Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 7: 487–511, 2004.

DOI: 10.1007/s10677-005-3714-5

C 

Springer 2005

M. WEBER

COMPASSION AND PITY: AN EVALUATION OF NUSSBAUM’S
ANALYSIS AND DEFENSE
Accepted: 23 September 2004

ABSTRACT. In this paper I argue that Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelian analysis of compassion and pity is faulty, largely because she fails to distinguish between (a) an emotion’s
basic constitutive conditions and the associated constitutive or “intrinsic” norms, (b) “extrinsic” normative conditions, for instance, instrumental and moral considerations, and
(c) the causal conditions under which emotion is most likely to be experienced. I also argue
that her defense of compassion and pity as morally valuable emotions is inadequate because she treats a wide variety of objections as all stemming from a common commitment
to a Stoic conception of the good. I argue that these objections can be construed as neutral
between conceptions of the good. I conclude by arguing that construed in this way there are
nonetheless plausible replies to these objections.
KEY WORDS: compassion, Martha Nussbaum, morality and motivation, Nietzsche, pity

In a series of books and articles, Martha Nussbaum has sought to analyze and defend a cluster of emotions that includes compassion, pity, and
sympathy (see Nussbaum, 1986, 1994a, 1994b, 1996, 2001). This work
fits within a larger movement to rehabilitate the emotions both in ethics
and elsewhere, for instance in cognitive science.1 Although I am in sympathy with this larger movement, and find much to admire in Nussbaum’s
work, I believe that her analysis suffers insofar as she does not always
clearly distinguish between (a) an emotion’s basic constitutive conditions
and the associated constitutive or “intrinsic” norms, (b) “extrinsic” normative conditions, for instance, instrumental and moral considerations, and
(c) the causal conditions under which emotion is most likely to be experienced. Her defense too is problematic, primarily because it too closely
ties the critiques of compassion and pity to the doctrine attributed to the
Stoics according to which external goods, including not just material goods
but also power, friendship, and health, are of little or no importance because one’s own virtue is entirely sufficient for a flourishing human life
(Nussbaum, 1994a, p. 144). I believe that there are important challenges to
1 In ethics, the emotions, in particular sympathy and compassion, have been defended
as moral motives and as otherwise valuable. See Stocker (1996) and Blum (1994, 1980). In
cognitive science, see Damasio (1994).

488

M. WEBER

compassion and pity that do not depend on accepting the Stoic conception
of the good, indeed that the criticisms Nussbaum draws from Plato and
especially Nietzsche are misconstrued insofar as she renders them Stoic.
In this paper, I will develop and assess these challenges that Nussbaum
misses or misconstrues in virtue of her attempt to see the entire “anti-pity”
tradition as essentially Stoic.
I
Following the “general lines” of Aristotle’s analysis of compassion
(or pity2 ) in the Rhetoric, Nussbaum starts by describing compassion as a
painful emotion directed at another’s misfortune or suffering that involves
three beliefs: (a) that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; (b) that the
suffering is not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and,
(c) that one is subject to a similar misfortune (Nussbaum, 1994a, p. 141,
1996, p. 31, 2001, p. 306).
Various objections can be leveled against this analysis (whether it is true
to Aristotle or not). First, as Nussbaum herself sometimes acknowledges,
it is simply too strong to claim that compassion must involve believing that
the suffering is serious, believing that the suffering is not the person’s fault,
and believing that one is subject to similar misfortune.3 Indeed, no beliefs
are required at all. This is not to dispute the cognitivist view of compassion and of emotions generally, according to which emotions essentially
involve a cognitive component.4 Rather, it is to deny that the cognitive feature must be a belief. Consider fear, as an example. Must I believe that the
spider or snake is dangerous in order to be in a state of fear? It seems not, as
I might know (and therefore believe) that the spider or snake is not dangerous but somehow nonetheless “see it as” dangerous. Its way of creeping,
or slithering, appears menacing, even though I know it is not dangerous.
2 Nussbaum

(1996, p. 29) thinks pity and compassion are essentially the same emotion,
with only “subtle” differences. She allows, then, that they may be used interchangeably,
though she prefers to use “pity” when talking the historical debate and “compassion” when
discussing contemporary issues because, she claims, since the Victorian era “pity” has taken
on connotations of condescension and superiority. I will use the terms interchangeably,
unless there is a specific reason to draw a distinction. See also Nussbaum (2001), p. 301.
3 It is most clearly acknowledged in Nussbaum (2001).
4 Although cognitivism has become the dominant view, there are dissenters, e.g, Deigh
(1994), and D’Arms and Jacobson (2003). D’Arms and Jacobson are recent converts, having
previously endorsed cognitivism (see D’Arms and Jacobson, 2000). They argue that what
cognitivists have typically taken to be the constitutive thoughts of a given emotion are
a “special type of normative standard for emotions” (p. 132). For example, cognitivists
typically hold that fear involves the thought that danger is present. D’Arms and Jacobson
deny this, but admit that danger being present is a norm for fear, such that fear is unwarranted
if danger is not present. I cannot address their view here due to limitations of space.

A simple organism that responds to heat.or non-linguistic. 5. 2001. as does a thermostat. p. Imagine that in the past my partners have been flirts who have strayed. 23). in part to accommodate emotions in animals and human infants. Appropriate modification of the Aristotelian formulation is of course easy enough: Compassion is a painful emotion directed at another’s misfortune or suffering and involves three construals that correspond to the three beliefs Nussbaum identifies. where appraisals fall well short of belief (see e. Nussbaum allows that such appraisals can be pre. then. 306. to see her conversing with the tall. the same critique applies: one need not judge that the spider is dangerous. 2001. Unfortunately. would take us too far afield. 23. who falls asleep at the wheel of his car. it should be said. but rather simply requires that a painful emotion is “occasioned by an awareness of another person’s misfortune (Nussbaum. crashes. p. 2001. there are problems with the account even with this reformulation. 2001. is “on the way” to unfaithfulness: sometimes it is “just flirting. that the cognitive components of emotions such as compassion can be a belief or an appraisal. She says.g. dark stranger as something more than just talking.6 It seems that this applies just as much to compassion as it does to fear and jealousy. Whether this should occasion jealousy is another matter. It seems to me.. that compassion does not require a belief that another person has suffered misfortune. for instance. For instance. With this history. But this seems false to me.g. however. nonetheless. 7 Nussbaum. 306). that even in the face of this Fred ought to have our compassion. my current partner’s innocent behavior may remind me (consciously or unconsciously) of my past and trigger an emotional response.5 Robert Roberts’ gloss on this is to say that emotions involve “construals” rather than beliefs.” with no thought or intention of it going any further than that. characterize emotions in terms of judgments rather than beliefs. . Indeed. if not entirely. that compassion does not require a construal or any kind of awareness that the person’s suffering is not his fault.COMPASSION AND PITY 489 Jealousy provides another helpful example: I can be jealous even if I firmly believe that my partner will always be true. there is a concern that Nussbaum’s account of what is cognitive is so broad that it is hard to know what could count as non-cognitive. 89–138. pp. 6 Roberts (1988). Nussbaum. even if I know that my current partner’s behavior is entirely innocent. e. his fault. it would then seem. 28. which requires that having compassion is 5 It might be said that I could only see it as flirting if I have some doubt about my partner’s faithfulness. when she is alive to these concerns she does make the same point. p. 7. 37. she says that what she means by something cognitive is “nothing more than ‘concerned with receiving and processing information”’ (Nussbaum. my emphasis). Some. and ends up confined to a wheelchair. Although Nussbaum does not speak in terms of construals. Not all flirting. has cognitions. despite this belief. Although this is clearly a move in the right direction..” Pursuing this issue further. one only need “construe” it as dangerous. Surely his injury is to some degree. as it is possible. first.7 She says. unless a lot is built in to “processing information. Solomon (1976). It seems. Consider Fred. However.

