Various traditions have posited
compassion as a basic human endowment. For example, the Buddhist
teacher, Chogyam Trungpa maintained that the deepest ground of our
being is characterized by what he called "fundamental sanity,"
by which he meant that beneath all the fantasy and the endless
internal chatter lies a calm center which exists prior to and apart
from the endless stream of thoughts, fears, desires, etc. In this
view, through intentional effort one can shift attention away from
the chatter and self-centered striving and so make contact with the
"original mind"--an awareness free from seeking, free from
self-aggrandizement--a mind which naturally, according to this view,
feels kinship with all sentient beings.
For many people, this is a comfortable
idea, but it might be mistaken. Perhaps someone like yourself who has
"a colder and more arid view" is also in touch with some
kind of fundamental sanity, and that sanity—a psychopathic
sanity (I know you dislike the term, but at present there is no
substitute)—sees the world differently from Trungpa or Dr. Robert,
but perhaps not less meaningfully or less realistically. In fact, you
believe that your view is more accurate than mine, which
implies, in a way, that you believe it to be more sane.
I think the lesson here is that
probably the matter at hand will never be resolved. After all, the
human brain evolved to hunt, gather, and procreate, not to fathom
ultimate matters, so why would anyone believe that such a brain could
ever understand its own nature as a "mind." Anyway, I do
not necessarily agree with Trungpa. I think it more reasonable to
suppose that human evolution has provided for various kinds of
minds—some compassionate and some not—all of which were helpful
in the struggle for survival of the species, which is why those same
traits have perdured into the present. This is why I continue, unlike
most of my colleagues, to try to understand psychopathy as a natural
state of mind and not a "disease" or mental illness.
To answer your questions directly:
1. Like love (which perhaps you also
have never felt), for me compassion is both a feeling and
something I do in the world—a way of being with others, let's say.
For example, if I see a hungry person sitting alone in an alley, I am
quite likely to buy some food and present him with it. Why? Because,
requiring food myself, I understand hunger, and feel the suffering of
someone who is hungry. If I come across an animal with a thorn in its
foot, I will try to remove it—just as I would want someone to
remove a thorn from my foot.
2. As my behavior is not guided—not
consciously anyway--by any tradition, rule book, or statement of
religious principles, I would say that I am amoral. In fact, I
view conventional morality as a mode of social control aimed at
people who do not have sufficient intelligence to think for
themselves, just as I view doctrinal religion as a mode of social
control aimed a people who lack sufficient imagination to search for
meaning in life without requiring fairy tales to sustain that search.
I do, however, feel myself influenced by an ethical understanding
which is finds its roots in my awareness of the fragility of living
beings and their capacity for suffering.
Daniel, you have added a great deal to
this forum. Your questions are good ones, and go to show that one
does not require a capacity for remorse in order to think deeply. By
the way, you will find your helpful reply to the "young
Hello again, Daniel--
Yes of course questions about ultimate matters don’t exist outside of the human brain, and, because questions of any stripe are a human experience, neither does any other category of question, nor does compassion, which also is a human experience. That seems clear enough, so we agree.
In my own life, compassion was not something learned—morality or ethics can be taught and learned, but not compassion--but arose when I felt the full implications of ones absolute aloneness as a ego. I am quite willing to admit that such an experience may not be universal. Evidently just from reading some of the posts on this forum it is clearly and emphatically not universal. But that does not make it imaginary unless you want to torture the world "imaginary" by using it to characterize any thought or emotion whatsoever.
In other words, to feel compassion, like feeling love, is a human possibility, but perhaps not one which is available to each and every human being.
My argument about so-called "psychopathy" is simply that those to whom such experiences are not available are not necessarily somehow deficient—at least not all of them--but perhaps just different, and that as long as a psychologist insists on defining such differences as pathological, he or she will never fully appreciate or comprehend the psychological details behind them.
Empathy is a strong suit of mine, but I do find people like yourself a bit difficult to understand empathically, so I am forced to use whatever intellect I can bring to bear instead. I leave it to you and others like you to judge how I am doing in that regard. However, your sarcastic comments about the picture did not annoy me at all. I took your experience of the picture at face value—as a true reflection of what you felt when you looked at it. Everyone is different, and I am rarely—almost never--annoyed when confronted by such differences. In fact, appreciating the differences between one person and another, and seeking to explore them as deeply as possible is the sine qua non of the work I do.
