The Traditional View of Compassion
Compassion for me simply means a concern for other conscious beings, whether those beings are other people, toads, whales, bats, or even slugs. Compassion doesn’t exclude any conscious being. This is usually obvious to everybody for non-human animals. Specifically because we never ascribe them moral agency. If a bear mauls someone to death, then it isn’t personal. Even the family of the mauled person probably wouldn’t hate the bear because they would know it’s just a bear doing what bears do. Bears have no concept of right or wrong. So we don’t hold them responsible for their actions the same way we do people. We might still kill that bear, but we wouldn’t do it out of hatred. It would be killed out of necessity and hopefully as humanely as possible.
Now people on the other hand are ascribed moral agency. People know right from wrong and it’s thought that they have the free will to choose between the two. So someone that chooses to do wrong is considered undeserving of compassion and possibly deserving of suffering.
Now in normal conversation I don’t feel the need to clarify words like “choice” with a lengthy explanation of how free will doesn’t actually exist, because 99% of the time it doesn’t matter. But “choice” is a leaky abstraction which causes problems in rare cases. I’ve written about this before in the context of Newcomb’s Paradox. As it turns out, compassion is another one of those rare cases where it’s important to be extremely clear about language like “choice”. So I’m forced to talk about the subject of free will again.
The Sensible View of Compassion
I’ve already debunked free will in two separate journal entries. You can go read those if you like. If not, I’m about to give a crash course anyways. If anything you’re about to read in the next section confuses you or you find it hard to follow, I suggest going back to my two previous posts dedicated to free will for some background. With that, I’ll continue.
Hate is Unjustifiable
Ask yourself, are you responsible for the fact that you weren’t born baby Hitler? If you think the answer is yes, then who exactly is the self that can take credit for not being born baby Hitler? It can’t be your present self with all your mental faculties and memories and moral principles because your present self didn’t exist when Hitler was born. How is it that you can claim responsibility for who you are now when scientifically we know that who you are now is a mere product of past events of which you had no control? You didn’t wire your own brain. And even if you somehow think you did, who wired the self that wired your brain? You see, pretending people have absolute responsibility is absurd.
So it makes no sense to take pride in not being Hitler. It makes no sense to feel shame for not being Gandhi. It makes no sense to take credit or feel ashamed for who you are now. You aren’t ultimately responsible for you. That would be circular. So when you’re tempted to hate an evil person, just remember “It’s only by mere luck that I’m not them.” When you deeply understand this, any satisfaction from evil people suffering goes away. You have to ask yourself “If I had been unlucky enough to be an evil person who harms others, what would I want to happen to me?” You would probably want to be incarcerated inside a facility with decent living conditions that could rehabilitate you, assuming you’re the kind of evil person that also breaks laws. Obviously not all evil people break laws and not all lawbreakers are evil.
In the U.S. some states still have the death penalty. When I see people cheering on the executions, it’s clear to me these people are very confused about free will. Once you realize that you yourself not being an evil person is mere luck, it just doesn’t make sense to stand there and cheer on the death of someone who is very evil. People just confuse themselves into thinking that everyone is ultimately responsible for who they are and they use that as a justification to hate others. But we know that’s not true. So the next time that you’re tempted to hate, know you’re being stupid.
Compassion Makes Sense
Compassion as the alternative to hate actually makes sense based on what we know about free will. And I’m not talking about the “I care about you because…” compassion. It’s a kind of compassion that you don’t have to earn. You get it for free just because you’re a conscious being. And there’s nothing you can do to become undeserving of it either. You might call it “universal compassion”, “unconditional compassion”, or “unconditional love”.
“Universal compassion” is rational even in the most extreme cases. Even if someone murdered my whole family, I would sincerely hope that I’d have compassion for that person. I wouldn’t want to hate them. I wouldn’t want them to suffer unnecessarily. Perhaps I’d be so clouded by rage in the moment that I’d want them to suffer, but I’m telling you now while I’m not emotionally hijacked that I would not want them to suffer. I would want the best possible life for that person and I consider wanting people to endure avoidable suffering as a sickness.
Compassion is also why I don’t ever feel good about people in my country going to prison. It doesn’t make me happy to see capitol insurrectionists sent to federal prison because I know the U.S. prison system is broken and unjust. It doesn’t rehabilitate people and it’s a disgrace to human dignity. I don’t care who gets thrown in there. Until the prison system fundamentally changes focus to compassion and rehabilitation rather than retribution, every single person in prison is being done an injustice regardless why they’re there.
Hate Masquerading as Compassion (Cancel Culture)
Okay, everyone knows prisons are hateful places. But the very worst kind of hate is the kind that masquerades as compassion.
I’ve seen young people, as their immediate first instinct, pull out their smartphones and record someone else who is being homophobic or racist or transphobic and later publish it to social media in an attempt to weaponize the social media cancel mob against them. Perhaps to make them lose their job, be ostracized from their community, or have total strangers think poorly of them.
Is Cancel Culture Helpful?
