The Trivialization of Compassion

Bradley Shingleton

Compassion is an indispensible word in the vocabulary of religious experience and practice. Its emotional recognition, in situations of suffering and need, of a common thread binding life with life is both vital and potent. "He who feels no compassion," says a Hasidic proverb, "will become insane."

But in common parlance, we are witnessing its gradual evisceration. (To be sure, other words are endangered as well, but they must be defended one by one.) Compassion is becoming more trivial and emotionally cheaper, and is increasingly a shadow of itself.

Oddly enough, the hollowing out of compassion coincides with its profligate usage. Nowadays, "compassion" pops up in an array of contexts, from politics to personal relationships to consumer services. You can invoke its morally elevated connotations by applying it, adjectivally, to most any context. Though it continues to sound weighty, it is increasingly removed from its etymological roots in shared feeling. Instead, it now connotes a kind of generic benevolence, a patient, accepting outlook, a generous frame of mind, a tolerant, other-directed spirit. It is anything but censorious, and therefore is fitting for a pluralistic cultural climate. But these comforting associations take on more the flavor of greeting-card sentiment than that of a morally substantial emotion.

Compassion's current vogue tells us something about where we find ourselves at the moment, culturally, politically, and spiritually. It hints at something we hunger for. Politicians and their speechwriters—most famously George W. Bush in the 2000 election, with the phrase "compassionate conservatism"—have seized upon it as a way to soften the edges of an ideology of limited government. Though little was heard about compassion during Bush's years in office, it magically reappeared in some of the postmortem assessments of his presidency as it drew to a close. In particular, the speechwriter who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism" (Michael Gerson) has continued to flog compassion as a cornerstone of a revived conservative politics, to the continuing disapproval of some of his political fellow travelers.

Compassion has also been discovered in academic circles, particularly among political scientists and philosophers. Some of their explorations seem faddish and aimless, but others have produced serious work investigating what compassion has meant and can mean. For example, Martha Nussbaum has developed a detailed understanding of compassion in her 2001 book Upheavals of Thought; others have written productively on it as well.

Most recently, compassion has also been promoted as the basis for interfaith harmony in the Charter for Compassion project, an ecumenical undertaking promoted by Karen Armstrong and others. A reputable and best-selling author of several studies in comparative religion, including A History of God, and In the Name of God, Armstrong contends that compassion is deeply valued in every one of the major world religions; indeed, she claims it is "far more important than belief" in the life of religion. In fact, she writes, "all the great religious sages insist that compassion is the chief religious duty." Through the Charter for Compassion, Armstrong hopes to change the conversation among religious traditions, and "make it cool to be compassionate." Her call has met with mixed response. Some religionists have endorsed it without reserve; other observers have dismissed it as "well-intentioned silliness," a "Kumbaya movement," and a project that reflects "mushy thinking."

These diverse uses of compassion appear to have little to tie them together. Some uses seem particularly quixotic. How, other than rhetorically, is political ideology compassionate? Does that mean that government should strive for more social equality, or less? Does it entail more, or less, funding for social needs? Does it mean that civil servants will be more polite?

Philosophical and ecumenical treatments of compassion seem more worthwhile, but they present challenges as well. Some academic writing on compassion is helpful in explicating compassion's provenance and subtleties, but the prescriptive value of such analyses is not obvious. Ecumenical concern with compassion, virtuous as it may be, is complicated by the difficulty in translating it across traditions. Though Armstrong's Charter for Compassion states, on its website, that "compassion is central to all religions," neither the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion nor the multivolume Encyclopedia of Religion has an entry for "compassion"; there are only entries discussing the Buddhist concept of karuna (compassion). As a consequence, it is difficult to know how notions of compassion in different traditions match up with each other.

The pervasiveness of compassion-talk evidences a desire for human connectedness. Compassion is an emotional counterweight to our national concern with individual autonomy—one that, by being inherently personal, avoids the coercive impersonality of governmental action. But the nature of compassion is far from self-evident. Is compassion an emotion, a motive for action, or an action itself? How much can it be—should it be—concerned with addressing the practical needs of others? And, in an era of streaming information, can compassion realistically be anything more than a fleeting, passive spasm of sympathy, almost simultaneously triggered and suppressed by relentless reports of human catastrophe and then quickly displaced by another image?

Information media have much to do with this. They deliver images of suffering to us from the far corners of the earth to our living rooms. The image is near, the source is far. Events are primary, participants are secondary. Even if we want to respond in some way, there is not much we can do. Compassion is preeminently a visually oriented emotion, yet visual technology tends to evoke a passive, spectator attitude. Furthermore, the logistical hurdles to rendering assistance to remote locations are considerable, and there are so many deserving cases to address. And in some instances there is simply nothing to be done about suffering: the damage is over and done with, irretrievably, irremediably, and irreparably. It is easier to turn off the screen and go about our business. An odd dynamic is at work: at the same time as media increases awareness of the opportunities for compassion, it diminishes our confidence in being able to do anything about it. Can you imagine if the Parable of the Good Samaritan were televised?

You might call this the "inaction problem." If the observer cannot act on compassion, then it seems useless and ultimately worthless. Susan Sontag notes in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others: "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers." The more the occasions for compassion are mediated, the more evanescent the experience of compassion becomes. If you do nothing, compassion is a velleity. There is indeed something corrosive about witnessing suffering to which you are unable to respond. Emotion collides with practical reality—the impossibility of rendering aid, the incomparable convenience of doing nothing, the gradual narrowing, particle by particle, of concern to the doable and the familiar. Faced with this, the observer becomes calloused, resigned, or both.

