"Pity costs nothing, and it ain't worth nothing." —Josh Billings
"People are not homeless if they're sleeping in the streets of their own hometowns." —Dan Quayle
Pity expresses a negative evaluation of the bad situation of others. Nevertheless, people do not like to be pitied. What is wrong with pity, and is pity still a virtue?
The attitude of most people toward beggars or the homeless is a typical example of pity. Typical attitudes of compassion address those near and dear who need constant help: for example, a family member who's seriously ill, mentally retarded, or physically disabled. Pity and compassion are not generated in every case of bad luck, but only when we believe that someone suffers from substantial misfortune. Pity and compassion are kinds of sympathetic sorrow for someone's substantial misfortune; they involve, however, more than general sorrow.
A crucial difference between them is that compassion involves far greater commitment for substantial help. Compassion involves the willingness to become personally involved, while pity usually does not. Pity is more spectator-like than compassion; we can pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them. While pity involves the belief in the inferiority of the object, compassion assumes equality in a common humanity.
In many cases of pity, we could offer substantial help, but perceive ourselves as being unable, or not obliged, to do so. Thus, although I could help a few beggars by giving them most of my salary and time, I perceive this possibility as undesirable in light of my obligations toward my family and my wish to maintain a certain lifestyle. In such cases, our limited power to help actually stems from a perceived lack of obligation associated with our unwillingness to become personally involved.
A typical belief associated with pity is that many creatures in the world suffer, but a single person cannot do much to improve their situation. Quite often the best we can do—at least many of us believe so—is to help in a very limited way or to restrict the help to our intimates. The suffering of homeless people is recognized by many people, but most people think that they cannot offer real help. At best, they think they can pay their dues to the suffering of the homeless by pitying them. Accordingly, pity is often sympathy for the helpless by the powerless—or those who consider themselves to be essentially powerless. An advertisement for the Multiple Sclerosis Society states: "They do not want your pity; they want your help." Indeed, social work students are taught not to pity their patients, as such pity may prevent them from helping the patients. Because of its noninterventional nature, we speak about pity as a luxury.
Pity is improper if we have the power to alleviate suffering. Doctors who can cure their patients do not pity them. Similarly, it is improper for the president who can help the homeless to pity them. When we can help but do not want to change our priorities in doing so, guilt may be part of the complex emotional state of pity. This guilt is often repressed by either perceiving the other person as inferior—and hence as undeserving of an essential change in our priorities—or as being able to solve his own problem. There are other cases of pity, for instance, when a person is dying of cancer, in which the perceived impotence is real, but here compassion rather than pity is the right attitude.
Our acceptance of the other's situation and unwillingness to become personally involved may stem from our beliefs that: (a) the other's position is unalterably inferior; (b) the other person is somehow responsible for his inferior position; or (c) we lack the required resources. These beliefs are a kind of defense mechanism which somehow justifies our passivity in pity.
Owing to the belief in the other's inferiority, pity may easily insult or humiliate the recipient. Indeed, pity is often associated with the ridiculous. That is why most people do not like to be pitied. (Some people like to be pitied mainly because of the attention they would not otherwise get. This is probably the reason why George, in the television show Seinfeld, proudly claims that "Nobody is sicker than me.") When others pity them, people understand that they lack something and are therefore regarded as inferior.
Pity involves the belief that the object does not deserve such substantial misfortune; the stronger the belief, the more intense the emotion. Accordingly, Aristotle suggested that pity is not felt by those who believe that evil is inherent in human beings; if you think everyone is basically evil, you are likely to consider that bad fortune as deserved. Belief that a person is undeserving of substantial misfortune does not necessarily involve a moral positive evaluation of this person as a whole, or of his past activities. We may pity a mass murderer and still believe this person should be executed.
Pity which considers the other to be inferior is related more to contempt than love; compassion in which caring is the basic attitude is a crucial part of love.
Some people act out of pity. Thus, people may date others just out of feeling sorry for them. A similar case is that of mercy (or pity) sex in which a woman (or a man) is not particularly attracted to someone who is in love with her and wishes to have sex with her; she sleeps with him only because she feels sorry for him. Some people may even marry someone out of pity. Those examples indicate the superiority feeling involved in pity.
There is a long-standing philosophical tradition which argues that pity is worthless from a moral viewpoint or even has a negative moral value. Spinoza, for example, argues, "Pity, in a man who lives according to the guidance of reason, is evil of itself, and useless." The main reason for criticizing pity is that it does not improve the situation. Philosophers like Kant and Nietzsche, who assume that pity is worthless from a moral viewpoint, argue that even if one is unable to overcome this emotion, one should prevent others realizing that they are the object of our pity.
The bad press received by pity concerns both what pity lacks, namely, actual assistance, and what it implies, namely, a feeling of superiority and satisfaction with our own position. Nevertheless, pity is not vicious. Pitiers may not do enough from a moral point of view, but they do no harm. Moreover, since pity involves paying attention to the suffering, rather than the success, of others, it may ultimately lead to some improvement. In pity, we overcome our natural tendency to look away from people who suffer. This is no doubt socially useful and morally commendable. But mere acknowledgment is not enough; real assistance is often required.
(Based upon The Subtlety of Emotions)