Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Sympathy for the devil: On Compassion for Total Jerks

The disease that doesn't look like a disease.

You're standing in line for tickets to a concert. Some guy in sunglasses wedges himself into line right in front of you. You're furious. Someone behind you sees your reaction and says, "Relax. He's blind. He doesn't know what he's doing." You suddenly feel ashamed. But then someone else in line says, "He's not blind. I've seen him here before. He pretends he's blind so he can cut in line." Your fury surges again. Someone else in line says, "Yeah, he's pretending—but I've known his family for years. He can't help it. He's a psychopath."

Psychopathy is a disease that doesn't look like a disease. It's easily mistaken for unfettered inconsiderateness. Our ambivalent reaction to it, combining sympathy and rage, reveals a fundamental tension in our beliefs about justice. We hold people responsible for their actions, when technically speaking they aren't. You didn't make you. You didn't pick every part of your personality from some catalog. And yet you'll nonetheless pay the price and reap the rewards that come from being you. It's exculpation without exoneration-technically you can be assigned no guilt for being you (you're exculpated), but that does not free you from responsibility for being you (you're not exonerated).

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What do you do about the guy in line? Well, exculpation without exoneration, it's not his fault—but he'll pay anyway. You force him to the back of the line. And suppose someone asks, "How can you do that to someone whose actions are not under his control? You can say, "Easy. My actions aren't under my control either. I didn't choose to become someone who prosecutes justice any more than he chose to be someone who violates it."

As Kurt Vonnegut put it:
We do doodly do
What we must muddly must
Muddly do muddly do
Until we bust bodily bust.

Yes, everybody is doing what comes naturally. It's all good, or anyway, it is what it is.

And that's true at the grandest of all scales. Stepping back from this life and time, looking at the great earth spinning in its orbit, we can see all of nature's relations, the predators and the prey, the exploiters and the exploited, and say, "It's all good."

But we don't live at that scale. We live within our sense of justice. At this scale we can't simply forgive all cruelty. "Yes, well, that axe murderer killed my dearest loved ones, but after all, he couldn't help it, poor thing." Practically speaking, we all wonder sometimes whether to show sympathy for the devil.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that humans are greedy, competitive, and dangerous, and at the root of this aggressive behavior is fear. Yes, fear-fear in each of us that we won't have enough, fear arising in response to our fragility. The meanest among us is at core a frail, timid creature running scared.

Stopping to reflect, it's not hard to feel sorry for anyone and everyone. We all know we ourselves are going to die. Even the nastiest gangsters are stuck with the unfortunate predicament of life, caring for and loving things that will inevitably be taken from them.

Well, sympathy for them; sympathy for ourselves. No one deserves special accommodation, or all of us do, which makes it not special. If we're all fearful and prone to lash out, then it's a level playing field.

But, more realistically, there are degrees of fear, and degrees of translating fear into Hobbesian nastiness. Suppose you're in a close relationship with someone who seems especially mean, and therefore (according to Hobbes) especially fearful, much more so than you, which makes you feel both sorry for him and incensed at him, because he indulges in behaviors you would not (or is it need not?) indulge in yourself.

Here you're really torn, half-sympathetic, half-vengeful; half selfless, half self-protective. And he's no help. He won't admit his meanness originates in fear. He practically directs you to treat him as a nasty SOB. Half of you wants to take him at his word. And half of you thinks his denial is all the more sign that he's afraid. And what do you do with the fearful? Well, you shouldn't fight them, should you? That only stirs greater fear.

Will he soften with your kindness? If so, your kindness will have proven worth it. If not, your kindness will only encourage him to be that much meaner to you. But if instead of showing kindness you draw the line and fight back, showing him he can't push you around, he might back down—or you might provoke even more fear, making him that much meaner.

This is not an uncommon situation. We feel some combination of compassion for and self-protection against people we deem to be damaged in ways that make them especially abrasive. This predicament is what first got me thinking about tough judgment calls, situations in which you can't tell which of two things to do and can't do both because they undermine each other (see ACIDs).

"Indulgent or handicapped" was the way the question framed itself. I was living with someone whose offenses seemed to demonstrate either self-indulgence on one hand or a handicap on the other. My gut said, if he is a lazy devil I should push him more. But it also said, if he is handicapped I should sympathize with and accommodate him more.

I think there's no easy complete answer. Yes, sometimes you can lovingly push, or accommodate without lowering your standards. But there's never complete compatibility between polar opposite strategies. Show sympathy for the devil or beat the devil. You can't do both at once. And oscillating between pushing and accommodating really doesn't work. That's what parents do when they get forceful and then apologetic for being so forceful, and then angry about having been so apologetic (see Sorrytaliatory Cycle).

So we place bets on when to accommodate and when to push. And often enough we guess right, but that doesn't make the guessing any easier-and it doesn't eliminate the times we wish we hadn't guessed wrong.

We should be compassionate when we guess wrong. And compassionate for others when they guess wrong, too. That is, if getting compassionate like that is something we can do doodly do.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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