This strikes me as implausible. there is no point in insisting that Fred or others like him should not have our compassion unless it is possible to experience such putatively unwarranted compassion. then. but crashed because he was 8 Although. and suspect insofar as it seems to exclude a substantive debate by definitional fiat. 11 I suppose it could be argued that any such debate is incoherent. But this is different. 12 There can be unwarranted compassion even if it is true that compassion requires a construal according to which the person’s misfortune is not his own fault. his mistake is one any one of us could easily have made. one can believe that while construing things otherwise. which requires that compassion can be experienced even if the person’s misfortune is construed as his own fault. and this seems to bear on how we ought to respond. as the previous discussion suggests. and people just do not realize this because they are insensitive to the fact that compassion requires a construal according to which the person is not significantly at fault for his misfortune. namely in the case where a person feels compassion for a person thinking that his misfortune is not his fault.490 M. it requires that his mistake is a particularly egregious or stupid one.11 To put it another way. because the debate itself presupposes that compassion does not require such a construal. Some might deny that Fred ought to have our compassion. when in fact it is. then. his fault. in which case any debate over whether he should or should not have our compassion would be incoherent. 9 Husak (1996) argues similarly that in a variety of circumstances a claim that “everyone does that” is exculpatory. It is enough. both legally and morally. who is similarly injured because he crashed his car. We have all probably very nearly fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed. But the crucial point – that compassion does not require a construal according to which the person is not at fault for his misfortune – does not depend on accepting the claim that Fred ought to have our compassion.10 Compassion. or any awareness to that effect.12 The case I am making is bolstered if we contrast Fred with Ed.9 It seems. .8 The simplest explanation for the judgment that Fred nonetheless deserves our sympathy is that while the accident was his fault. and does not by itself show that there cannot be other kinds of unwarranted compassion. one that most people would not make. 10 I do not pretend to have provided here a clear and exact criterion that distinguishes cases in which compassion is appropriate and cases in which it is not. does not require a construal according to which a person is not at fault for his misfortune. WEBER compatible with believing that a person’s misfortune is his own doing. to have shown that in at least some cases compassion is appropriate despite the fact that the person’s suffering is to some degree. I am here assuming that the person who believes that another person has brought on his own misfortune is also construing things that way. that it is not enough (for the denial of compassion) that the person is at fault for his suffering. then it would be impossible to have compassion for Fred knowing that the accident is his fault. or even entirely. however. for my purposes. If such a construal were required.

where intoxication is not a matter of blood alcohol level but a matter of impairment. then.15 This of course is compatible with it being the case that many accidents are caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel. 17 I am assuming that the drunk is not forced to drink against his will.17 Becoming sleepy seems different: we do not have to do anything. However. it simply comes upon us. mainly. are more likely to cause accidents than sleepy drivers. But this should not lead us to think that there is no rational basis for distinguishing drunk drivers from sleepy drivers. though I am skeptical of its ethical significance. I think. is an egregious or particularly “stupid” mistake. or are less so. But this does not compromise the essential point. I think we are prone to say that Ed does not deserve compassion. Some think that there is such an unjustified bias against smoking: it is shunned in ways that other equally unhealthy “vices” are not. In addition. it seems to me that there are significant differences between drunk and sleepy drivers. or if he does he is less deserving and deserving of less. or at least very prone to misjudge its degree. it is not an attack on the claim that driving while intoxicated is no more dangerous than while sleepy or otherwise impaired. cannot be the issue.16 There is another apparent difference between drunk and sleepy drivers. where sleepy drivers are not. which is just that drunk drivers are more likely to cause accidents. Why? Because drunk driving. . while the sleepy driver is incapacitated 13 The same disclaimer applies as before: I do not pretend to have provided here a clear and exact criterion that distinguishes cases in which compassion is appropriate and cases in which it is not. especially when compared to other “impairments” such as sleepiness. The drunk seems more active in the genesis of his incapacitation: he got himself drunk. one that most of us have not made and would not make. 14 The thought I wish to deny is that there is an irrational social bias that considers drunk driving worse than other things that are equally potentially devastating.13 Of course we would not think less badly of drunk driving if it were even more common. 15 Husak (1994) argues that driving with an elevated blood alcohol level is not as dangerous as is commonly thought. But herein lies an apparent difference: the drunk is incapacitated because he actively drinks. Frequency alone. But this does not mean they are by any means free from blame and deserve only compassion. though of course drunk driving is regrettably common. Of course we become sleepy if we fail to get sufficient rest. this point is compatible with the claim that intoxicated drivers. because drunks are often oblivious to their incapacity. Husak’s attack is directed at laws that are based on blood alcohol levels. 16 Of course this does not get sleepy drivers off the hook.COMPASSION AND PITY 491 under the influence of alcohol. The most important is simply that drunk drivers are more likely to get into accidents than sleepy drivers. They may be less blameworthy – and correspondingly more deserving of our compassion – than drunk drivers. they may also deserve blame or chastisement.14 Though I will not offer a full-scale defense here. or even criminal prosecution. and thus there is no basis for treating Fred and Ed differently. unlike driving when too sleepy. or even driving at night. by drinking too much.

There is plenty of time 18 There are two components to this skepticism: (1) It is not clear that there is a fact of the matter as to whether something is an act or an omission. the broken-hearted lover who foolishly loves the unworthy and unfaithful. also injured or killed others? I think in this case too we are less inclined to feel compassion – or inclined to feel less compassion. It is crucial to emphasize that saying that sleepy drivers like Fred deserve compassion is compatible with saying that. Thus. There is a difficult line we have to walk here balancing supportive compassion and critical blame and reproach. in general. What if Fred. What a person needs at first when he suffers an injury or some other loss is compassion. (2) Even if the distinction can be drawn. which is just that compassion is entirely compatible with thinking that the person who suffers is in part. This attitude apparently depends on accepting a different controversial ethical view. WEBER because he fails to get sufficient rest. co-exist. errors more likely to be made the more impaired one is. at fault for his suffering. would take us too far afield. . insofar as such drivers are at fault. for example. they are also deserving of blame and reproach.19 So too in the drunk driving case: if we think that Ed is even less deserving of compassion or deserves even less compassion if he injured or killed others. Similarly. regardless of the genesis of his suffering and loss. it would be right to say that there is likely greater impairment in accidents in which others are injured or killed. of course. it seems to me. accidents that cause injury or death to others are the product of more serious driving errors. It is the sleepy driver’s not doing something – his omission – which leads to his incapacitation. instead of only injuring himself in the accident. we commit ourselves to allowing for moral luck. perhaps even entirely. 19 This commonly held view that it is only luck that distinguishes the impaired driver who injures or kills others from the impaired driver who does not could be challenged by arguing that. like many. in the aggregate. and all be apt in the same circumstance. is still broken hearted and needs compassion first and foremost. In most cases – and certainly in Fred’s case – it has always seemed to me that the supportive compassion should come first and the critical blame and reproach later. namely that there can be “moral luck” which allows that it makes a moral difference that in the first instance when Fred injures only himself that he was simply lucky not to have injured or killed others. However. I am skeptical of the ethical significance of the act/omission distinction. and reproach can.492 M. it is unclear that it makes a moral difference whether something is an act or an omission.18 Delving further into the matter. This does complicate matters quite a bit. debates over act/omission and moral luck do not compromise the fundamental point. Compassion. Be that as it may. If Fred falls asleep at the wheel and injures no one but himself. he seems deserving of at least some compassion. blame.