These smartphone-wielding social justice warriors who treat the social media hate mob as their own personal weapon fail to realize that they themselves are guilty of the very thing they’re attempting to expose. Is purposely mobilizing an online hate mob against someone any less hateful than being a racist? You’re not going to make go away by shaming people. You’re just making people uncomfortable to express it which pushes it into the shadows. It doesn’t actually disappear.
Let’s do a thought experiment and I’ve seen this happen before: An older lady shamed a young girl for her promiscuity. The young girl pulled out her smartphone to record the older lady and posted the incident on social media. In the comments, the social justice mob went after this lady: “What a horrible person. Nobody likes her. She’s just jealous of the young girl’s looks.” and on and on. Now let’s suppose the lady even saw the comments being made about her. Do you think she was encouraged to be more compassionate and understanding by random internet strangers telling her off?
Is stoking an internet hate mob really the best way to go about promoting self-reflection? Is that really what compassion looks like? Is that what justice looks like? I don’t think so. There are better ways to get people to self-reflect. People that do this clearly have bad motives. If it’s someone in a position of power being exposed like a politician or leader of some community, then obviously to some degree they’re signing up to public scrutiny. But when it’s done to Joe Blow, what good is coming out of that?
Lack of a Mechanism For Forgiveness
And don’t forget there’s practically no way to atone for your wrongdoing after you’ve been canceled. If your public racism gets recorded on video and uploaded and you get canceled, and then after some self-reflection you see the error of your ways, it’s too late. You’ve already been condemned. Everyone who saw the video already thinks you’re a racist jerk. Even if you make a formal apology, is everybody going to see that? And even if they do, will they believe that it’s genuine or will they think you’re just apologizing to get uncanceled? There is no mechanism for forgiveness because the internet never forgets and your mistake stands independent from any atonement or personal growth you’ve made since.
The True Motives of Cancel Culture
The people who cancel others already understand all of this though. They understand it’s very hard to get uncanceled. And they don’t care. Their motives aren’t really to expose injustice or solve anything. They have no interest in apologies or giving you a chance to atone. Their only motive is vengeance on the person they perceive to have wronged them. That’s it. They just want random internet strangers to take their side and hurl insults. If that’s not hate, then I don’t know what is.
In conclusion, social justice warrior style cancel culture is the antithesis of compassion. And the worst thing about it is it pretends to have compassionate motives, namely “fighting for justice”. Of course I’m not saying conservatives don’t also participate in cancel culture. They definitely do. I’ve just chosen not to focus on that for this entry.
Recognizing Compassion and Hate
Since people confuse something as hateful as cancel culture for compassion and fighting for justice, it’s worth talking about how to recognize real compassion and real justice. So here’s a litmus test for whether an act is hateful: Is the intent to cause avoidable suffering? If yes, then it’s a hateful act. Compassionate acts may still cause suffering. But that suffering is unavoidable. It would’ve happened whether or not the action was taken.
Take an example of a parent who spoils a child by never telling the child no. The child grows up a brat, causing avoidable suffering for others. It’s better to cause the child temporary suffering by telling them no so they don’t turn into a brat. But spoiling a child is not hateful because the intent is not to cause avoidable suffering. It’s common for people to be compassionate yet totally misguided. Misguided people cause avoidable suffering even though most have compassionate motives. So outcome does not always indicate whether someone is driven by compassion.
The mark of a compassionate person is when they do not relish in the suffering of people they dislike. There’s no need for them to be apologetic about it though if the suffering is unavoidable. Since it’s hard to know for sure whether certain suffering is unavoidable, compassionate people often err on the side of being overly apologetic or at least empathetic.
Misconceptions About Compassion
Now that I’ve talked about how to recognize compassionate acts, motives, and people, I want to switch gears and talk about some common misconceptions about compassion.
Compassion is Impractical
The most common misconception is that being too compassionate is a form of weakness and is therefore impractical. But the truth is the opposite. Letting other people make you angry or vengeful or hateful, that is weakness. That’s an impractical way to live a good life. If another person can control your emotional life just by doing or saying something, isn’t that slavery?
Compassion is very practical. It’s fully compatible with all worthwhile societal and individual goals. Even fighting wars and killing people can be done out of compassion. Given, it might be counterproductive to be in a “compassionate mindset” while fighting a war. Nonetheless, if the war is just, the combatant’s actions are compassionate irrespective of their mindset. There are also contexts besides war where killing someone is justified. If an armed gunman breaks into a home and starts shooting, the homeowner is justified in returning fire. Such an act reflects not hatred of the gunman, but compassion for oneself.
In the case of a school bully, you may think being compassionate would make you an easy target. But one should not equate compassion with letting yourself get picked on. That would be a misunderstanding of compassion. With a bully, retaliation can be the most compassionate thing you can do. Defending yourself is a form of self-compassion. Teaching bullies they can’t pick on others is also compassionate, even if it requires violence and the bully gets hurt temporarily.
