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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Compassion



Compassion (Latin cum=with, passion = suffering) or its Greek-derived equivalent sympathy (syn = with, pathos = feeling) shouldn't really have anything to do with right and wrong.  When somebody is suffering, it's irrelevant whether it's their own fault or not.  That's hard to do, actually.  When someone has caused their own strife we are inclined to feel less sympathy for them.  And yet, if we were the ones suffering, wouldn't we still want to be comforted?  Wouldn't we want those we love, our friends and family, to just give us comfort and support, even knowing that our travails are our own fault?  And if we would like that, how can we refuse it to others?

According to Frans de Waal, whose thoughtful, thought-provoking and eye-opening book (The Age of Empathy) I have just reread (for the third time), we are hard-wired to empathy and sympathy.

Some quotes from Professor de Waal:

The possibility that empathy resides in parts of the brain so ancient that we share them with rats should give pause to anyone comparing politicians with those poor, underestimated creatures

I've argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. Dogs are a good example of a species that have and obey social rules; that's why we like them so much, even though they're large carnivores.

In 1879, American economist Francis Walker tried to explain why members of his profession were in such "bad odor amongst real people". He blamed it on their inability to understand why human behavior fails to comply with economic theory. We do not always act the way economists think we should, mainly because we're both less selfish and less rational than economists think we are. Economists are being indoctrinated into a cardboard version of human nature, which they hold true to such a degree that their own behavior has begun to resemble it. Psychological tests have shown that economics majors are more egoistic than the average college student. Exposure in class after class to the capitalist self-interest model apparently kills off whatever prosocial tendencies these students have to begin with. They give up trusting others, and conversely others give up trusting them. Hence the bad odor.

Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof. What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone.


Sympathy and compassion are not weaknesses. They are strengths. They are what makes us human, and allow our vast human tribe to survive.  The hyper-competitiveness of the standard male model is dysfunctional and destructive, both to those who believe in it, and to the rest of us. We--our society--need something better.  I once thought that gay men, having had to come to terms with the fact that they are not (according to society) "real men", would have reinvented masculinity to tone down the selfishness and competitiveness and lonely struggle that straight men have to endure.  Alas, it's not happened.

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