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Nietzsche's Critique of Compassion

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John Hacker-Wright

on 22 February 2013

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Transcript of Nietzsche's Critique of Compassion

Nietzsche's Critique of Compassion John Hacker-Wright
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
University of Guelph Email: jhackerw@uoguelph Nietzsche's Critique of Morality Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is notoriously iconoclastic: attacking Christianity and, it appears, many of its core moral principles. This combined with his sister's attempt to associate his philosophy with National Socialism, has given his philosophy a decidedly dark appearance. Is Nietzsche really that bad, or just misunderstood? In this talk I want to explore an aspect of Nietzsche's critique of morality, which involves compassion, empathy, and pity. Nietzsche holds that these emotions, which many hold to be central to moral sensitivity and acting well, may actually play a much less positive role in human life than we think. "...the gentlest and most reasonable of men can, if he wears a large moustache, sit as it were in its shade and feel safe there -- he will usually be seen as no more than the appurtenance of a large moustache, that is to say a military type, easily angered and occasionally violent -- and as such he will be treated." Daybreak, 4.381. Situating Nietzsche's Views on Compassion within his Critique of Morality "It goes without saying that I do not deny – unless I am a fool – that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged – but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto. We have to learn to think differently – in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently." Situating Nietzsche's Views on Compassion within his Critique of Morality But why do we need to think and feel differently? To answer this question adequately, we need to see in detail how we are thinking and feeling, according to Nietzsche. His overall view, though, is that thinking and feeling in accordance with morality are harmful to us. We are psychologically deformed by morality and the pressure to attain good conscience. Compassion and Pity as Moral Emotions Part of how Nietzsche thinks we are thinking and feeling is: we feel compassion and pity. The German term that features in N's discussion is Mitleid (suffering-with). Typically, we think of these as valuable emotions because they motivate helping acts, which we value. So, what could be wrong with Mitleid? Mitleid in perspective Nietzsche thinks there is a difficulty in getting the phenomenon of Mitleid in view. There are two things that don't match up: 1. How we think of ourselves as thinking and feeling when we feel compassion. 2. How we actually think and feel when we experience compassion. Nietzsche thinks that we have thoughts and feelings that we fail to recognize.

This self-deception is not a problem per se -- it just makes it difficult to discuss compassion. Mitleid in perspective Nietzsche rejects: the view of Mitleid as resulting from realizing a mystical identity between two persons, what is nowadays called 'self-other merging' (Cialdini et. al., 1997) Instead, according to Nietzsche: Mitleid is a distinctive form of concern for oneself. Nietzsche writes: "An accident which happens to another offends us: it would make us aware of our impotence, and perhaps of our cowardice, if we did not go to assist him. Or it brings with it in itself a diminution of our honour in the eyes of others or in our own eyes. Or an accident and suffering incurred by another constitutes a signpost to some danger to us; and it can have a painful effect upon us simply as a token of human vulnerability and fragility in general. We repel this kind of pain and offence and requite it through an act of compassion; it may contain subtle self-defence or even a piece of revenge....how coarsely does language assault with its one word so polyphonous a being!" Mitleid in perspective Daybreak, 2.133 Daybreak, 2.103 Mitleid in perspective Essentially Nietzsche proposes that Mitleid is in service to the self to a greater extent than we generally acknowledge. Again, this is might not be a problem for compassion.

But if the value of compassion depends on it motivating us to act for another, then N's view does pose a problem for compassion. N thinks our compassion is conditional on the context in which we encounter the sufferer. If one or more of the following is not present, we will avoid the sufferer: 1 -- we can demonstrate our power 2 -- we can be certain of praise 3 -- we feel insecure and believe we can be made to feel fortunate by contrast with the sufferer 4 -- we are bored and believe that attending to the sufferer can relieve the boredom Mitleid as an Egoistic Motive Psychologist describe 1, 2, & 3 as reward-seeking motivations; 3 seems to be a form of aversive-arousal reducing motives (Batson 1991). The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis Psychologist Daniel Batson has carried out a research program over several decades gather evidence about whether empathy is fundamentally egoistic or altruistic. The empathy-altruism hypothesis: empathy evokes altruistic motivation (Batson, 1991, 2011) Testing the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis against Aversive-Arousal Reduction Batson tested the empathy-altruism hypothesis against aversive-arousal reduction by creating scenarios in which ease of escape from the sight of a suffering person was varied along with empathy. Batson found:

Only among individuals experiencing a predominance of personal distress rather than empathy does the chance for easy escape reduce helping. Suggesting that aversive-arousal reduction is not the best explanation of helping behavior. The Empathy-Arousal Hypothesis vs. Punishment and Reward Motivations Batson tested the empathy-altruism hypothesis against various versions of the suggestion that helping actions are motivated by the aim to avoid punishment or receive reward: 1. Socially administered punishments 2. Self-administered punishments (guilt) 3. Social and self-rewards 4. Empathic joy as a reward 5. Negative state relief In every case, Batson found that there was a strong correlaton between helping and empathy, as predicted by the empathy-altruism hypothesis; the helping was not varied by the manipulation of rewards or punishments. Back to Nietzsche Pace Nietzsche, empathy appears to be a distinct, altruistic motive; but it may be that we do not experience empathy as often as we think. Hence, Nietzsche's view could be reframed as: we convince ourselves that we are acting compassionately, though we are frequently acting from other motives. Further, there is much more to Nietzsche's critique of compassion... Altruistic motivation = having the ultimate goal of advancing another's welfare. Indeed, N. seems to be suggesting that self-serving goals constitute the ultimate aim of compassion, and the benefits to others are derivative.
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