Compassionate deeds are praised highest among all deeds. There is no greater love than that man lay down his life for his friend. There is nothing more noble than sacrificing what one has for the sake of someone else.

Wait a second. Why?

On some levels, it is obvious that compassion is “noble,” in that it permits the entire system (society, or otherwise) to have better experiences at the expense of a few people having worse experiences. We can see how it might be considered a virtue if someone cares more about the sum of all experiences, than just about his own.

But disregarding inequalities in the amounts of pleasure and pain that exist: why should someone give up pleasure (or suffer displeasure) for the sake of someone who themselves is only out for the same thing (to seek pleasure and avoid displeasure)?

It seems that there may not really be a higher ideal lurking behind this idea.


6 Responses to “Compassion”

  1. Isn’t the amount of please and pain the whole point?

    A: “Does anyone want the last piece of pizza? I’m not that hungry, but I don’t want it to go to waste.”

    B: “I am still hungry.”

    A: “In that case, have the last piece.”

  2. Some people don’t think so. That’s why I’m raising the question.

    Many people think that it’s noble to sacrifice your own pleasure for the sake of others, regardless of the quantities involved. But unless they definitely gain more than you lost (or you love the person so much that they gain the gains, and you gain good feelings), why do we value this behaviour?

    Is it perhaps because we implicitly feel that people should love each other enough to generate the above scenario?

  3. I should have just opened with this:

    If I had to prove empirically why compassion should be valued objectively, I would try to show that cooperation has been the better choice (or the choice of least evils) for everyone involved throughout history. I don’t know if this would actually turn out to be true.

    Sometimes a group of people has power over another, and there is nothing stopping them from making the underdogs completely disappear. I would feel morally obligated not to abuse power because I would think about what it would be like if the tables were turned. I see your point though–that this is based on upbringing rather than rational thought.

    It seems intuitive that we should be nice to each other to minimize revenge when we pull the short straw.

  4. Well OK, hold on a second here: I don’t want to short-circuit you, but I think I’ve gotten away from what I actually meant when I wrote this post. This is about to turn into a discussion about *the* general problem of morality.

    I actually didn’t mean to raise the question of “why should we do unto others?” That’s a question that can keep all sorts of otherwise sane people sitting around in circles for years on end not doing anything unto anyone.

    The point of my post was to draw attention to the fact that we only seem to have one dual-aspect commodity: pain / pleasure. The valuation of “sacrifice” and other noble deeds (helping poor people, etc.) is often valued as “something more” than just a matter of pleasure or pain.

    But what is that thing? What is the “higher” thing that we have gained? Have we not just dealt in apples? There seem to be no oranges. We can buy, sell and trade in pain/pleasure but we can’t seem to offer anyone anything more than this, even by sacrificing ourselves in the most glorious way. All it’s going to do for the sacrificee is buy them more earthly pleasure or suppress earthly pain.

    And this drags in some of these religious ideas. Because what’s the point of going to heaven? What’s the point of being in God’s presence? It seems like all you can hope is that you’ll be eternally happy in heaven. So in the end you’re still dealing in the same transactions from start to finish, if you believe in heaven. You’re accepting earthly pain for delayed heavenly pleasure.

    Now you can try sticking in community, or love, relationship, or worship of the most high God. But the only reason I want to spend time with you is because it makes me feel pleasure. If I didn’t like you I wouldn’t hang out with you. If I didn’t enjoy singing hymns to God I wouldn’t do it, UNLESS he threatened to burn me in hell if I fail to love him, in which case I do it do avoid pain in the afterlife.

    The problem is obvious: pleasure and pain are raw, base, subjective, felt experiences. They don’t have any objective truth value. They don’t have anything ironclad or cosmically significant about them. Yet everything we do reduces to this. It seems to prevent us from taking ourselves seriously in much of what we do, and it would seem to nullify these religious ideas that try to inject something “higher” into the equation. It makes the whole thing absurd.

  5. Right. I got a bit off there. In the back of my mind I knew you were targeting the religious angle of this more than anything.

    I’m not very good at being religious, but I am supposing the rebuttal would be that the afterlife blows our earthly perceptions of pleasure/pain out of the water. The consequences of what happens after death are to dictate what we do here on earth.

    Jesus led by example: sacrifice is noble no matter how ineffective it is at reducing pain or increasing pleasure in another person. I agree with you that it’s absurd in earthly terms, but how can you argue with someone who believes that the message is being sent down from above?

    I can see how the above could sit still enough in someone’s mind. What I don’t get is the arbitrary quantities. If someone dies in battle to protect the freedom of millions in their country, whereas I make sure I go to church every Sunday and avoid curse words, do we both get the same spot in heaven?

  6. This still isn’t quite what I meant, though. First off, secular people do value sacrifice and “nobility,” acting as if it is something more than simply transferring your pleasure to another person. But what’s that something more?

    And even if heaven blows our pleasure sensors out of the water, it is still just pleasure. The implication is usually that these moral qualities are something “more.”

    “Set your mind not on the things of this earth. Set your mind on the things of God” – but if the things of God are just really big versions of the things of earth, it is hard to see where this is going.

    Of course it does not make sense for you to try to rebut me on this point. Don’t feel compelled. If nobody shows up to defend it then nobody shows up.

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