Suppressing Feelings of Compassion Makes People Feel Less Moral

It's normal to not always act on your sense of compassion -- for example, by walking past a beggar on the street without giving them any money. Maybe you want to save your money or avoid engaging with a homeless person. But even if suppressing compassion avoids these costs, it may carry a personal cost of its own, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. After people suppress compassionate feelings, an experiment shows, they lose a bit of their commitment to morality.

[emphasis mine]


It seems as if tolerating begging is effectively an assault on the public's capacity for morality. It's a complication to the moral dilemma of caring for those unable to care for themselves. Begging can be, in some cases, a form of organized crime where children a deliberately crippled to increase their effectiveness as cash cows. In other societies it's the only socially acceptable way for the disabled to survive. In times of disaster, public or private, it's the moral survival tactic of last resort, the other option being crime. I don't have any easy answers.


When people feel helpless and overwhelmed, facing the victims of war for example, this may be a mechanism by which survivors become hardened and lose their moral anchor. This fits with what Chris Hedges describes about how war changes us in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He says,

War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks just below the surface within all of us.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

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I would think so -- yes. I really like the post. I've been asking myself questions like this.

I joined this group because moral values is an issue between theists and atheists. It is a theist's argument that an atheist has no morals simply because we don't follow the teachings of god or jesus or whoever.
But each time I see a discussion posted, my fingers are poised at the keyboard. If feel I have a lot to say and yet nothing at all. I am confused by the issue and perhaps this is leftover from my catholic ex-husband. My moral status was his biggest argument and was the difference between us. He deemed himself moral simply because he was a catholic and I naturally had to be immoral because I was an atheist, I did not feel that this was enough of an argument because I always considered morality was how you conducted yourself regardless of beliefs. But this was something that was thrown at me for a long time and I never understood that he could say he was more moral than me considering that I felt I had more compassion than he and I had no hypocrisy towards what I am ie: a constant atheist and yet he was a catholic one minute and not the next and displayed hypocrisy at nearly every minute (adultery may be considered the biggie!).
I am quite tired of the argument and tired of defending myself on this issue - more so the religious one not the social one. I also have issue with what society deems as moral behaviour because we all have a difference of opinions and different rules are set in place in different locations to 'guide' people into acting right, so based on that statement we either need god's teachings or the governing law to guide us. My question is can we just do it on our own? What would we have become if left to our own devices?. And the fact that the majority are tied by law as to what we are allowed to do does not 'bring out the moral in us' but forces us to be moral simply by following the law and obviously, this isn't working either. What we practice in everyday life makes us moral or immoral, being nice or humane to others etc. but doesn't that mean that some of us are just nice people?.
In the same context, I like to be an advocate of the 99%. I believe that what is happening in the US right now abhorrent, but on the same level, I physically know so many people that take advantage of the system, that do not need assistance but are too lazy or drugged out to get a job and support themselves. When we talk about beggars in the streets I know of people that had a job, though only earning $250 per week (and under the table mind you) with lodging supplied, received food stamps which they sold for cash to buy drugs and then stood out on a street corner to 'beg' for more money to buy drugs. Ok so drug addiction being the problem there but most of these people touted themselves as christian in some way shape or form and yet have no problem (I'm sorry) being useless to society and in my opinion, this is immoral behavior. So how am I to react to a homeless person begging? Yes I know some have nothing for no fault of theirs, but how do you tell the difference between a scammer and a real one? I cannot morally feed a drug/alcohol addiction.
I guess I was unfortunate enough to see an America that most don't see, kids born in an environment of drugs, alcohol and violence. These kids basically have no hope in life, no good start and yes some climb out of the hole and make but a lot don't. Then these kids grow up to be a carbon copy of their parents. I could also go on about the lack of education and what that does to our society - another topic, same boat.
Perhaps the xtians have it right and we do need a moral code to guide us, the only problem is that hardly anyone actually follows that code to the letter and you are also open to different interpretations of that code. If we are talking the ten commandments, this guide is outdated and certainly doesn't cover all aspects of morality ie: I shouldn't steal but I can rape anyone I want.
So I think I have issue with 'how important is morality?' or 'how important is it to be moral?' and do atheists really need to bend to xtian's na na nanana agument that we have none. Or even bigger still, what is morality?, how do you define it? what is right and what is wrong?. I really don't know where to put myself in this issue. We all would love to say of course I am a moral person, but in saying that can you really say that you haven't done anything immoral in your whole life. Does one act of immorality make you immoral for the rest of your life? how do you redeem your morality if you have 'broken the code?' and of course we atheists can't go to church and magically repent our sins - like that makes a huge difference!!!! That is the most ridiculous cop out EVER!. I liken this to a criminal sent to jail and finds god there: "It's ok now, I am no longer a murderer because I found god in jail and I believe now so I am good".
I apologize for my rant, but as I said I am just so confused by this issue and not even sure that I should be worried about it. For one I refuse to defend my morals to any religious person until they can prove that they have lived their entire life being absolutely moral - and I am certain that the majority can't. I think my main problem is that I do think of morality as a religious issue rather than a social one. I don't have much faith in humans, our brains are too complex and varied in thought for any of us to be left to our own devices and just looking at what we have done to this planet and how we have treated our fellow man and animals, I just have to shake my head in shame. We are a foolish species and don't seem to be naturally moral in any way.