COMPASSION AND PITY 493 later for critical judgment and for “learning lessons. Perhaps I have provided at least the beginnings of this: How big a mistake is depends on how frequently it is made – a mistake is a smaller mistake if it is more common. and this explains whatever intuitive force there is to the example of Fred who falls asleep at the wheel. 20 Indeed. but instead by some independent evaluative standard. though another similar emotion is. 1991. or mental instability. I will not pursue here the merits of this approach. 196. This makes room for compassion in the face of a wide variety of circumstances. e.”20 This general point about timing.21 Pity and sympathy. At a minimum. though not exclusively. and about moral luck. She suggests that in some cases the severity of the injury or loss is out of proportion to the culpable person’s action. 1994a. then perhaps Nussbaum and I are ultimately in agreement. including in particular the various mistakes of children and teenagers. There are two replies to the argument that I have just given that should be addressed. e. This seems to me a hard argument to make here. See Nussbaum..g. and Snow. it is one for which the person has a good excuse. 142. p.22 It seems to me. p. pity and sympathy do not involve seeing the sufferer as free from fault. One reply is to argue that compassion is not in order in cases where a person is to some degree at fault for his suffering. which is to argue that the outcome is out of proportion because while the mistake is a big one (not one commonly made). See Nussbaum. however. that there is no real dispute here. . simply due to limitations of space. then. his injury in the accident is severe. are the grounds for claiming that the consequences – serious injury and even death – are out of proportion? I suppose the answer is that how bad the mistake is does not depend on the severity or “size” of its typical outcomes. poor parental guidance. 178. pp. If this is right. are often put forward in this context. we are owed some account of this independent evaluative standard. Fred’s case makes clear that compassion is compatible with thinking that a person is to some degree at fault – perhaps completely at fault – for his suffering. In sum. 311–312. Unlike compassion. 1996. and the person thus deserves compassion for the “extra” or “nonblameworthy” suffering. I have thus far argued that whatever we may think about the distinction between acts and omissions. even the best of whom are prone to typical “mistakes” associated with a specific age. and out of proportion to his mistake for which he is to blame. 311– 312. 22 This is just one of many postulated differences between compassion and pity. it seems to me. pp. What. 1994. 21 Nussbaum suggests a more direct response to handle the intuition about Fred’s case. 2001.g. I am inclined to argue that whatever lesson is supposed to be learned is more likely to be learned if compassion comes first. There is another option here too.. in Fred’s case. In particular. Blum. if a person’s suffering is the product of a “mistake” we all could just have easily made then compassion by no means seems entirely out of place. applies especially. 2001. it is claimed. Thus. See. who are especially prone to certain kinds of mistakes in the process of growing up. 33. for instance. p. p. to children and young people. because serious injury and even death are just what frequently happens when you fall asleep at the wheel.

mercy “is defined as the inclination of the judgment toward leniency in selecting penalties” (Nussbaum. it seems that it is not enough. the result is that the appropriate attitude is one that includes condescension. see Blum. sensitive to the fact that the person has suffered a misfortune. and alternatives such as compassion do not. it is a kind of attitude or policy. This strikes me as a mistake.494 M. 1994a. WEBER At issue is a matter of terminology. p. and others like it. then. something more heartfelt is warranted: simply being lenient does not seem to do justice to the misfortune he as suffered. and Snow. it is hard for all of us to avoid the multitudinous ways in which we might cause our own misfortune (Nussbaum. 397–399). She explains. 1991). and that though it was his fault. show: in cases of “mistakes we all (might) make. for instance. 397–398). 2001. unlike compassion. so long as condescension is not present. Indeed. If on the other hand pity does not necessarily involve condescension. So if pity involves condescension. 23 Which way we go should be decided pragmatically. because we can just as easily talk of compassion that does not concern itself with fault as we can talk about sympathy and pity as different from compassion insofar as they are not concerned with fault. that the merciful person will examine the person’s situation with great sympathy. In Fred’s case. 1996. it should not be condescending. involves condescension (in addition to Nussbaum. depending. and 2001. Nussbaum sometimes suggests something a bit different. then it is not an emotion at all. pp. that the merciful person is not always “hard” (Nussbaum. My point. she seems to build compassion into mercy. It is commonly held that pity.24 In reply.” we can assign fault without thinking too terribly of the person who suffers as a result of his mistakes – without condescending. it is this. . But in cashing out how it is that the merciful person is not hard. 1994. 365–368. 383. 301. like pity and unlike compassion. p. if mercy is just a matter of leniency in punishment. 2001. 365). The bottom line is that whatever the appropriate emotion is. that what is called for in cases in which the person is at fault for his own suffering is not compassion or pity but mercy. Rather. allows that a person is at fault for his own suffering (see Nussbaum. 1994a and Nussbaum. then. she says. pp. But if mercy is just a matter of leniency in punishment. it can be appropriate to Fred’s case. If this is right. as she does. pp. 2001. Mercy. is that some sort of emotional response – some emotion of fellow-feeling – is warranted above and beyond whatever leniency in punishment is warranted. for instance. 2001. But what is mercy? According to Nussbaum. then compassion is more suited to Fred’s case than pity. this is just what I think Fred’s case. it seems to me. 365–366. 365). and if we also insist that Fred deserves pity instead of compassion.23 If there is an issue at all. 24 Indeed. Nussbaum could claim. just because fault can be assigned without condescending. on whether we need a distinction between compassion and pity to mark a different distinction.