This leads to another difficulty with compassion—the boundary problem. How far should compassion extend? If it applies to strangers, to those you encounter only through media reports, then compassion will soon exhaust itself. Contempt for do-gooders is rooted in a belief that they do not know where to draw lines. Without some way of restraining compassion, it is doomed to fatigue. It will spend itself in useless, unavailing gestures, vindicating the cynic's disdain for witless and pointless gestures concerned more with the needs of the observer than those of the sufferer.

The answers given this and other questions inherent in compassion suggest that there is not one form of compassion, but many. One kind is philosophical—typically associated with the Stoics, the ancient tradition recently rehabilitated by Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum shares the Stoic's concern to distinguish properly the situations deserving of compassion from those that do not: trivial losses do not qualify, neither do self-inflicted calamities. For the Stoic, it is important to limit compassion to appropriate persons and situations—those relevant to oneself. Of course, we can't know everything about the circumstances when we encounter compassion. We may be wrong about what has happened, and therefore wrong about whether the suffering is deserved and compassion is warranted. But that is a risk the Stoic must accept.

A different breed of compassion has biblical roots, and it has a decidedly different flavor from the Stoic version. Biblical compassion is visceral, emotive, and relatively disinterested in the circumstances of suffering and the moral accountability of the sufferer. In its view, physical and moral life are connected to a common creative source, endowing each living being with an irreducible minimum of value. This universal earthiness is reflected in the etymology of the Hebrew equivalent of compassion. In the Hebrew Bible, humans are enjoined to imitate God in being compassionate; indeed, compassion is in the very heart of God. In Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Abraham Heschel wrote: "The Tetragrammaton, the great Name, we do not know how to pronounce, but we are taught to know what it stands for: 'compassion.' "

Christianity shares in Judaism's embrace of compassion. Drawing on the second great commandment to love others, its scriptures proclaim a duty of concern for the neighbor. Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan, related in response to the question of who is a neighbor, leaves no room for customary preferences. According to some, Christian ethics is inescapably other-directed. It is nonjudgmental at heart. Biblical compassion sees, in a saying of Maimonides, the sufferer and not the suffering. It reflects a bedrock conviction in the co-inherence of life, rather than a preoccupation with moral gatekeeping. It is other-concerned and relatively indifferent to the individual interests of the observing self.

The contrasting versions of philosophical compassion and biblical compassion are obviously at odds about what compassion is and when it should be acted on. There are no easy ways of mediating between the two versions, for they both reflect competing aspects of self-understanding, at least in this culture. As Americans, we are wary about compassion when it threatens to undermine responsibility; it goes against the cultural grain. Stoic compassion fits more comfortably with the American myth of self-reliance and autonomy; at the same time, many people realize that unwavering enforcement of moral accountability in situations of personal catastrophe can be hardhearted. Scrutiny of the circumstances of individual misfortune can usually turn up evidence that the victim was, in some way or other, in the wrong, or at the least, imprudent. But this seems overly judgmental. Moreover, often innocent third parties are derivatively affected by catastrophe, and it is difficult indeed to withhold compassion toward them because of the blameworthiness of someone else.

As the empirical data collected by Robert Wuthnow, Daniel Batson, and others show, people, particularly in the United States, manage the dissonance among conflicting notions of compassion by selectively appropriating elements of each. While this is a workable way to deal with contradiction, it makes compassion too subjective and too tailored to our own biases and predilections. And too unconscious as well, and that is where the muddling—and the trivialization—worsens. All too often it is unclear whose interests compassion serves: those of the evaluating, discriminating observer, or of the victim in distress? Or both? The phenomenon of compassion fatigue shows that the ability to respond to a victim's needs is subject to limits—another version of the boundary problem. Such fatigue is readily understandable, yet how does it affect, over time, our moral and spiritual health? Under pressure, compassion tends to sentiment. Oscar Wilde's definition of a sentimentalist comes to mind: "one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it."

This is not to say that we must be well versed in theories of compassion, intently and scrupulously sifting through the subtleties of competing traditions each time circumstances invite compassion. It urges, instead, a recognition that beneath its smooth surface, compassion poses sharp questions whose answers tell us a good bit about ourselves. What do we, as persons, have in common with each other? How do we see each other? As economic actors, neighbors, psycho/physiological manifestations? What, as a result, do we owe to each other?

Perhaps compassion has a difficult future, primarily as grist for politicians and other rhetoricians. Perhaps there are too many of us; perhaps we are too detached from each other and are too preoccupied with a myriad of other concerns: economic anxiety, ecological destruction, terrorism. After all, what difference does compassion make? A simple answer is that it doesn't make any difference. Few legal systems impose any duty to render assistance to persons in distress. Victims of misfortune do not usually blame passive bystanders for their inaction. Those around you may think the less of you for your inaction, but that is not a particularly harsh judgment. There will always be suffering. We will always have the poor, and our children will as well. But dispensing with compassion does matter in one way. Without it, bit by bit, our grasp of the elusive, yet shared reality of humanness slips. John Donne saw in the diminishment of one person the diminution of all: "Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . ." We are also the less without it; we need compassion, untrivialized.


Bradley Shingleton, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (MTS '78) and Duke University Law School (JD '82), practices international law in Washington, D.C. His publications include Dimensions of German Unification (Westview, 1995).

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