A reader wrote objecting to my recent post on tattooing, faulting me with a want of compassion for the victims. I’ve answered his specific objection in the comments, and would point to my other entries in the comment thread as evidence that I am not altogether heartless, but here wish to say a few words against compassion.
Ungoverned compassion is a vice. This is to say that it is bad to indulge an automatic and indiscriminate impulse to alleviate suffering because suffering is often Gnon’s rod of correction. Compassion does have its proper objects—children, the feeble-minded, true victims of circumstances beyond their control; but when compassion is extended to improper objects it retards progress by preventing education.
In his famous essay “The Forgotten Man,” William Graham Sumner writes that the drunk should be left in the gutter because that is precisely where he belongs. Now Sumner was a eugenicist who expected the drunk to die in that gutter and remove himself from the breeding stock. I’ll take a somewhat softer approach and say that there are times when a gutter can teach a drunk more than any Good Samaritan can. Indeed, I believe the reform of a drunk is more often accomplished by reaching rock bottom in a gutter than it is by receiving tea and sympathy in some Bowery mission.
Like all of the secondary virtues, compassion is a vice if it is not governed by justice and prudence. And ungoverned compassion is also an Achilles’ heel.
This is the great theme of Raspail’s Camp of the Saints, the 1973 novel that foretold the third-world invasion of the West. At one point in the novel a hardened Russian general looks across the Amur River and predicts that, when the Chinese invasion of Siberia begins, it will be lead not by soldiers, but by women carrying babies and followed by their children. The general was a veteran of the Second World War, and so knew how easy it was to kill a German soldier. But looking across the Amur River, he understood that his troops would not shoot women and children.
The Revolution always advances behind “women and children” because it knows that ungoverned compassion is our Achilles’ heel. It has learned that fear hardens a man and prepares him to fight, whereas pity softens and a man and prepares him to be fleeced. I know I have given more money to phony beggars than I have to real muggers, and I expect you have as well. And this is why the shock troops of the Revolution are not warriors striding through clouds of mustard gas, but rather the wretched of the earth (real and spurious) striding through clouds of pathos.
The moral question of the man in the gutter is not identical to the moral question of Chinese women and children crossing the Amur River, but the correct answer to both question involves ordinate compassion. Not the inordinate compassion that so many in the West, Christian and non-Christian, nowadays equate with personal morality.
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Perhaps compassion is a virtue for the hard-hearted and a vice for the sentimental. It all depends on circumstances.
No, it is not. The argument you present is relativistic in nature.
Saint Thomas Aquinas comes to our rescue. He talks about the Principle of the Integral Good, which says that “for something to be good it must be good in its totality: object, subject, circumstances”.
For compassion to be good it must be guided by the virtue of prudence, which allows the subject to know what to do, and in which circumstances, to attain a certain end. The ultimate end of any action should be the salvation of our soul (and the souls of all around us). This explains why inordinate compassion is a vice: because if it is not ordered towards this ultimate end, it may lead people away from the path of righteousness, which leads to God.
Inordinate compassion comes in many cases out of a self-serving desire to feel good with oneself. For example, I give money to the lazy man who asks for coins (instead of asking for a job) because I want to feel that i am a person who cares for others. When the right action is tough, painful and in some cases dangerous: approaching the man, telling him that you can guide him to the nearest employment office and offering him assistance in the job search process.
This past Lent, I arrived at the shopping centre bus stop with my groceries, and with my crucifix hanging outside my shirt. A woman sitting there took one look at me, and asked if she could have $3 for her bus fare home. I gave it to her. Saying that she would while away her long wait for the bus inside the centre, she took herself off around the corner. I checked the timetable, and I, too, had a long wait for the bus, so, toting my load, I followed in her tracks around the corner, to see her getting into a cab. I walked up beside the cab, tapped on the window, and to her startled response, I shook my head, wagged my finger, and tut-tutted. Then I walked off.
What should I have done?
Is a person with a tattoo in the same category as a drunk in the gutter?
Didn’t Christ have compassion on the blind beggar?
Sorry this took so long to approve. As I said, there are cases that demand compassion, blind beggars being one of them. No amount of begging will correct blindness. My first argument is that compassion is a vice when it prevents the natural feedbacks of suffering that correct voluntary behavior. A fool who is protected from the consequences of his folly remains a fool. My second argument is that compassion is cancerous when it results in self-annihilation.
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The commenter’s closing salutation in that comment is a tattoo of sorts. Modern people are always saying there are Really Important Reasons for the disfigurement and degeneration they perform upon themselves, others, and society at large. Granted there is a permanence of sorts with tattoos (and abortion and euthanasia and…) that make it challenging to shame tattoos without shaming the tattooed (in a hate the sin, love the sinner kind of way). Offering a job or helping hand along with an invite to church is wonderful advice. But it’s also a side issue. The very existence of tattoos upon the tattooed has a way of escaping into the culture and assaulting the common good. The common good should react in kind.
I’ve given this a “like” based on the title alone. Now going to go read the article, which i will share on Facebook – again, the title alone is strong enough to present a wisdom that many have never heard spoken out loud.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Yeah, right. Does anyone happen to know any candidates who fit this bill? I don’t. But then, saints are thin on the ground. I mean by “saints,” those who actually seem, to the rest of us, to be living the Gospel as expressed above. Even Hillel’s version – do not do to others what you would not wish done to you – is difficult, but the Golden Rule is impossible to live up to, at least while raising a family in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Perfection of the Father is a leap beyond that again.
All in all, Christianity would be impossible, except that we may continually bring our failures to the throne of Grace. If the extending of that grace were dependent on the determination to reform, how many of us would be eligible?
So we teeter on a balance of practicality. Can we lift the drunk out of the gutter? What then? Should we convey him to his home? What if his family dread his drunken return? Or what if he has no home? Are we to bring him home? Are we to take him to some “charitable” shelter, perhaps financed mainly by taxpayer largesse? At least, in all of these questions, we are considering our own actions of immediate effect on a person whose immediate needs confront us. We are not, or at least not primarily, signalling our virtue. We are not demanding that “someone,” that is, someone else, do something for people our only contact with whom is through our television or computer screens.
In our person-to-person charitable challenges we may well take actions that have unfortunate unforeseen consequences. All our actions, though, have unforeseen consequences, both for others and ourselves. Some of those are only realised most of a lifetime, or an entire lifetime, hence. There is no predicting them, and we are not called on to do so. We can only respond in conscience; consequence belongs to God. Or so it seems to me.
In a sense it is trivially-true that ‘inordinate’ anything is a vice – but here-and-now the point does need making that *any* virtue exclusively pursued is a sin; and that universal compassion (based on mere hearsay, from dishonest sources, with zero personal knowledge or experience of what is the advocated subject of compassion) isn’t a virtue in the first place.
Reblogged this on Defense Issues and commented:
Ungoverned compassion can be a greatest danger. Left is exploiting compassion to destroy Western civilization. Compassion can lead to not recognizing the danger until it is too late, and it is all too easy to manipulate the compassionate people.
The Catholic Church teaches that there is rightful anger and sinful anger. The former involves a right cause, a right amount and a right manifestation of it. The latter is a consequence of any part missing in the rightful anger.
Same applies for compassion.
Non-christians become easy victims of inordinate compassion. Had the west not rejected catholicism, there would be no mosques in Europe, immigrants would either become catholics or would go back to their home countries.
Thomas Fleming of the Rockford institute and Chronicles magazine used to use the phrase “pornography of compassion” to describe the left-liberal attitude.