especially. she says. “may feel compassion for the mess an adolescent child has gotten into. for instance.. in this case making mistakes because one is very tired. middle-age in America – the structure of which is not his fault. p. much like the imagined teenager. which brings with it a liability to make certain types of errors.25 25 There may be a way to squeeze Fred’s case into Nussbaum’s framework. 314). So too with teenagers and their various forms of bad behavior: rather than thinking that they are not at fault. Imagine that Fred is a middle-aged man with older children at college and younger children at home. In one way. . because there are cases such as Fred’s case in which we can and perhaps should feel compassion even when it is not the case that at some higher level the person is not at fault. 2001. Nussbaum acknowledges that we can and perhaps should have compassion for people who are responsible for their own misfortune. No wonder. 2001. and yet think that it is the child’s own fault” (Nussbaum. Fault – and the corresponding blame – should be attributed only to mistakes that stand out – that lie outside the norm. and yet the condition of adolescence.g.COMPASSION AND PITY 495 A different way to respond to my argument that compassion does not require that the person who suffers misfortune is seen as free from fault would be to suggest that insofar as the mistake is one anybody might have made it is not really the person’s fault. However. however. . that compassion for a person injured due to falling asleep at the wheel need not be limited to persons like Fred. and for the selfishness and self-absorption so typical of them. adolescence. But this seems to go a bit too far. However. he (and likely his partner too) must work hard both in the office and at home. “we are . 314). she says. then. sleepy drivers like Fred are not really at fault for the accident. So it seems to me that Nussbaum’s approach here is likely too narrow. In her more recent work. regardless of the fact that it is a common mistake that we have all very nearly made. When we have such thoughts. as I have suggested. Similarly. As a result. which is not her fault. A parent. brings with it a certain blindness and a liability to certain types of errors” (Nussbaum. that he is tired and prone to (nearly) fall asleep at the wheel. in the case of teenagers). or at least not entirely his fault. Teenagers. In this case. we should be forgiving in the face of assigning fault. Surely Fred is at fault for falling asleep at the wheel. p. This seems to me a step in the right direction. if a person’s mistakes are typical for his age. is in a condition – in Fred’s case. . But she insists that in a case like this there is a higher level at which we do not think the adolescent is at fault. this does not require denying fault all together. it is clearly the child’s own fault. with all his middle-age responsibilities. we might say that Fred. I do not think that it goes far enough. It seems to me. making a two-stage judgment. Perhaps we should be more forgiving – attribute fault without a lot of blame – when the mistakes or errors people make are common (for their age. e. are not at fault for various forms of rebellious activity.

29 It may be true as a matter of empirical fact that people tend to feel compassion only if they see themselves as subject to the same misfortune. rather than pitying” (Nussbaum. However. require that the object of the emotion makes a difference to the subject. this can be quite misleading.26 If this is right. This is just too harsh. p. the harshness is mitigated insofar as it is allowed that mercy is warranted. 1996. and emotions generally. when the person is to some significant extent at fault for his suffering. Nussbaum (1994a. 2001. 27 As I have noted. 29 In particular.28 This. is not sufficiently attended to in Nussbaum’s treatment of compassion. . then mercy is enough. 315–321. p. The distinction between the normative and the descriptive is also insufficiently attended to in many of her discussions of the (modified) claim that compassion involves construing matters in such a way that one is subject to the same misfortunes as those who suffer. or any awareness to that effect. because especially with those close or dear to us we tend to feel compassion whether the suffering is the person’s fault or not. See especially. 311. p. Too often she fails to distinguish the normative and the descriptive. 28 Even this seems false. In this modified view. Needless to say. rather than respond with compassion and pity. it is true when applied to our attitude toward strangers. pp. This distinction. 142. psychological claim: as a matter of empirical fact.27 Does Fred deserve only blame and reproach. however. 1996). people tend to blame and reproach. then. we will blame and reproach. is not to say that people should only blame and reproach. even in the case where he injures only himself? Is leniency with respect to punishment (mercy) all he deserves if the accident results in others being injured or killed? There is of course a more generous way of reading Nussbaum’s claim that we will only blame and reproach.496 M. WEBER What I have argued thus far. suggesting that the very harsh view that denies Fred compassion is the right normative view – and that this is simply the product of an analysis of the “nature” or “logic” of compassion and pity. Nussbaum holds that “similar possibilities” is merely an epistemological requirement or guide for compassion. We also should be wary of her repeated insistence that “insofar as we believe that a person came to grief through his or her own fault. however. in which she retracts the requirement of similar possibilities in favor of a eudaimonistic requirement according to which compassion. is that in at least some cases in which a person is at fault for his own suffering he nonetheless deserves at least some compassion. mercy alone does not seem sufficient: a degree of compassion or pity seems warranted as well. and perhaps some mercy as well. A failure to see oneself as 26 There is one caveat that I mentioned above: if mercy includes compassion. 31–34. 1994a. If the empirical claim is true at all. as I have argued above. The treatment in Nussbaum (2001) is superior. according to which it is just an empirical. rather than showing compassion and pity (also). then we cannot accept Nussbaum’s claim that compassion requires thinking that a person is not at fault for his misfortunes. see also Nussbaum. 33).

30 The thought that there is something good about oneself. (b) “extrinsic” normative conditions. 34. pp. Why are the rich so hard toward the poor? It is because they have no fear of being poor. then one simply is not experiencing pride. 2001. is that Nussbaum has failed to (consistently) distinguish more than just the descriptive and the normative. quoted in Nussbaum. Surely. Consider the first. it is another thing entirely to say that people should not feel compassion unless they correctly see themselves as subject to the same misfortunes as those who suffer. must be distinguished from “extrinsic” norms stemming from independent rational and moral considerations. Pride (in oneself). What comes with this is a constitutive or “intrinsic” norm: if what one takes to be good about oneself is not really good. however. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The king may not feel compassion for his subjects because he cannot imagine himself being in their circumstances. emotions cannot be distinguished phenomenologically – in terms of how they feel. for example. however. and will never be a subject” – even if what he says is true! There must be something wrong with any analysis of the nature or logic of compassion that makes this a good excuse. it might be argued that it would be wrong for the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to 30 To deal with counterexamples it might have to be allowed that the thought could be subconscious. the thoughts that a subject must have if he is to be counted as having that emotion at all. The standard cognitivist view is that. They are distinguished. or if it is good but one is mistaken in thinking one in fact has this quality. Why does a noble have such contempt for the peasant? It is because he will never be a peasant. 1996. She has failed to distinguish between (a) an emotion’s basic constitutive conditions and the associated constitutive or “intrinsic” norms. 315–316) However. instead. requires a thought or construal according to which there is something good about oneself. and (c) the causal conditions under which emotion is most likely to be experienced. then. in virtue of their distinctive cognitive components. If one feels some kind of warm glow but no such thought is present. it seems to me. What has gone wrong. then one’s pride is mistaken – unjustified or unwarranted – at least with respect to the quality in question. is a constitutive condition for pride. in general.COMPASSION AND PITY 497 similarly vulnerable often explains a lack of compassion. Constitutive or intrinsic norms. For instance. See also Nussbaum. p. . it is no excuse for a callous and cruel king to say “I am king. In the first part of a passage from Rousseau’s Emile that Nussbaum approvingly cites. for instance instrumental or moral considerations. this seems to be the message: Why are kings without pity for their subjects? Because they count on never being human beings.