Yes, I have gotten some nasty feedback from fellow psychologists, but the worst abuse comes from people who imagine that anyone who lacks compassion is automatically a criminal, and that I, by refusing to condemn such people wholesale, am simply encouraging them.
I think your open minded approach to colder fishes like me is refreshing. I imagine you get a lot of questions from so called socio/psychopaths for precisely this reason. Also your definition is simple and clear (if a person lacks what is thought of as a conscience, you consider them psychopaths) which is nice for those of us who can’t put an affirmative checkmark next to every item on Hare’s famous list. And you don’t consider people like me to be evil incarnate, which is always a plus. :-) I think you’re doing just fine in the psychopath empathy category.
Thank you for taking my response to that picture at face value. Again, really noticing my lack of instinctive empathy is new to me, so for a while after that initial interaction, I looked up a variety of pictures and videos online of human and animal violence just to see if I could generate feelings of disgust or righteous indignation or sadness or fear, etc. I did find some of it intriguing to watch, but no, even the infamous 3 Guys 1 Hammer video didn’t stir any great feelings of sympathy within me, although I didn’t like the gurgling sounds the victim made. The closest I could come to something resembling pity was wishing they’d go ahead and finish it already.
So for you, seeing absolute aloneness lead to a growth in compassion, while for me it did not. Fascinating. I don’t think compassion is imaginary per se. It’s no more imaginary than any other emotion. If you feel it, you feel it. And in modern society, compassionate action is made easier. Even so, I think compassion, like so many other emotions normals report feeling, especially love, can be a blinder if one isn’t careful. I imagine that outside of the safeguards of modernity, compassionate and love inspired action can be maladaptive in an environment composed of other selfish individuals.
Speaking of, you asked in one of your previous comments if I’d experienced love. I know I don’t I have to make any arguments with you about the subjective nature of love and how the definitions of said emotion differ among various groups and blah, blah, blah. You obviously get all of that already. I could say yes I have loved, but I gather that my experience of love would seem rather paltry comparatively speaking. I mean, I have what I think of as affection for a few people, especially my nieces and nephews when they were young. (Once they became teenagers they also became tedious in all of their never ending, hormonally driven drama.) But I can hear about folks dying or being gravely ill and not feel a thing for instance, family included. I of course change my facial expression and tone of voice to mimic concern since I understand this greases the wheels of social interaction. In fact, my family and friends consider me to be one of the kindest and most understanding people they know. Only my niece has seen a truer version of myself in recent years. She’s in her late teens and seems to fit the profile for what they call Oppositional Defiance Disorder to a tee. Unfortunately for her, she wears her aggressive feelings on her sleeves, which makes life difficult for her and almost all who have to deal with her. Except me. She never gives me the problems she gives others because I understand her and she knows that. I am relatively honest with her in a way that I’m not with most other people. Does that mean I love her? (That question is half rhetorical, half not.)
I’m also being uncharacteristically honest here on these forums because it’s anonymous and it costs me nothing. Everyone else in my life interacts with a series of masks I’ve honed since I was a teenager myself. And recently I’ve increased my deception quotient considerably as I considered implementing several ideas I’ve been mulling over. Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting here that I’m planning anything violent or even illegal. I just figured it was time for certain folks in my life to serve me, so I used the lies they live their lives by to my advantage. They’ll give me what I want without them ever knowing it. You might even say that they’re using my lies as an excuse to generate happy feelings within themselves. It was all too easy, absurdly so even. Some of these people are members of my family. Do I love them, these people I’ve lied to? I’d like to think I care for my mother, even though she’s one of the people I’ve deceived. I do care for her. I’d also like to think that I’d be upset if she died. But do I love her? I could say yes since there is no objective definition of the term. Maybe that means love is whatever we want it to be, like any other nonsense term. But like I said, when I compare my experience with what other people report when they talk about loving someone, perhaps I don’t. Perhaps I’ve never actually loved anyone else. I don’t really know. How would I know?
How do you know when you love someone? I don’t just mean romantically either of course.
For me, loving someone means that you wish the best for that person (or other species of animal, for that matter), and that you hope for him or her to find contentment and happiness even if that means that you end up losing out somehow. For example, a mother goes hungry so that her child can have something to eat.
