Reasoned Compassion

On upgrading our compassion-minus-reason machines.

Suffering has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because I've been suffering any more than is usual or necessary, but because my levels of suffering have been relatively low and manageable these past few years, give or take. It's not been a straight line of non-suffering, of course. There's always some there. And there have been plenty of spikes, some of them very recent. And there will no doubt be more. Just writing this feels like a premonition of a fresh bout on its voyage to me now. But it's just a feeling. And a feeling is not necessarily what is. And in any event, I know what to do with suffering if and when it gets here. I know its utility as an impetus for compassion. And I know what to beware of.

One of the things I know to be aware of, somewhat counterintuitively, is the distortion my own compassion can bring. I am as pro-compassion as they come. At least I think I am. Compassion is good. Compassion is great. Compassion is often lacking. We know this. (At least we think we do.) The distortion I'm speaking of is the manifestation of compassion absent reason.

When suffering overflows into compassion, or as we grow more adept at mining our innate compassion without suffering's spur, we arrive at our most beneficent, and perhaps our most magnificent. Or, as Nick Cave so eloquently put it in his latest Red Hand Files letter (which is what prompted my writing here): "The utility of suffering, then, is the opportunity it affords us to become better human beings. It is the engine of our redemption." But compassion without reason can cause suffering, too. It can be not only unhelpful but outright harmful. I know this, too, from experience. The list of bad ideas and explanations and arguments and decisions and justifications I've engineered with my compassion-minus-reason machine is long.

There is a danger in allowing our desire to alleviate suffering to masquerade as (intrinsically rational) compassion. There is a danger in thinking reason and effectiveness to be inherent in all acts impelled by compassion. Compassion, like all things left unchecked, can sometimes run amok. And it can do more harm than good.

To my mind, this is one of the many great challenges we face right now: How do we find our way through all the well-intentioned but ultimately irrational and illiberal compassion that is running amok? I think we do it by rendering our own compassion-minus-reason machines redundant. We upgrade to compassion-plus-reason machines, and we feed more of both raw materials into it. And I am compelled to think this, in large part, because I, too, am host to irrational and illiberal compassions. And I have seen the havoc they can wreak. So when I argue against this (and at times, I must admit, even obsess over it), it is also an argument against myself, i.e., my lesser self: those misguided and ineffective parts in me that, left unchecked, grow highly capable of adding to my list of bad ideas and explanations and arguments and decisions and justifications, and make me a worse person in a world that I've made worse in turn.


Notes:

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