The Limits of Compassion

on April 30, 2011

Trying to make sense out of the stream of statements and press releases from Anonymous can drive you nuts. One moment they’re waxing all idealistic about North African revolutionaries or Bradley Manning, and the next they’re saying things like “Anonymous is not your friend” or “One thing you must know about Anonymous is, we only do it for teh lulz. We don’t care about your miserable life.”

Because of the hivemind nature of the group, in which everyone and no one speaks in its name, a certain amount of cognitive dissonance is probably inevitable. And yet I’m starting to suspect that what we’re seeing may not be simply a matter of competing agendas — that calling evil-doers to account on a global level and displaying a studied contempt for individual angst may be two sides of the same coin.

If there’s a paradox here, it’s much the same as the paradox inherent in the trickster figures who inhabit our most ancient myths. The trickster’s antics can be crude, outrageous, and even actively hurtful — yet they frequently have important and creative results.

In fact, mythic heroes of every kind are given to transgressive behaviors that would never be tolerated from any ordinary member of their society. They have sex with their sisters, insult their grandmothers, and are regularly lewd, vulgar, and obnoxious.

It was only after the mythic heroes were elevated into gods that this began to change. The people who built the first civilizations had their heads full of lofty new ideals, like cosmic order and aristocracy, and they were not satisfied to worship deities who were ruled by their guts and their gonads. They wanted their gods to be as noble and high-minded as they themselves aspired to be — fighting monsters, introducing the civilized arts, and generally acting as teachers and saviors.

This tendency climaxed around 500 BC, when even the heroic warrior gods of the Bronze Age began to be superseded by deities who were super-humanly compassionate, merciful, and forgiving. Over the next thousand years, a great wave of compassion-based religion swept through the civilized world, supplanting or greatly modifying existing cults.

In an era of aristocratic domination, when justice was harsh and rulers often bloody-handed, this new moral standard offered a much-needed example of higher values. As a social organizing principle, however, it had distinct limitations — the most obvious being that compassion is a virtue exercised solely by the powerful. It is the mercy that the judge shows towards the prisoner, the master towards the slave, and the conqueror towards the conquered. The prisoners and slaves themselves have no say in the matter.

What may be less obvious, however, is how irrelevant compassion of that sort has become over the last few centuries as we have done away with absolute power. We’ve managed to salvage the concept to some extent by redefining it in more democratic terms — as a sense of pity for the victims of misfortune — but in the process we have stripped it of its moral force.

This watered-down substitute makes no demands upon the conscience, because it is an emotional stance rather than a call to action. It is sentimental and self-flattering and encourages us to sympathize strongly with people like ourselves while ignoring the poorest and most downtrodden. Worst of all, it demeans anyone who truly needs help by treating them as a victim to be pitied.

This adulterated form of compassion even underlies the present assault on Social Security and Medicare, since it permits them to be depicted as a charitable institution for the needy rather than a social contract between generations.

In all these ways, the trivialization of compassion has thrown our system of moral values out of balance, to the point where the only proper course may be to give up on it entirely and follow Anonymous in asserting, “We don’t care about your miserable life.”

That opens the question, however, of what we should adopt as a new moral standard in its place.

I believe the answer can be found in the other aspect of Anonymous — in their role as global do-gooders. The name for that kind of behavior is “altruism,” and it is both broader and more universal than compassion alone.

The practice of altruism is nothing new. Hunter and peasant societies are built on a framework of reciprocal obligations, with every individual being part of a dense network of mutual support. But during the long era of aristocratic rule — when charity was a top-down affair and those at the bottom were expected to take without giving — we seem to have forgotten the possibility of a system in which everyone has something worthwhile to contribute.

The result is that altruism has gotten a bad name. Social Darwinists see it as a weakness that violates the rule of survival of the fittest. Libertarians denounce it as an infringement upon personal freedom. Cynics suggest that it is merely a cover for self-interest. And at best it is perceived as a form of generosity that only the well-off can afford to indulge.

But we are currently facing a litany of social and environmental problems that will not be solved by either private generosity or the invention of novel opportunities for greed. We need a new moral imperative to guide us, one which motivates everyone to pitch in and do their part. And Anon’s implication that doing good can be indistinguishable from doing things for the lulz is likely to provide a crucial element in the coming transition.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a growing number of indications that we humans are hard-wired for altruism. A brain scan study in 2006, for example, demonstrated that when volunteers were told to visualize themselves being generous, it “activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.”

In 2009, a group of researchers concluded that “human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

And now it seems that altruism is a trait which extends well beyond our own species. During the last year, a lively controversy has arisen over this question, precipitated by the apostasy of 81-year-old biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Wilson is best known as the chief advocate for the theory of kin selection, which proposes that altruism can not really be said to exist in nature because “an organism trying to pass its genes down to future generations can do so indirectly, by helping a relative to survive and procreate. … Thus, acting altruistically towards someone with whom you share genetic material does not really constitute self-sacrifice.”

Wilson did not invent the notion of kin selection, but he gave it definitive expression in his book Sociobiology (1975). It was further popularized by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) and has been a standard part of evolutionary dogma ever since. But now Wilson rejects it as a “gimmick,” largely on the basis of evidence that communities of insects can benefit by behaving altruistically even if they are not closely related.

As explained by the Boston Globe, “Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors.”

This is a truly extraordinary reversal on Wilson’s part and has far-reaching implications. Among other things, our entire economic system has been built on the assumption that self-advancement and the desire to crush one’s competition are fundamental rules of life. A society built instead on the primacy of cooperation and co-evolution would look very different.

In such a society, we would no longer be caught in the vicious dichotomy of ruthless self-interest on one hand and a mixture of pity and contempt for society’s losers on the other. Our highest admiration would be reserved for those individuals with the ability to identify what needs to be done and simply do it, without any concern for either profit or glory.

There are already intimations of that sort of no-nonsense altruism bubbling up around the edges of the culture — for example, in many of the novels of Terry Pratchett. And just this week, we learned that Superman is renouncing his United States citizenship on the sensible grounds that being identified too closely with any one nation gets in the way of his real job of being a global do-gooder.

“‘Truth, justice, and the American way’ — it’s not enough any more,” he complains. “The world’s too small, too connected.”

But in a world where everyone knows more or less what they ought to be doing and does it without holding back, compassion is longer the epitomal virtue. It might even become a negative indicator, an out-of-place emotion that tells us we’re wasting time feeling sorry for someone instead of acting to help them.

And that’s where Anonymous comes in.

The Anons insist they are only in it for the lulz and not for the sake of compassion. Their standard tag-line — “We do not forgive. We do not forget.” — also suggests that they value justice more than mercy. And yet their actions convey no hint of a desire for vengeance, which would presumably be incompatible with the goal of having fun.

Their real objective, in fact, seems to involve nothing less than systematically tracking down the bugs which prevent the current global system from working properly and systematically eliminating them.

And that task of global debugging may define the shape of the future.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here, a listing of my posts on emerging visions can be found here, and a listing of my posts on higher knowledge here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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