The excellent British film, "Separate Lies" deals with just this theme, and I commend it to you if you can find it. If you do, let me know what you make of it.
However, as you rightly point out, love may mean something different to someone else--it is one of those words which defy exact definition. Much easier to say what it is not: not desire, not sexual heat, not need to possess, etc.
Thanks for making the effort to see the
film. I am glad you enjoyed it. And, yes, the movie was a classic
character study which was why I recommended it to you as part of our
conversation about differences in human character.
You wrote, "I love how reason and
science sweeps away the cobwebs of mythology whenever they turn their
piercing gaze on any subject, especially ones like religion, human
origins, and love."
Yes, science has great explanatory
value, but also has its limitations. Reducing all human experience to
mechanics fails to explain many things, and the best scientific minds
avoid such reductionism. This is particularly true in areas such as
beauty, poetry, love, etc. Evolutionary psychology is an interesting
field, but, in my opinion, falls very far short of elucidating the
origins of love and compassion. Speculation--even very intelligent
speculation--is not evidence.
I understand that it might be
comforting to someone who does not feel love or compassion to reduce
such experiences to mere operations of the brain--and in a way they are,
as I said in my last post--but human experience comprises enigmas
which the best science understands are unfathomable. For example, Max
Planck. 1932: "Every advance in knowledge brings us face to face
with the mystery of our own being." Or Sir Arthur Eddington.
1929: "We have learned that the exploration of the external
world by the methods of the physical sciences leads not to a concrete
reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods
are unadapted for penetrating."
This is because the brief of science is
to understand things which are quantifiable, but love and
compassion, when truly experienced, are quite beyond measure. This is
why universities have faculties of science and faculties of
arts and letters. This, by the way, does not imply anything
"supernatural." It simply means that science has no way to
explain our internal experience of the world, which might be quite
natural but also inexplicable. For example, science can analyze the
chemistry of an apple, and can pinpoint the areas of the brain which
are activated when one bites into an apple, but science has no way to
explain the subjective taste of an apple. To put this in generalized
formal terms: qualia are beyond scientific interpretation.
Now this is the very point you miss
when you ask, "How can we say what it's not if we can't say
what it is?" Let me explain. Suppose you were blind to the color
red, as many people in fact are, but you could see other colors. If
you came to me, who can see red, and asked me what red is like, I
would have absolutely no way to explain that to you. Speaking of the
wavelength of red or the receptors in the retina or the brain
(science) would avail not at all. The best I could do would be to
say, "Well, Daniel, red is a color but it isn't blue, it isn't
green, and it isn't yellow." This is what happens when a
psychopath (sorry, I know you hate that term, and I don't like it
much either, but have no other) asks me to explain love or elucidate
compassion. In fact, this happens sometimes in my practice. I am
reduced to saying what those experiences are not, which is,
basically, that they are not about getting your way, or achieving
your goals, or being satisfied, or coming out ahead.
I stress this point because while it is
true that fallacious cobwebs need sweeping away, and that good
science often serves as the broom, that does not mean that
love, compassion, beauty, poetry, etc. are fallacies, or can be
explained away by science. That is why I emphasized in my last post
that such experiences are not imaginary. A self-described
"cold fish" such as yourself might want to reduce
everything to science and logic, but doing that is like wearing
blinders which will screen your view from much of human experience, even if it is not your experience.
No, love certainly is NOT simply
cognitive in nature. That is the entire point. Love is a mystery
which is quite beyond explaining. That mystery has a particular
flavor which, once tasted, can never be forgotten. It cannot be
taught. It cannot be learned. It can only be felt and experienced (or
In the film, Bill felt no love at all.
He cared only for himself. But James truly loved Anne, and his last
gesture in the story demonstrated that love. His concern was not that
he had somehow been cheated, but that she might feel guilty for
having abandoned him, and he wished, motivated by his love for her,
to assuage her guilt and leave her happy even if he was not. Clearly,
as you stated, you would not be capable of such a gesture since, like
Bill, you care only for yourself, and would be more attracted to
vengeance than tenderness. Please understand that in saying that I
mean no disrespect at all. Having taken my measure by reading my
website and my replies to you, I think you already know that. I just
like to see things as they are without judgment either pro or con.