Real vs. Counterfeit Compassion (Part 1)

I am no expert on compassion. To talk about it is easy, but to know it is to practice it, and there are others who practice it far better than I. This I know, however: “compassion” that strips away humanity is no compassion at all.

The Bible is a record of God’s compassion toward real people. The book of Isaiah, for example, rings with God’s call for care towards the hurting, the poor, the needy, the oppressed; for very often compassion is for those who are in struggles not of their own making. Jesus and his disciples demonstrated this same kind of deep love (the Greek word for it means something like being physically, affected deep in the gut, because of empathy) toward the sick, toward widows, and toward the poor.

And then there was for Jesus the compassion he felt for the spiritual lostness of men and women (Matthew 23:37-39):

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It’s hard to find one definitive, canonical passage on compassion in the Bible, as it is hard to find the one paragraph in the U.S. Constitution that most recommends democracy. It pervades it throughout.

What about the passages, though, in which God reveals judgment on those who reject him? How is that compassionate? Let me digress into another related discussion before I answer; the detour will be instructive; in fact, it could have been a topic all its own.

Sam Harris, best-selling author and member (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens) of the atheist Gang of Four, believes that human free will is strictly impossible, and that letting go of the illusion free will can support true compassion. In his April 2012 article “Free Will and ‘Free Will,'” he writes,

As we continue to make advances in understanding the human mind through science, our current practices will come to seem even less enlightened.

Ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate authors of their evil. This moral attitude has always been vulnerable to our learning more about the causes of human behavior—and in situations where the origins of a person’s actions become absolutely clear, our feelings about his responsibility begin to change. What is more, they should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to inherit the genes and life experience that will doom him to psychopathy. That doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up, or kill him in self-defense, but hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued.

We can acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action, the responsibilities of an adult and those of a child, sanity and insanity, a troubled conscience and a clear one, without indulging the illusion of free will. We can also admit that in certain contexts, punishment might be the best way to motivate people to behave themselves. The utility of punishment is an empirical question that is well worth answering—and nothing in my account of free will requires that I deny this.

The “difference between voluntary and involuntary action,” for Harris, is no difference at all, for in his articles and his books (especially Free Will) he consistently denies that there is any voluntary action. Humans do what we do because we are the sum of physical particles doing what they necessarily do, according to the unalterable dictates of natural law. We are not ruled by ourselves but by physical law.

This is a conclusion of science, he believes, though really it’s based on false presuppositions unrelated to the teachings of science. It ignores the basic data of human experience: that we make decisions: all of us, every day, all day long. This is basic to being human. It defines the difference between us and the rocks and soil on which we walk. They don’t choose where they go, but we do. Animals do not decide how to spend their time, but we do. More than that, we decide what we believe. Every writer who denies human free will writes to persuade others to believe in it, but everyone they convince, everyone who decides to agree, proves it’s wrong by making that choice. To choose, to decide, is essential to being human. [pullquote]Once you erase what’s human, what’s left to love?[/pullquote]

But Harris persists in denying free will, and he believes we can be more compassionate towards wrongdoers if we recognize they bear no blame, for they had no choice but to do what they did. I ask, what kind of compassion is this? Once you erase the human from the equation, what’s left to love? Suppose my roof gets destroyed by a hailstorm. I won’t hate the hail, for as Harris rightly says that would be irrational. But does that make it rational to be compassionate toward the hail?

Readers who sympathize with Harris will surely object to that analogy. “Hail is not human! It’s not one of us.” But if free will is an illusion as Harris says, then so is our humanness; and if humanness is an illusion, then so is everything related to it—including our commonality in it. If Harris wants to insist that free will is an illusion, he ought to insist that what goes with it is illusory too, including our common humanity. He won’t do that, though, even though it follows logically from his assumptions. The data of human experience is too overwhelming; the conclusion is too obviously wrong.

I don’t want this blog post to go too long, so I’ll finish this tomorrow. I’ll close today by recapping this article and previewing the next. I’ve briefly described the Bible’s approach to compassion and I finished that description with a question: what about the way God deals with wrongdoers? I’ve analyzed Sam Harris’s view of compassion and found it seriously wanting. Next time I’ll bring Harris’s and Jesus’ approach toward wrongdoing side by side for comparison, and I will show that although Jesus’ way is harder in many ways, it is far better.

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2 thoughts on “Real vs. Counterfeit Compassion (Part 1)

  1. Suppose my roof gets destroyed by a hailstorm. I won’t hate the hail, for as Harris rightly says that would be irrational. But does that make it rational to be compassionate toward the hail?

    what’s wrong with you? can a hailstorm feel pain? would it suffer if we could locked it up to protect ourselves as we do with criminals?

  2. Thanks for visiting and for the comment, banev.

    What I wrote here does not indicate there’s something’s wrong with me, as I think you’ll see as you read on. I am absolutely not suggesting it’s rational to be compassionate towards hail. I’m also not suggesting there’s something wrong with being compassionate towards humans who are suffering.

    My point is that Harris thinks the reason to be compassionate toward humans is because we cannot do anything but what we have done. But hailstorms can’t help what they’re doing, either. If that’s the reason for compassion, then it ought to apply equally to hailstorms as to humans. That’s absurd, as you have rightly noted, and as I also agree. Since it’s absurd, it shows that there’s something wrong with the reasoning Harris gives for being compassionate.

    So yes, I believe in compassion toward humans and not toward hail, but I do not believe Harris’s reason for compassion makes any sense whatsoever.

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