Hi Sandi! I understand what you are saying. I posted some discussions on ethics and morals because whenever I come out as an Atheist to anyone they assume that I am morally depraved and that I am willing to lie, cheat and steal (no telling what other stuff). I feel that I am good and moral without god and even more moral then the believers. I tried to get people to discuss that here -- but I don't think it took off. Maybe I should try again and state the discussion differently.

Hey Steph! I thought your discussion took off quite brilliantly. Or do you mean that you wanted to press the point that we as atheists are more moral than theists? Why don't you start this discussion in my group? I'll be happy to take a couple of stabs at it.

Sandi, you might consider the groups Atheist Morality and Beyond Morality. Others are interested in this topic too.

In How the Fundamentalist Mind Compels Conservative Christians to Forc... Valerie Tarico says

Religion has a set of superpowers—ways it shapes or controls human thinking and behavior. Chief among these is the fact that religions take charge of our moral reasoning and emotions, giving divine sanction to some behaviors and forbidding others.

The relationship between religion and morality is complicated. Religion claims credit for our moral instincts. It channels them via specific prescriptions and prohibitions. It offers explanations for why some things feel right and others feel so wrong and why we find the wrong ones tempting. It engages us in stories and rituals that bring moral questions to the fore in day-to-day life. It embeds us in a community that encourages moral conformity and increases altruism toward insiders.

Beliefs have consequences, and one consequence of evangelical belief is that decent people end up doing ugly things in order to recruit converts and save souls. It is because they care about being good that they do harm. In the much quoted words of Steven Weinberg, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The mechanism by which this happens is that religion creates a narrative in which the evil serves a higher good.

Doesn't this applies to Catholicism too?

Concerning your

... catholic ex-husband. My moral status was his biggest argument and was the difference between us. He deemed himself moral simply because he was a catholic and I naturally had to be immoral because I was an atheist,...

his Holier than Thou arrogance is part of a destructive mind game built into many religions. See my discussion The Atheism 1.0 Mind Game. By analyzing that dysfunctional distorted world view where everyone is either a victim, a rescuer, or a persecutor, you can step back and cast off that self-serving "righteousness" which makes one person feel morally superior only by tearing down others. Your ex was not only infected by a Catholic memeplex, he was shackled by a mind game which you are not!