an untested athlete is more likely to beat a champion opponent if he is especially confident or proud. Some people argue that it is wrong to take pride in one’s appearance because our appearance is not what matters about us – rather. which is that the norm being invoked is of a different sort. One need not agree with this judgment to see the point. both of these kinds of conditions must be distinguished from causal conditions. whether he experiences it or not. 32 This allows us to accommodate the thinking of some that we can but should not feel compassion for those who deserve their punishment. or those conditions under which an emotion is likely to be experienced. between intrinsic.32 Thus compassion is intrinsically unwarranted only if 31 D’Arms and Jacobson (2000). to Yo-Yo Ma.498 M. say. An example of an extrinsic rational norm with respect to pride is the following: It is sometimes suggested that it is instrumentally rational to feel pride in oneself.g. But if he does have talent.” Whether one agrees with this or not. it should be clear that the point here is different because the suggestion is that what people take to be good or valuable – their pleasing appearance – really is not good or valuable at all. With respect to compassion. . WEBER take pride in their scientific accomplishments after witnessing the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Extrinsic norms are similarly distinct. The claim is that despite the fact that pride is in this way intrinsically warranted. it seems from the earlier discussion that the only constitutive condition is that one takes another person (or nonhuman feeling thing) to be seriously suffering. then. Even a gifted music student is more likely to feel proud of his ability when compared to his fellow students. There is a clear difference. There is no claim here that the scientific accomplishments are not impressive scientifically – no claim. For example. The target here is the constitutive norm that requires that what one takes pride in is in fact something good or valuable. it is only what we are “inside. when compared to or in the presence of those of similar or lesser merit. despite being untested. Perhaps we should only have compassion in cases in which the suffering is not the person’s fault or the product of some kind of mistake that we all are prone to make. then. then pride is intrinsically warranted. But this is another matter. Pride is more likely to be felt. convicted criminals. rather than. for instance. So causal conditions must be distinguished from constitutive or intrinsic conditions and the associated intrinsic norms. Contrast this case with another. even when one has little to be proud of – even when the constitutive norm is not satisfied – because having such pride may provide the psychological conditions necessary for the kind of achievement that intrinsically warrants pride. The comparison can make even a gifted student think he has no talent at all. e. that (scientific) pride is not intrinsically warranted. there are overriding moral considerations that render pride inappropriate all-things-considered.31 Further.. constitutive norms and extrinsic rational and moral norms.

It would also entail that in general the scrupulously law-abiding parents of a known-to-them guilty criminal will not have compassion for his plight in prison. that whether a person is at fault for his misfortune is at most plausibly a causal condition for compassion: people are. then. or not largely so. if this were the case. These criticisms are largely anticipated in Nussbaum (2001). disinclined to experience compassion when the person suffering is at fault. It does not follow. it is false. or by suggesting that the requirement is that one is similarly subject or such misfortune might befall a loved one. I am not at all sure it is even right to say that as a matter of empirical psychological fact a person must think he can suffer the same misfortune in order to have compassion. Their concern is that we sometimes experience compassion when we should not. It seems to me. then it would be impossible to experience compassion for someone at fault for his misfortune. or that he must think the sufferer not at fault. for example. it is a felicitous eliciting condition. It need not be the case that one takes the suffering not to be the sufferer’s fault in order to experience compassion. even if it’s true – which I have argued it is not – that someone or something deserves compassion only if the suffering is not his or her fault. suggesting that certain normative claims. 316. 1996). and the position is consequently modified. In fact. which surely is not the case. that generally speaking a person unable to have children cannot have compassion for a person who has lost a child. I find the treatment there more satisfactory. her analysis is flawed. This would entail. this is an extrinsic rather than an intrinsic concern. even quite un-extraordinary. See p. Insofar as Nussbaum fails to make these distinctions. Nor is it the conclusion sought by those who think that we should not experience compassion for those at fault for their own suffering. that compassion is warranted only when the sufferer is not at fault for his suffering. at most. then. As I have noted. But surely compassion in these circumstances is possible.33 Indeed. Indeed.COMPASSION AND PITY 499 it is experienced when in fact the other person is not seriously suffering. e. follow from the nature or logic of compassion. But it is another thing to say that in their absence people generally do not feel compassion..g. as I emphasized earlier. The critical comments here. with the “similar possibilities” requirement replaced by the eudaimonistic requirement. Nussbaum herself seems to allow for this kind of thing in her earliest discussions of the pedagogical value of tragedy and the modern 33 In Nussbaum (2001). The same is true with the condition that the subject see himself as subject to the same misfortune: it cannot be either a constitutive condition or a rational/moral condition. as a matter of empirical fact. should be seen as directed at the discussions in Nussbaum (1994a. Thus. such cases are handled either by invoking the eudaimonistic requirement. Surely having such thoughts facilitates compassion. and can be gravely misleading. Moreover. . which is just to say that the concern here is an extrinsic moral consideration pertaining to compassion.

and shot in the streets. She initially suggests that the value of such drama and literature is that it teaches people – especially young people – that they are subject to various misfortunes that they may have not yet experienced: To the young adolescent who is preparing to take a place in the city . Do not. 1996. guillotined. because kings. p. it . (Nussbaum. Through sympathetic identification. which continues as follows: Each may be tomorrow what the one whom he helps is today. dictators and oligarchs are deposed. . long before life itself does so: they thus enable concern for others who are suffering what the spectator has not yet suffered. Make him understand well that the fate of these unhappy people can be his. but also with many whom he never in fact can be. This is Rousseau’s point in the passage cited. 34) Rousseau’s message to the imagined callous king is that what he says – that he is king and always will be – is not necessarily true. The passage clearly does not suggest that callous kings and other leaders are off the hook if they are not or do not believe that they might . whether they think themselves immune or not. (Nussbaum. she then suggests that the power of such drama and literature is even greater.500 M. Such a spectator is learning pity in the process. . WEBER novel. Teach him to count on neither birth nor health nor riches. such as wives and daughters and mothers. tragedy leads the spectator to cross boundaries that are usually regarded as firm in social life. Show him all the vicissitudes of fortune. . 39) However. exiled. though one of his loved ones might – such as Trojans and Persians and Africans. that all their ills are there in the ground beneath his feet. therefore. and do not teach him to pity them if he considers them alien to him. asks him to identify himself not only with those whom he in some sense might be . my emphasis) So Nussbaum herself allows that one can learn to be compassionate toward people very different – people whose sufferings one is not oneself subject to. 1996. Thus. (Rousseau. Tragedies acquaint young people with the bad things that may happen in human life. 1996. . quoted in Nussbaum. . 39. because social structures – and our personal good fortune – can radically change. . that countless unforeseen and inevitable events can plunge him into them from one moment to the next. Of course despite various kinds of social stratification we are in fact all subject to nearly all the misfortunes that others suffer. accustom your pupil to regard the sufferings of the unfortunate and the labors of the poor from the height of his glory. . because it can teach us to be compassionate even towards those who suffer what we ourselves could not possibly suffer: . p. they should have compassion for their subjects (even if being subject to similar misfortune is a constitutive condition of compassion). p. . tragedy has a special significance.

