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.

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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've actually thought about similar things for quite some time. My line of thinking led me to the conclusion that Empathy combined with logic and reason is the source of how we determine what is or is not moral.

Our biology leaves us with a mixed bag of fears, biases, compulsions, et al. The right combination at the right time feels right, especially if it's spelled out in the local social contract.

We're just mammals, doing what kept us breeding and surviving for millions of years.

Fantasy and romance will cloak the biology and make it more palatable but, in the end, if you do reason, you'll find that there is no universal morality. 

I do fantasy and romance, and am unrealistically optimistic, but I don't take it so far as to love Jesus or whatever. One foot on the ground.

What's a high order mammal? Is there a progression toward heaven from slime molds to H. sapiens sapiens?

Do some people have more, or more active mirror neurons? The ability to experience empathy varies greatly among people.

Whether compassion is, or is not, the root of morality will probably not really be discussed here.  One member will bring up 'game theory', another will say, " there is no such thing as free will - therefore no morality.  Another will say that morality is a moveable feast- with very little food.  One will say that the very idea of ethics is a christian plot.  

Then, some poor fool will dare to outline his own specific basis for ethical behavior, and the principles which he upholds.  Suddenly he will be attacked for trying to force his morals on everyone.  

So, talk about ethics, or morality, but be very, very, vague.  Don't suggest that you actually apply any control over your urges or desires; that would imply that the rest of us don't!  The only behaviors many members think could be immoral are those already illegal.  If something that IS legal is considered unethical by a member, he will be called intolerant and self rightious.  Then he will be told that his ethical system is just a religion.

I'll do it anyway!

Empathy is the beginning.  Imagine being in another's position.  Then compassion, when we recognize that we wouldn't want to be in that other's position, because they suffer pain, or injustice.  Then, ACTION!  Some forward motion to change our own behavior, so we are not the cause of injustice or the suffering of others.  Then try to make changes in social attitudes, laws, practices, etc. to promote justice.  

How compassionate we feel makes no difference in the world at large, until we DO something.

Slavery would still be practiced in the American south if abolitionists had behaved as many of our members think they should have.  They would have said, "Keep your radical opinions to yourself! If you don't want to own slaves you aren't required to.  Don't you dare say that my owning slaves is immoral.  Just live and let live."  

I can't help but notice the frustration in your tone. I am also frustrated. We seem to be incapable as a species of organizing into more virtuous, moral groups. It is a political problem and an individual problem and all the stages in between. And it is just that as well - a problem of organization. I'm working on these problems too, but if they were easy then they would already have ceased to be problems. Acknowledging the role of empathy is a good start I think, but I also agree with your sense of urgency and frustration that so little progress seems to be taking place on anything like an ethical plane.

"We seem to be incapable as a species of organizing into more virtuous, moral groups.

We do? You're working on it? You better let these people know.

There are literally thousands more. You are wrong that people can't organize into virtuous, moral, compassionate groups, because they already have, and continue to do everyday. Here's an interesting piece on the organization of compassion.

I often have to deal with people who are addicted to prescription drugs, usually started for pain.  Often, it's once crisis after another.  Or one excuse after another.  Recently, someone told me that in dealing with this type of challenge, someone has to be "the mommy" and someone has to be "the daddy".  I know that's a sexist description,  but it's what she said.  In other words, someone to be nurturing, dry the tears, put on a bandaid, and someone to say "time to get back on that bike and try again, a skinned knee is not a big deal".


I know that's over simplified, but it helps to say that not everyone who refuses a handout to a panhandler is mean and selfish.  I see panhandlers every day, literally.  Sometimes they stand by the road with their puppy, sometimes they are in groups, sometimes they have a sad story on their sign.  Sometimes they have a sign that says, "Why lie - I need a beer".  I feel bad for them.  When they have a sign that says "will work for food", I try to think of a job for them, but I really don't want my house cased out for theft, either.  I usually don't give to them.  I give to the free clinic and homeless shelter, but I don't give to people who I have no idea of what drugs they are on, what they are drinking, or who they have abused or been abused by, or what is their mental illness, or what is their addiction.


Not helping a particular homeless person or particular panhandler is not necessarily callous.  All of our resources are limited.  That face-to-face spur-of-the-moment giving of a dollar or a few dollars might feel good, but it might be the worst thing you can do for that person at that moment.  It's possible to be compassionate and have empathy and still not be codependent.


That being said, I have handed out some money from time to time, and I can't give a good reason as to why.

I don't think compassion is the basis for morality.

I think justice is. 

Compassion or Empathy are separate, distinct and different things from ethics.  It's human to feel empathy.  Sometimes people choose compassion over justice / ethics and forgive others' debts, but to say that this equals ethics is inaccurate.  Compassion and Ethics are two different dispositions.

Compassion is not bad in itself, altruism can be good if the intention is sincere, but there are many psychological projections and dynamics also going on in compassion that are not so altruistic.

In The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens made a solid case against Mother Theresa who exemplified so-called compassion by taking care of the sick and dying, saying that when asked about contraception and about family planning in a country as overpopulated as India, where she had to take care of so many orphans with so few resources and where there was so much misery and death, she replied simply that GOD would take care of the orphans and of the needy (which of course, God has never taken care of them, strangers do on occassion) and that contraception and family planning were not necessary or MORAL, that it was SINFUL to plan a family.

So-called compassion (or the psychological need to be considered compassionate) oftentimes breeds irresponsibility.  A civilized society encourages responsible citizens.

Compassion can also be ostentatious and make people feel morally superior, and the religious groups' false sense of moral superiority is another example of how compassion is not an accurate gauge for ethics.  It reveals (perhaps unacknowledged) reasons for openly displaying altruistic behavior (the white-missionary complex).

Ideas of morality and ethics have also been used by ruling classes ALWAYS to perpetuate their sense of legitimacy.  Confucian philosophy in China, for instance, places enormous emphasis on people knowing their place in the hierarchy and obeying their superiors.  These notions of morals serve no true ethical principle.

I think we should all be able to agree that

Ethics = Justice

An equal exchange of goods among traders is ethical, just.

Ethics also has to do with fulfilment of contracts, with being good on one's word, with a parent assuming responsibility for his or her child until it reaches adulthood.  RESPONSIBILITY.

These are all cultural, civilized concerns, whereas the idea that we're mammals, survival of the fittest, etc. are not ethical but natural ideas.

Ethics is a civilized, UNNATURAL phenomenon.  It requires the application of REASON, not instinct.  We sometimes hear religious people talking about 'natural morals', or about gayness 'not being natural', as if nature had some kind of moral authority.  Nature is ruthless, crude and violent.  Big fish eat small fish in nature, lions eat their prey and there is cannibalism in nature, even humans engage in it ... some birds starve one of their offspring so that the other may survive in nature.

Ethical systems are a sign of higher civilization and are NOT natural, they are manmade, artificial systems of ideas meant to curb natural impulses.




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