Hey Sandi, nice rant! I mean that as an actual compliment, I like it when people say what's on their minds. The response I like to suggest to fellow atheists being accused of being immoral by theists is, "so without the threat of punishment or the promise of reward, you'd be a raving homicidal maniac?" I think that puts things in their proper perspective - we do what is right because of the outcomes they have, but whereas the immoral only accept external outcomes (threats, punishments, rewards), the moral accept internal outcomes. I.e., we wouldn't want to identify ourselves with behavior which we would consider shameful, unconscionable, atrocious, offensive, hurtful, etc. We want to be proud of ourselves and the others who we are close with for no other reason than that it feels good; we take pleasure in being good people on its own merits, so external rewards and punishments are at best a secondary consideration. Stick this argument in the theist's faces and see whether they have any traces of humanity left in them.


I think it is very important to codify our system of ethical beliefs, and based on this first distinction between internal and external consequences I am quite confident it can be done well and thoroughly. This is not to say that there is a perfect answer for every situation, but I'm absolutely confident we can do a better job by far of explaining morality than the theists do (especially considering that theirs is not really any explanation at all). I think we as atheists do have a responsibility to understand this crucial area of inquiry, not so much to defend ourselves from the mindless attacks of theists but to defend others from them, e.g. our children, and to demonstrate our ability to reason about morality and therefore to educate humanity and save it from religion. In fact I see this as a real calling, with the alternative being to offer up little resistance to foolishness and depravity and by our inaction to allow "evil" to happen.

I have quite a few friends and aquaintences that are religious people, and most of them have morals.  But my argument is that they didn't get their morals from the bible.

We all know the bible is full of pretty vile and horrible stuff that was commanded by god.  When you question religious people on these acts, they usually say that they don't believe thos parts, they only pick and choose the good and moral parts of the bible to live by.

My argument is: How do they know which parts of the bible are good and moral if they didn't have any morals to begin with?   My answer is that they already had morals regardless of the bible just like the rest of us. 

Now if you get a religious person with very low morals, they can justify pretty much anything they want to do by believing the whole bible.   Case in point: Rev. Fred Phelps.


I really believe the quote I read from Christopher Hitchens, and I spout it all the time:

Kind of paraphrased here:

In this world there are good people that do good things.

There are evil people who do evil things.

But for a good person to do evil things, requires religion.



Certainly, I would say compassion is a basis for morality, but more basic to me would be the ability to understand, intellectually and/or emotionally, the situation and resulting emotions of someone other than ourselves, in other words, empathy.  How often is it that we see those who dismiss the situations, opinions or feelings of others in favor of their own agenda and we wonder at their morality?  [Hmph, GOP debates for one!]  Morality is the recognition of the needs of the one AND the needs of the many and the attempt to balance those to an optimum result.  The action of true morality raises all boats at preferably minimal to no cost or deleterious effect.  That there can be untoward consequences in the attempt to act morally says that, very likely, no morality is perfect or absolute; there is no one solution.

Morality evolves as man evolves.  The torah or bible or quran are incapable of evolution, and on that ground by itself, they all should be eliminated from consideration.

Good point about empathy, Loren! I like your definition of morality.

As usual, I also like what Loren has to say - I usually do!.

"Morality evolves as man evolves.  The torah or bible or quran are incapable of evolution, and on that ground by itself, they all should be eliminated from consideration".

And thank you Ruth, I will check out the other groups too. I read back on my little rant and of course everyone's comments and I guess that I never realized how much my ex-husbands thoughts had deeply affected me and as usual letting out that suppressed emotion is always good. I will certainly takes the time to read the discussion in the other groups.

I guess I get a little frustrated with the 'holier than thou' attitude of theists.

Unless you're religious or a philosopher (more faith-based perspectives), you've probably concluded, using biological models, that there are no essences such as meaning, morality, miasmas, souls or great and jealous ghosts.

Our biases and social contracts arise from our psychology. Certainly, unless we're damaged goods, compassion (empathy), of one kind or another, is a common denominator within our species. 




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