that is. contingent feature that can be overcome and eliminated. . to see it as an essential. . It seems to me. to switch from the “similar possibilities” requirement to the eudaimonistic requirement in Nussbaum (2001). binds us to our own immediate sphere of life. But we have seen that “similar possibilities” is not a requirement of compassion. in its very nature. extends to only those whose misfortunes we think we ourselves might suffer. 315–317. however. is to defend compassion and pity against a variety of attacks that suggest that they should not serve as the fundamental ground of morality. that it distorts the world: for it effaces the equal value and dignity of all human lives (Nussbaum. however. however. But this does not mean that it can not stretch beyond these bounds.35 I think the best reply here is just to say that it is at least equally hard to adopt the “moral point of view” and have as much (moral) concern for distant strangers as one has for those in one’s “immediate sphere of life.”36 34 For Nussbaum’s treatment of the passage from Rousseau’s Emile in Nussbaum (2001). pp. . see pp. 1996. frequently invites this misunderstanding because she does not make the distinctions I have emphasized. . contingent eliciting conditions – can lead us to mistakenly think that its partiality is more problematic than it is. then surely concerns about partiality would persist.” It may well be true that we are generally more prone to have compassion when we think that we could suffer similar misfortune. 35 See Nussbaum (2001) pp. One commonly proffered reason for this is that compassion is partial: “Pity . after presenting the analysis of compassion which I have examined above. to what has affected us. 360–361).” 36 We should see it as an improvement in Nussbaum’s view. 2001. Of course it could be maintained that nonetheless it is very hard to expand the range of one’s compassion to include those whose misfortunes one does see oneself as vulnerable to. intrinsic feature of the compassion instead of an empirical. 386: “. that the analysis of compassion above should mitigate fears that compassion is hopelessly partial. Nussbaum. not a part of its “nature” or “logic.34 II Nussbaum’s second task. p. see also Nussbaum. to what we see before us or can easily imagine. . This means. ineliminable. or more strongly that they should have no place at all in our social life. If it were the case that compassion. then. A failure to see this in the case of compassion – to distinguish its constitutive conditions from its empirical.COMPASSION AND PITY 501 one day be deposed or exiled. the psychological mechanisms by which human beings typically arrive at compassion – empathy and the judgment of similar possibilities – typically rest on the senses and the imagination in a way that makes them in principle narrow and uneven. 43.

perhaps entirely at fault. even if we can overestimate their importance. on the Stoic view these conditions can never be met because the Stoics maintain (1) that external goods. share the view (which I have rejected) that compassion requires thinking that someone has suffered a significant misfortune for which he is not at fault. and (2) that one’s own virtue is entirely under one’s own control. in terms I have introduced.502 M. 1994a. Nussbaum (2001. p. taking into account only constitutive norms. 143. In particular. 2001. 2001. on Nussbaum’s view. if the person suffers such misfortune due to a culpable mistake that we all are prone to make. equally reasonably.” which is just to say. is not the only objection to compassion and pity. the though here too it may be hard to incorporate the well-being of others into our own conception of eudaimonia. friendship. 37 This is a well-known point Aristotle himself makes in the Nichomachean Ethics. such that were it to be compromised it would be one’s own fault – the result of one’s own weakness or bad decisions. that compassion can be warranted even when a person is to some degree at fault. even if it is allowed that virtue is sufficient for a good life and that one is responsible for one’s own virtue. 370–375). that the emotion’s (alleged) constitutive conditions can never be satisfied (Nussbaum. External goods. good health. This of course is not Nussbaum’s reply to the Stoic objection. 1996. Thus. p. also argues that one cannot likely reach the “moral point of view” without having previously experienced compassion and in some sense worked to expand it. pp. p. pp. 388–391). including material goods. Once again. and all the rest are important to the good life. for his own misfortune. As Nussbaum notes. that is. however. especially the importance of material goods. or never had. 1996. compassion can still be entirely warranted in cases where a person suffers a misfortune (a falling away from virtue). one ought to experience compassion for a person if and only if he has suffered a significant misfortune for which he is not at fault. then compassion is nonetheless warranted. Nussbaum explains. Thus. pp. the analysis of compassion and pity above provides a quick response. that we should simply reject the Stoic conception of the good (Nussbaum. 146. However. the Stoics level a fundamental objection according to which pity has a “false cognitive-evaluative structure. and health. through no fault of one’s own. since external goods can be lost. Book I. successfully I hope. 41. 356–357). including not just material goods but also power. for distant others to be as important to us as those more near. Chapter 9. WEBER Partiality. For I have argued. Instead. 44–57. 1994a. she argues. are of little or no importance because one’s own virtue is entirely sufficient for a flourishing human life.37 Thus. Thus pity’s “evaluative structure” or “evaluative presentation” is necessarily mistaken because a person is always at fault for any misfortune he suffers. The Stoics. . pp. friends.

this is ultimately a Stoic objection because compassion and pity demean the pitied by “implying that this is a person who really needs the things of the world. p. 1996. won’t be easily held in check when we ourselves suffer. Nussbaum argues that the objection is Stoic because in taking pity you are acknowledging to yourself the value of the “things of the world. 2001.” 40 Nussbaum (1996) p. 42. for instance. the pitied: “To offer pity. see also Nussbaum. arguing that they are ultimately permutations on the fundamental Stoic objection because they stem from mistakenly placing value on external goods. “is as good as to offer contempt. 1996. The response to such damages will be pity 38 Friedrich Nietzsche.” .” Nietzsche says. she says. Here too. and hate (Nussbaum. Nussbaum notes that Nietzsche thinks that compassion and pity are intimately linked to other emotions that are nearly universally agreed to be unappealing or objectionable. 39 Both Nietzsche and Rand also claim that selflessness is a vice and selfishness a virtue. because “the person who pities accepts certain controversial evaluative judgments concerning the place of ‘external goods’ in human flourishing.COMPASSION AND PITY 503 Stoics are wrong to think that the evaluative presentation of compassion and pity is necessarily false. or demean. pp. 41–42. But a person who accepts those judgments accepts that she has given hostages to fortune.” and are prepared to pity oneself for misfortune with respect to external goods: “Given the judgment of similar possibilities [that one is subject to the same misfortune]. but also for fear and anxiety and grief” (Nussbaum.” a “higher and more fundamental value for life might be ascribed to .”38 This is also a well-known claim made by Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness and in her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. if it is nourished and strengthened on the sufferings of others. Rand and Nietzsche also think that having pity is bad for or demeans the pitier. anxiety. anger. Republic 606b. 43–44. Plato. . . which can in principle be damaged by another’s agency. Nietzsche famously argues that compassion and pity are bad for. he says that “. 1996. whereas no virtuous person has such needs” (Nussbaum. And to give hostages to fortune is to be set up not only for pity. .39 According to Nussbaum.”40 Finally. So. . 361–364). including fear. Daybreak (D15). makes a similar point. . that insofar as one pities others one is prone to pity oneself: “I suppose that only a few are able to figure out that enjoyment of other peoples’ sufferings is necessarily transferred to our own and that the pitying part. . So too with anger: The pitier acknowledges the importance of certain wordly goods and persons. 2001. see also Nussbaum. Nussbaum similarly rejects a variety of other challenges to pity and compassion. Compassion and pity lead to fear. pp. In Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (2). pp. grief. for all the value that . 43). envy. pity also insults the dignity of the person who gives pity. 357–358). for instance. pp. anxiety and grief. the selfless may deserve. selfishness.

