Resources for Compassion

Last night the distinguished (and remarkably cheerful) legal philosopher Martha Nussbaum spoke in New York at the William Alanson White Institute to a crowd of graying analysts and a handful of rambunctious kids in the back from Brown’s class of ’06. Guess which I was. The title of the talk was “Compassion: Human and Animal.” With it, she joined an ever-growing field of thinkers who are noticing the hidden roles that animals play in systems of human ethics. Particularly as ecological crises overtake us, I am coming to believe that this will be among the most fruitful areas of reflection in the humanities in years to come.

Forgive me if one way or another I misread her paper—hearing a talk one time through without having the printed text makes it difficult to catch the details, which in this case, are very rich. I will invite Professor Nussbaum to read this and correct my memory as she likes.

Nussabaum’s starting point comes from the dean of popular ethology today, the author of several fascinating books on ape behavior, Frans de Waal. Among humans, he has proposed the concept of “anthropodenial” thusly: “a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.” Nussbaum’s paper reflects on the consequences of such anthropodenial in human societies. She speaks of the ways in which the desire to purify the humanity in ourselves results in casting other people as animals. Certain habits of masculinity, for instance, perfect themselves by trying to transfer all the animality they sense in themselves onto women. In the process of striving to be fully and solely human, men make women into vessels of their vestigial animal, in particular through sexuality. The same strategies, she argues, apply to racial categories as well. Animalizing others makes it possible to abandon compassion for them. To make this point, Nussbaum skillfully analyzes some rather macabre examples from literature and recent genocidal history.

Her answer, then, is that to repair the brokenness of human compassion, which allows us to be unmoved by the suffering of others, we must embrace the animality in ourselves. When we abandon the project of purifying our own humanness at the expense of all resemblance to animal others, we cannot hide from compassion so easily. (Nussbaum didn’t address at all the work of Giorgio Agamben on human/animal distinctions or his concept of “bare life,” though the similarities were at times striking to me.)

Nussbaum’s point is a powerful one, and it raises challenging questions for the most well-meaning humanitarian ethics, not to mention the most ruthless tribalisms. But throughout, the paper continually appeared not quite able to follow its own call. While she explicitly rejects the traditional “ladder of nature” with animal at the bottom and human at the top, for instance, she cannot quite do away with it herself. In her discussion of what we share with animal emotions, she speaks of apes and mice as essentially less-developed versions of humans. Who can blame her? Whether you choose to adopt the hierarchical model explicitly or not, such comparisons will inevitably have hierarchical subtext, since, for humans, humanness will always be the paramount point of reference. Then, at the very end, Nussbaum describes her entire project in terms of “restraint”—the purpose is to restrain ourselves from doing evil. Yet, earlier, she implied that restraint would be an act unique to humans (since only we “have a robust conception of fault and no-fault” that would make restraint a possibility in the first place). Therefore, her conclusion appeared (at some level at least) to contradict the entire thrust of her talk: calling us to compassionate restraint amounts to a call to perfect our humanity at the expense of animality, the very thing that permits us lapses in compassion.

I do not point to this as an error in her reasoning so much as the arrival at an honest impossibility. We can no more welcome our animality fully than we can purify our humanity. Being human means inhabiting a circumstance that is different from other animals, just as being a bat would be also. One might even imagine, if humans are in fact fully animals, what better way to be an animal than to carry one’s humanness to its most uniquely human extremes?

I would, therefore, want to carry Nussbaum’s important point a bit further. Rejecting crass anthropodenial is only the first step of an ongoing habit. There are times, in fact, when a certain anthropodenial is just what we need. Compassion (which she rightly points out is related to but not exclusively bound to empathy), I argue, depends on an ongoing practice of dexterity with one’s own identity. There are a whole sequence of identities I can claim—carnally-born, animal, human, American, male, Catholic, Jewish, atheist, right-handed, leftist, Virginian, New Yorker, and so on. Living compassionately means wading among them all, arriving at none finally but all of them resolutely. Thankfully, each can represent a resource for compassion, for seeing others as bound up in myself. But each should also, at some level, be a brake on compassion, a place to draw the line where a degree of self-concern can be allowed to prevail.





2 responses to “Resources for Compassion”

  1. I had a visit from a very cute asian police officer this evening, and we were talking about ferrets. He had two when he was a kid, named yin and yang. Mine are named wasabi and wabi sabi. They are only two. He said his only lived seven years. I had heard of them living as long as fifteen years. Anyway he was very helpful the reason I had to call him about and when I asked him what his name was he turned back and said O. He said his name was just O and always was. He could have had an O in his chest in leggings and a cape. And while he helped rescue my ferrets and played with them, I felt as if their lives had been cut in half. I can’t accept that a ferrets life is supposed to be seven years. Fifteen seems reasonable. Mine will probably live longer because they run around free and are not locked in a cage. I don’t want my ferrets to die. They seem like little people more than ferrets, in that they seem very intelligent and worthy of more life. They have no idea I think about their fate. I feel like I know something they don’t. I would like for them to become human or for their spirits to go into humans. I raised them and now they are so intelligent and well rounded, that I think they won’t handle dying as well as some other ferrets. Or I won’t handle it very well. Especially wabi sabi. He is very pensive, moody and philosophical. I even wonder if he is much smarter than the average ferret. She too is remarkably present and I think she thinks she is becoming human. They play their ferret games with me, wrestling, leap frog, tag, hide and seek, tug of war, steal and hide things, climb me and things, burrow in anything and run out the door.

  2. I am thinking about the fleeting lives of my ferrets again. I bought a picture frame for my house and put a photograph of me and my dog in it. My dog has passed away. Suddenly I look at my ferret photographs and realize that this is all I will have of them along with all my memories. I am not sure I will want to take any more pictures. I take photographs as a form of artistic expression though. I just might not want to take a portrait anymore. That goes for anyone I love too. As long as there is something else that the photograph is saying I should be fine, which goes with the rest of my art. So I guess I have got things figured out. Thanks for listening.