individual, and it may be necessary to keep this attitude for many years in order to fully achieve one's highest goals. But it is a spiritually dangerous attitude to have, and anyone who is forced by circumstances to maintain it should be fully aware of the dangers.

Living compassionately with other people means engaging in a dialogue of values with them. During this dialogue we must maintain a sympathetic awareness of their values, while simultaneously keeping our personal values strong and consistent. To have this dialogue turn into a monologue is unhealthy for both the listener and the monologist. We must accept the fact that genuine dialogue always produces some changes in the belief systems of both parties that engage in it, and never results in one party completely surrendering her values to the other.

We cannot live in service of abstract principles alone without mutilating ourselves. Even though all of our highest values presuppose the goal of benefiting anyone who shares those values, it is not enough for us to perform our actions only for some abstract "ideal observer". We must be able to experience the benefits that flesh and blood human beings derive from our efforts. Nevertheless, it is also self-destructive to live the life of a "second-hander", which is only knee-jerk responses to compassionate impulses and/or the desire for praise. Abstract principles and compassion are both necessary if we are to live fulfilled lives - as is the wisdom to know how to balance their frequently contradictory demands.

An Addendum, Mostly About Money

I have developed the following diagram to summarize the main points of this paper. This diagram outlines the four possible combinations of two pairs of opposites: the social versus the personal and the universal versus the specific. At each intersection point are the names of two individuals for whom that combination is the highest value.

Social (primacy of others) Personal (primacy of self)

universal Kant - Ebenezer Scrooge

(one-on-many) Lenin - Donald Trump

specific Peter Keating - Howard Roark

(one-on-one) Mother Teresa - Ayn Rand

Peter Keating, the archetypical second-hander who is Roark's foil in The Fountainhead, exemplifies the position that the opinions and feelings of the people we encounter socially are the only source of value. So does the compassionate value system of Mother Teresa, although in a significantly different way. Howard Roark and Ayn Rand exemplify the position that each person must have their own personal value system, which must be completely independent from the social pressure of people encountered in daily life. Both of these positions, however, have values that are relatively specific, when compared to the service of an abstract "common good," which is the highest value for Altruists like Kant and Lenin. (i.e. Roark follows his own personal values, and Keating follows the values of the particular people around him).

I have already given my views about values which are Specific- Social and Specific-Personal in the preceding section of this paper, concluding that neither of these works if completely divorced from the other. I have also, in the section on Altruism, described the dangers of values which are Universal-Social, and thus make no reference to specific persons at all. It remains to say something about values which are Universal-Personal, with special emphasis on the medium that frequently gives this value an illusion of concrete embodiment: Money.

Our values must be rooted firmly in concrete realities, because "universal" values are dangerously empty. Our social lives must be built around the real people whom we encounter in our daily lives, not around some abstract "common good" or "Categorical Imperative". Similarly our personal goals and desires must be built around some set of values that define who we are. To be selfish without a set of specific, concrete values is not to have a self at all.

In Francisco D'Anconia's famous speech on money in Atlas Shrugged, he explains why it is impossible for a person without values to justify his life by accumulating money.

"But money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver. It will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires... Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: Money will not give him a code of values, if he's evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he's evaded the choice of what to seek....Is this the reason why you call it evil?" (For the New Intellectual p. 90; Atlas Shrugged pp. 411-412)

Unfortunately, there are far too many people who love money who make this same mistake, and many of them are powerful figures in the industrial and financial world: Men like Trump, Boesky, and Milken, for example. Because money has no intrinsic value, a person whose highest value is money is really what Ayn Rand calls a "lone Wolf" driven by "Selfishness without a self" (see Philosophy: Who Needs It pp. 56-63). The activities of a person driven by genuine intrinsic values will benefit himself and anyone else who shares those values; a person who values money alone will only be feeding an insatiable addiction.

Any profitable activity provides an opportunity to develop skills and make other people happy, if one is willing to see one's profession in those terms. It also frequently produces a surplus of wealth, which makes it possible to sponsor creative non-profit activities. A successful ice cream manufacturer can take the money that he earns from manufacturing ice cream, and use it to sponsor activities which he thinks are worthwhile but that don't turn a profit. These non-profit activities will inevitably express the personality and values of their sponsor. If the benefactor made his money by carefully following market research trends in boring or obvious ways, he will probably choose boring and obvious charity projects like the Red Cross or the United Givers Fund. Creative businessmen spend their money on projects which are as creative as the ways they found of making it.

What more could any "selfish" person want? (If we use Ayn Rand's definition of "selfish" as having a sense of self created by a strongly held set of personal values.) If all businessmen were selfish in this way, there would be very little need for government-run social programs. The amount of wealth and ingenuity that would consequently be focused on making a better world would be far greater than any amount of money ever spent by any welfare state, and the variety of positive visions that would be released by a free marketplace of social improvement would be far more colorful and exciting than any grey flannel utopia ever planned by a centralized philosopher-king.

Table of Contents | 1993 Issues | Subscribe

Truth Seeker | Feedback |

Credit card Orders call: 800-321-9054 or fax: (619)676-0433
Or send check or money order to:
Truth Seeker / 16935 W. Bernardo Drive, Suite 103 / San Diego, CA 92127
$20.00 annual U.S. subscription ($35.00 international). Individual issues—$10.00 + $2.50 postage and handling
Or be a committed freethinker and send $35.00 for a two year subscription.

Truth Seeker is published by Truth Seeker Co., Inc. (ISSN 0041-3712) © 1996