Compassion: The Liberal Value that isn’t

Compassion: The Liberal Value that isn’t

One of the most flagrant politically liberal values (on the face of it, anyway) is compassion. To liberals, compassion for the poor and suffering signals socialism as morally superior to the dollar-worship they see as inherent in capitalism.

This is a tool for debate that we’ve introduced on the show before, and one of the most important points to keep in mind when arguing your side of things:

Frame your argument in moral terms

This is what the proponents of socialism are doing when they frame their arguments around compassion. They equate this supposed virtue with morality and expect the public to do the same.

Because who could argue against a virtue like compassion?

Nietzsche and the Argument Against Compassion as Virtuous

The influential and controversial philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is well-known in philosophy for being both horrifically misunderstood and for attacking some of the Western world’s deepest convictions. Compassion is one of these.

Compassion revolves around suffering. A compassionate person sees somebody suffering and wishes to alleviate their suffering because, to them, suffering is always bad.

Nietzsche contends that this conflation of suffering with badness is not only misguided but insulting. By attempting to frame someone’s suffering as bad only because it is suffering and going out of their way to stop it before it starts they’ve robbed the person of their ability to create meaning out of their own experience.

It’s through suffering that many people become stronger. Nietzche believes that suffering promotes growth and the development of a character defined by the ability to weather the inevitable suffering that life is bound to dish up.

Compassion is not empathy. In fact, it’s closer to pity. Empathy requires that you understand a person’s situation by putting yourself in their place. There’s no better way to understand the suffering of another person than by having gone through it yourself in some capacity. Empathy doesn’t judge something as necessarily bad, but compassion does.

To Nietzsche, then, compassion is presumptuous. It allows the person to elevate their moral sensibility through their wish to ban all suffering before it can take place.

Turning the Tables on Morality

With Nietzsche in mind, it’s hard to reconcile socialism’s emphasis on compassion with legitimate morality. Tolerance is another virtue espoused by left-wing ideologies, and in of itself tolerance is a hard virtue to argue against.

A focus on compassion, however, doesn’t square with tolerance. It’s presumptuous to assume that the suffering of another person is always bad and requires your (or, in socialism’s case, the state’s) intervention. In other words, because it gives another person’s suffering a value based on your beliefs about it, compassion seeks to rob that person of their ability to derive meaning from their own experience.

The ideological basis of many leftist arguments become, upon closer examination, contradictory. Instead of making yourself a victim, something discussed in a previous post, the ‘compassionate socialist’ argument seeks to contrive victims in places where there may be none. Not everyone who’s suffering needs your benevolence to relieve them, and anyone who does ought to be afforded the respect of being asked.

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