Karen Armstrong, a leading popular historian of religion, was recently on the Bill Moyers program touting her “Charter for Compassion.” She argues that it all comes down to the Golden Rule, and the need for compassion – subordinating one’s own ego to see oneself in the place of another, to feel what the other feels. She says we are not a compassionate society.
I disagree on both counts. In an ideal world of ideal beings, compassion might be the standard to expect. But in the real world, it is asking too much, and is more than needs to be asked. We don’t have to feel compassion for each other. It’s enough to recognize each other’s right not to be interfered with.
We actually do have some compassion built into human nature by Darwinian evolution, because during our long early history, in very tough environments, a tribe whose members helped each other out would have survived better than an “every man for himself” tribe. But that same Darwinian competition also made us to regard strangers as potential enemies. So we are naturally compassionate toward those we consider “tribe-mates,” but not others.
However, we do not really need some kind of “Kumbaya” emotive bonding among strangers which, again, is not realistic to expect. We need merely an understanding that if you want to be free from interference yourself, then you’re obliged to acknowledge the same right in others. This we can reasonably expect of people. And that would be enough to make the world considerably better than it is now. An awful lot of our problems are rooted in a failure to recognize the rights of others to non-interference. (There’s a lot of contentious politics in that.)
So first things first. Let’s first achieve the non-interference principle. Then maybe someday we can progress from there to a higher stage of universal compassion. You must crawl before you can walk.
But, perhaps paradoxically, I also disagree with Armstrong that our society is fundamentally non-compassionate. We have, again, evolved to be compassionate in some respects, and people do subscribe to an ethos of compassion as an abstract ideal. We believe we should act better collectively than we do as individuals. Thus the very word “compassion” already has huge force in public debate, and we tend to support public policies that embody compassion (or that we think do so). That’s why we have had a social safety net. You can’t tell me we don’t live in a compassionate society when people vote to tax themselves to improve the situation of strangers less fortunate. But note that here again, it is not necessary to actually feel compassion for them, in Armstrong’s empathic terms, to support such policies. It’s enough to understand the moral and pragmatic bases for such policies. What counts is not what we feel, but what we do.