Crying and consolation. rather than “picking oneself up” and making things better. 1996. .504 M. we see their success as somehow bad for us. (Nussbaum. What makes Stoicism distinctive is its conception of the good. 1996. 43). . Instead. One way to flesh this out would be just to say that whatever might be of value. Consider first the charge that compassion and pity are bad for both the pitied and the pitier. it seems that they go out the window with the rejection of the Stoic conception of the good. that these criticisms can be construed in non-Stoic terms. p.41 Pity harms the pitied. However. 361–362) The story is the same with envy and hatred: We envy and hate people for the external goods that they have and we lack. Pity harms the pitier insofar as it has him emphasize consoling a “down” person rather than putting his energies into accomplishing something great himself. and then arrange our affairs in whatever way reason determines to be best. We mustn’t hug the hurt part and spend our time weeping and wailing like children when they trip. along with the “false cognitive-evaluative structure” objection. the response will be anger. get you nowhere. is not distinctively Stoic. 146–147. replacing lamentation with cure . This surely is a big part of Plato’s critique of compassion and pity in Book Ten of the Republic. it is crucial to distinguish (a) distinctively Stoic points. This objection. insofar as it encourage us to commiserate – to cry and console – when things do not go well. we should always accustom our souls to turn as quickly as possible to healing the disease and putting the disaster right. WEBER if the damage is to someone else. insofar as it sanctions lamenting. But if these criticisms can be characterized independently of the Stoic conception of the good – especially if they can be characterized independently of any particular conception of the good – then there is still work to do to defend compassion and pity. but if the damaged person is oneself. at 604c-d: We must accept what has happened as we would the fall of the dice. instead of picking ourselves up off the floor and striving to achieve whatever it is that is valuable in life. The “haves. whatever makes for the good human life. and the damage is deliberate. and (b) things the Stoics said. we fall farther from it insofar as these emotions have us dwell on our weaknesses and failures to achieve this good. then. to put it simply. 43. . pp. or supporting others – including the imagined individual pitied – in their efforts to accomplish something great. I think that this is indeed the case. we also say that the part 41 Nussbaum correctly notes that the ancient Stoics make this point. pp. p. whatever it is that makes for a good life. see also Nussbaum. then. Insofar as these criticisms are tied to the Stoic conception of the good. 1994a.” on the other hand. hate the “have-nots” because they fear that they might take away what they have (see Nussbaum. 2001.

hated by the culture of pity: “it has placed all the basic instincts of this [higher] type under the ban. with all failures”. 42 This is compatible with acknowledging that some of Plato’s critical comments can be construed in Stoic terms. the ‘reprobate. success in individual cases is constantly encountered in the most widely different places and cultures: here we really do find a higher type. more certain of a future. 47 It is unclear to me exactly how much. I think. and a friend of cowardice.”45 Indeed. The charge that compassion and sympathy are bad for both the person pitied and the pitier can be construed entirely neutrally. The Antichrist 7. as an exception. 145. never as something willed. . but what type of man shall be bred. . insofar as its message is that there’s no shame in it. worthier of life. The Antichrist 5.44 To this extent it is a culture of mediocrity.” 48 Nietzsche. The Antichrist 5. In fact. and attained: the domestic animal. the sick human animal – the Christian.. bred. however. shall be willed. those capable of being the “higher type. I think. Christianity should not be beautified and embellished [because] . The Antichrist 4–5. . 43 Nietzsche. idle. p. . . He complains that Christianity – “the religion of pity” – “has sided with all that is weak and base. the point is developed into a larger cultural criticism. in relation to mankind as a whole.”43 In a way it condones failure. this has been the type most dreaded – almost the dreadful – and from dread the opposite type was willed. and that can never get enough of these things. and out of these instincts it has distilled evil and the Evil One: the strong man as the typically reprehensible man. Nietzsche cares about the state of the culture as a whole above and beyond how it affects certain individuals.e. the herd animal. 45 Nietzsche. if at all. .42 Nietzsche. in particular. Even in the past this higher type has appeared often – but as a fortunate accident. . 44 Nietzsche. i. which is. See Nussbaum. Rather than supporting the strong. the “culture” or “morality” of pity throws its support – in every sense of the word. creative and successful. The Antichrist 3. is irrational. 1994a. . both emotional and monetary support – behind the weak and unsuccessful: .48 Clearly.”’46 The result is by and large dull people and a dull culture:47 The problem I thus pose is not what shall succeed mankind in the sequence of living beings .COMPASSION AND PITY 505 that leads us to dwell on our misfortunes and to lamentation. for being higher in value. Nietzsche’s complaints do not presuppose the Stoic conception of the good. it has waged deadly war against this higher type of man. a kind of overman . 46 Nietzsche. . has the same idea in mind when he complains that “pity persuades men to nothingness. such men are vilified. In Nietzsche’s hands. at best.

Thus.50 Pity. Here the worms of vengefulness and rancor swarm. in other words. p. This seems clear in a passage from the Genealogy of Morals that Nussbaum herself explicates: The “veiled glance of pity. pp. 52 Nussbaum. Chapter 14. compassion and pity breed hate because in their quest to console those who are “down. leans toward the latter. 51 This is not to say that Nietzsche favors bringing up those who are down. . to take it as one example of the objectionable emotions associated with compassion and pity. and support them. we should turn our eye to those who are up. As Plato suggests. This elitist strand in Nietzsche I will address in what follows. Nietzsche seems to think. that every weed.49 As for the hate that compassion and pity supposedly breed. however success is judged. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. and replaced by “hardship” cases. see also Nussbaum.” and everything about them (their “instincts”). contra Nussbaum. . and against all those in that world who are not brought low.52 49 Nietzsche. WEBER simply as the claim that compassion and pity comfort us in our failure rather than spurring us to success.” acknowledging one’s own weakness and inadequacy – this glance of the pitier is. causing depression and despair: Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect.51 This point is completely neutral with respect to conceptions of the good. as he seems to think that only very few are capable of being up – of being the overman – and thus rather than trying to bring up those who are down. Consolation. whether they deserve it or not. Nietzsche seems to think that it arises not because compassion and pity are yoked with placing value on the external goods that the Stoic conception of the good rejects as valuable. Pity makes suffering contagious. 1996. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity.” by whatever standard. The quotation from Nietzsche is from his Genealogy of Morals. 362–363. who are self-respecting and self-commanding: “It is on such soil. It does this in myriad ways. Nietzsche adds that it has a lasting psychological effect. 2001. The Antichrist 7. Putative heroes are debunked or slandered. the “culture” or “morality” of pity specializes in taking down those who are successful. Book III. Rather. can be achieved either by bringing up those who are down. Nietzsche argues. Under certain circumstance. the basis of much hatred directed against a world that makes human beings suffer. every poisonous plant grows . on swampy ground. or by bringing down those who are up. 44. it can easily turn to vilifying those who are “up.” which looks inward on one’s own possibilities with a “profound sadness. it is not an essentially Stoic point rooted in a conception of the good that denies the value of external goods. it may engender a total loss of life and vitality out of all proportion to the magnitude of the cause.506 M. 50 Thus . it simply takes up time and energy that might otherwise be spent productively.

