Saturday, February 1, 2014

Compassion is Selfish

It's one of the odder memes out there, but one I stumble across with some surprising frequency.

Like, say, yesterday, when I bumbled across it whilst skimming an article in the New York magazine.  It was technically an essay about the moral implications of George Eliot's Middlemarch, one of those things that people in the Big Apple are evidently deeply concerned about.  I was idling my way through it, when suddenly out of nowhere, I read this:

"For a guideline about how to treat others, the Golden Rule is strikingly egocentric. It does not urge us to consult our neighbors about their needs; it asks us only to generalize from ourselves—to imagine, in essence, that everyone’s idea of desirable treatment matches our own. As such, it makes a curiously narrow demand on our imagination, and, accordingly, on our behavior..."

Not to take anything from George Eliot, mind you, although I'm not quite as ready as the author of this magazine article to structure an entire Eliotist ethical worldview on one of her novels.  But that line of reasoning has made it's way across my consciousness before, usually as part of some atheistic screed.

Treating others as you'd be treated yourself?  Inherently selfish, of course.  It must be, because faithful people do it, and it seems to be a powerful and sustained ethical thread across many of the world's faith traditions.  If you're atheistic of bent, that means it must be inherently flawed.  And so the very idea of being compassionate becomes warped into something mildly assaultive and imperialist.

The absurdity of this line of argumentation is hard to miss.  It is primarily absurd because in an effort to display ethical superiority, it willfully misses the entire point of both the Golden Rule and compassion.

It is apparently impossible to imagine that perhaps we want to be listened to and respected.  Thus we will from that "selfish" foundation choose to listen to and respect others.  I do not like being beaten about the head and shoulders with other people's worldviews, for example.  From that foundation, I don't do that to others.  I'll talk, and discuss, and even get into a heated debate if it seems that heat is going to be mutually entertaining.  But I will not inflict/stalk/assail another soul, because that's a fundamental Golden Rule Violation.  So. Very. Simple.

And yet seen through a thicket of deconstructive folderol, it becomes turned into something falsely complex.

Amazing, what people manage to believe.


  1. So not T. S. Eliot, but surely George Eliot… totally different person, gender, century, and who knows what else.