Being brutally honest with people, even if it hurts their feelings, can also be a form of compassion. Letting other people deceive themselves is not compassionate. It’s true there are better and worse ways to burst someone’s bubble, but sugarcoating things is not compassionate. Often the intentions are compassionate, but the outcome never is. So as a brutally honest person, you might hurt people’s feelings more often than others. But chances are you’re going to do them a lot more good than people who are distorting their reality by sugarcoating things all the time.
My point with these examples is that being compassionate should not be thought of as being “soft”. Being compassionate need not conform to any particular personality type. Everyone is going to have their own way of showing compassion. You can be compassionate without emulating stereotypically compassionate people. And there are small ways to show compassion even when you’re forced into situations where you have to act violently such as in war.
There’s also no personal history that’s incompatible with deciding to be a compassionate person in the present. It’s not like “Oh I did this bad thing in the past so I can never be a compassionate person.” Your past never precludes you from being compassionate right now. This of course doesn’t mean you’re entitled to unlimited second chances from others. It just means you can always start fresh. Past hateful behavior and others’ negative perceptions of you don’t bar you from improvement.
You Can Force Yourself to be Compassionate
Another misconception about compassion is that you can force it. Traditionally, people think you must control your emotions by force. You must not let them get “out of control” or else you’ll mistreat others. This is a hoax. The true way to control your emotions is accepting them and letting them go. Paradoxically, control comes from accepting that life may not go the way you expect it to and there’s nothing you can do to force it.
You could get into a fatal car accident tomorrow. If you don’t die an early death, you’ll become old and feeble. You might develop a mental disorder and lose your mind. Everyone you care about will eventually die and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. One day, the last person who remembers you will die and you’ll be forgotten forever. There’s a good chance all humanity will destroy itself in the near future. Everything that matters to you will one day be gone.
I say these things not to depress you, but to get you to realize that there is nothing permanent in life. So the only sensible thing to do is let go. You can still participate in life and do all the things you want to do. Letting go just means you don’t have a stake in the outcome. You’re just going to do your best and accept the rest. That’s self-compassion.
I know it sounds cliché, but real change comes from within. Trying to “force” yourself to change is self-hate in disguise. Trying to force others to change is hate as well. This is usually obvious to the person you’re trying to force change upon unless they’re so guilt-ridden that they hate themselves too.
Letting Go Requires Awareness
I should also note that awareness is a prerequisite of the letting go I’m talking about. It’s not as simple as just letting go. Most people live life too dimly aware to even realize when they’re trying to control things by force that can’t be controlled. I don’t count myself as exempt from this. Awareness can come from a practice like mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness can make you a more aware, more compassionate, less reactive person.
The Social Expectation of Suffering
Then there’s also the social aspect. So many people are suffering and dissatisfied with life that it has become a social expectation. When the average person comes across someone like Eckhart Tolle who isn’t waiting for a reason to be happy, who is content doing nothing but sitting on a park bench for years on end, they deny that level of inner peace is even possible and attribute it to mental illness.
I’m not saying that Tolle isn’t mentally ill or is “fully enlightened”. But to me it seems whoever wrote that article about him went out of their way to mischaracterize everything he said, or at least, not give him the benefit of the doubt.
Despite what IrrationalWiki implies, there is no obligation to suffer when bad things happen. You are not a “better person” for suffering and your suffering won’t change the outcome anyways. Suffering more also does not mean you care more. If other people don’t understand that or they think you are a bad person because you don’t let events in the world perturb your inner peace, that’s their problem. You can try to help them understand how to have self-compassion, but at the end of the day, they have to give themselves permission to feel better.
To clarify, not suffering doesn’t mean you never show emotion. Even displaying negative emotions isn’t necessarily an indication of suffering. There’s a misconception that suffering is a direct consequence of pain. Actually suffering is a consequence of unacknowledged pain. It’s not allowing yourself to hurt when you need to that robs you of your peace of mind and makes you suffer. So please don’t interpret giving yourself permission not to suffer as never showing emotions or never feeling pain because that’s not what it is.
In conclusion, there’s no reason not to be compassionate to yourself and to others. And there’s no situation where it’s advantageous to act out of hate. Hate is fundamentally irrational. Wanting others to suffer needlessly or for yourself to suffer is only destructive. Nobody “deserves” to suffer. You should also never feel socially “obligated” to suffer. Compassion is the way forward for us individually and as a species. In fact I believe the survival of our species depends on us showing more compassion to one another.
Being more compassionate is not just a matter of knowing that hate is irrational on an intellectual level. It takes practice. That practice can take the shape of many forms. It could be setting aside your ego and apologizing to people you’ve wronged in the past. It could look like treating people you’re surrounded better, even in small ways. It could be practicing mindfulness to become more aware of your internal states and thus more accepting of them and compassionate to yourself.
Fortunately things seem to be slowly moving in the right direction. At least, in civilized societies, it’s already unfashionable to hate others based on their race, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. But we have to go much further than that. We have to make all hate unfashionable. We must also remember replacing one form of hate with another doesn’t solve anything. It has to be replaced with compassion.