the basis and source of all virtues. it seems to me. insofar as Nussbaum tries to bring Nietzsche entirely into the Stoic fold. Rather. 375–376). In addition. at the expense of the “tonic” emotions. according to which pity comes to be seen as the sole value. put forth in a way neutral with respect to conceptions of the good? I think that they should not deeply trouble friends of compassion and pity. they suggest that these emotions. be too willing to be undisturbed by weakness and failure – or worse. the virtue from which all others are derived. Though Nietzsche himself seems to hold strongly that pity is necessarily a vice. bits and pieces appearing in different texts. that is. Surely they do not presuppose the Stoic conception of the good. The real danger that Nietzsche points out. In all this. preliminary defense of that claim here. he does sometimes emphasize that things only get really bad when pity is made the virtue: Some have dared to call pity a virtue (in every noble ethic it is considered a weakness). and the associated “virtues. The Antichrist 7. But 53 Nietzsche. but rather exclusively directing resources toward those who are less rather than more successful. is a kind of cult of compassion. all-too-ready to take a kind of pleasure in misery and its consolation (compare to Nussbaum. there are surely elements that draw on the Stoic view. and if this were not enough.” We can cry and console too much. and their corresponding virtues. . III So what should we make of the criticisms we find in Plato. First. Thus. Nietzsche’s criticisms do not seem to me to call for completely expunging compassion and pity. she misses or misconstrues much of what he has to say. For then there is nothing that spurs us on to positive achievement. now construed in non-Stoic terms. pp. To be sure – and one should always keep this in mind – this was done by a philosophy that was nihilistic and had inscribed the negation of life upon its shield. Nietzsche never treats the topic systematically. Nietzsche’s critique of the “culture” or “morality” of pity is many–sided. though I will give only a brief.” can be overemphasized. Nietzsche and Rand. 2001. But this should not lead us to interpret all that he says in Stoic terms. To be fair.COMPASSION AND PITY 507 Nietzsche’s central attacks on compassion and pity seem to me.53 What goes along with this is that the problem is not so much directing resources – both emotional and financial – toward those who are less rather than more successful (by whatever standard). it has been made the virtue. there are surely traces of Stoicism to be found in Nietzsche. which “heighten our vitality. to be independent of any particular conception of the good. then.

p.” People of various political persuasions – from so-called “right” to “left” – can agree on this.508 M. WEBER surely we can agree that at least some of our resources should go toward the “best and the brightest. however. It seems to me that it is compassion itself that motivates this moving forward. First. the tough get going!” There are. Of course how much should go to “everybody else” might depend upon how much we think that. Nietzsche. Compassion calls for consolation. But we might well reject this element of his thought. improvement. It is simply not the case that either having or receiving compassion cripples one in the way Nietzsche suggests: it simply does not entirely vitiate our “vitality. All this requires thinking that a little bit of compassion is not like a little bit of rust. it seems unfair – and I mean just plain inaccurate – to think that compassion and pity inspire only consolation and it is other emotions – other virtues – that inspire “putting the disaster right” and moving toward high achievement. allows that compassion focuses only on what is negative.” It may if it is made too central to our emotional and ethical life. with the result that the Nietzschean commitment to “excellence” is compatible with dedicating resources to a wide spectrum of people. I think.” in Plato’s words. It is only then that it is bad for the pitier and the pitied (Blum. But it does not end there: compassion also inspires rectifying the situation – seeking. to put it bluntly. This seems to be at least a part of the reason they both want little to do with such emotions. at least at times. and Plato too. and “weeping and wailing” together like children. sometimes suggest that compassion and pity inspire nothing beyond providing consolation – “hugging the hurt part. itself corrosive and impossible to prevent from spreading until it covers all – until nothing else remains. we should. have shown relatively little promise. 175). Blum (1994. in particular. p. They both think that instead. He notes. for sure. including. But it seems to me that compassion is not in this way like rust. quit crying and set ourselves to “putting the disaster right.” This is the familiar “When the going gets tough. Disagreement is over just how much should go to the best and the brightest and how much should go to everybody else.54 Also. But this is just to say that we must not let compassion and pity take over our lives. 1994. with sufficient resources. that while the existence of one altruistic attitude (one concerned with the negative and alleviating pain) is no assurance of the possession of others (focused and the positive and producing . as much as possible. 181. two points to be made here in defense of pity and compassion and the associated virtues. without such resources. seems pretty clearly to think that it is only the few that have such capacity. Nietzsche. or at least as soon as possible. those who. the value of 54 It might be denied that compassion has a positive side. most people are capable of significant success (by whatever is the relevant standard). and in this way concerns itself only with alleviating pain and not with producing pleasure. for instance. also emphasizes this point).

because bringing down those who are successful provides consolation to those who are not. are part of a negative force comfortable only with misery – or worse. their success or their privilege that is hated. and that they matter – is highly important in itself. It seems to me that insofar as those who praise compassion and pity and champion the less fortunate hate the more successful and the more privileged. both relating to the charge. this bringing them back to the social world of recognition – acknowledging that they are suffering. A too heavy emphasis on “getting over it” and “putting the disaster right” can be counterproductive. its presence is valuable when combined with other emotions that focus on the positive (and producing pleasure). is that we must be sure that the many aspects of compassion are all at work. contra Nozick. This kind of intimate engagement with those who suffer. 55 This is a version of a point I made earlier: people are more likely to pull themselves together if they are offered a little compassion first.COMPASSION AND PITY 509 consolation should not be understimated. I am not able. as a comment on pity being linked with hate.56 If this is right – and I can offer it only as a nonscientific observation – then it is a mistake to think that those who think compassion and pity virtues. what is thought to be disgraceful – indeed hateable – are those who are more successful and privileged who seem to have little or no concern at all for the less fortunate. that pity leads to an attack on the successful (by whatever standard). just as much as can be too much emphasis on consolation and dwelling on weakness and failure. Finally. because too much compassion – too much focus on the negative and consolation – and too much of the more “positive” emotions which ignore the need for consolation are equally problematic. on the other hand. and who champion the less fortunate. . In this account too. Pity. 56 This indifference might be genuinely hateable only if it is agreed that talent. I offer a psycho-social-political observation. as Rawls argues. does not have this destructive element. there is no reason to think that the two are mutually exclusive. a balance has to be struck. clear in Nietzsche and even clearer in Rand. Envy is just as much satisfied by bringing down those who are successful as it is by lifting oneself up. The truth in what Nietzsche and Plato say. This suggests a position analogous to mine: while compassion on its own may be undesirable. it is not simply because the latter are more successful and privileged.55 I will conclude this preliminary defense with two quick points. just as a person is more likely to learn a lesson from his mistakes if he is offered a little compassion first. that fairness requires mitigating the inequalities that arise from luck. then. Rather. actually attracted to misery – and opposed to human achievement and excellence. as pleasure). Suffering is a profoundly private experience. leaving one isolated and wondering if others care. success and privilege are to a significant degree the result of luck. and to the right degree. Consolation assures those who suffer that others do care. and. to defend these two claims here. If this is indeed Nietzsche’s view. but their indifference. then it seems to me that it confuses pity and envy. however. It is not their talent.

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