Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Conversations on compassion, Humanism, and philosophy

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(cc) alphaman,

I recently had a conversation with a friend I thought others might find interesting, so I’ll share part of it here along with some additional commentary. She wrote to me:

I’m in progress of reading every article on your humanistcontemplative.blogspot

Great stuff. So far, the only thing which strikes me as different from my own beliefs is the inclusion of compassion as some essential component of philosophy or of being a philosopher. Although I highly value compassion, I see it as more of a human trait; not universal but one of many emotions. I’m reminded of what Nietzsche said about empathy, something to the effect of that it drains strength. And at the risk of sounding cliché, Nietzsche’s thought has most profoundly affected me over the years. For example, the difference between what he calls “master morality” and “slave morality”.

The term Humanist only bothers me by the thought of placing some special importance on humans. I’ve settled into what I can only describe as a loose pantheism, which is sort of a mixture of what you describe in “Two approaches to desire” because I understand both the incredible transience of life, but also the utility of irrational exuberance and the dangers of rational nihilism. Um well, these are thing more fun to speak of in person but I guess it could be summed up as “The existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon”.

I’m honored you like my articles, thanks for reading 🙂

On the compassion thing, the best thing I could recommend on that from myself would be ‘Freethought and Compassion‘. On the term ‘Humanism’ and human emphasis, I’d read ‘Does Humanism exclude non-humans?

“Freethought and Compassion” presents a very good argument. I agree 100%.

Also the non-speciesist origin of humanism; I wasn’t aware.

Certainly living with compassion makes for a better life for the practitioner. What concerns me are moral questions such as giving to beggars. Situations where you can choose to practice either a short-sighted compassion, or something which appears mean in the short term but ultimately alleviates or prevents suffering on a larger scale.

Too many people shut off their brains while trying to be compassionate. Then there’s the mindset which so many fall into, that of looking down on and pitying others while feeding on the ego boost of being able to help slightly.

Another issue is that, as free thinkers we understand the open ended nature of reality, the lack of absolutes -and compose a personal morality based on reason. But a majority of people have neither the time or inclination to inspect reality. It leads me to think of the utility of a hierarchical or cast system, but I can’t begin to surmise what that would entail.

All good points. On the matter of short term help vs longer term, these things come up often, such as the case in which a doctor may need to inflict a little suffering to treat the patient.

In these things we will all need to run our calculus and take the best course we can, but ultimately we have to remind ourselves that our calculations on what actions will lead to what results are highly prone to error and based on incomplete information. This is why we cannot be too concerned with the outcome of externals, but rather, our internal motivation. Being sure our character, our intentions, and our actions are pure and motivated by compassion is what we must do in order to achieve a deeper contentment in life I think. How all of that plays out in terms of consequentialism is a matter for Nature/physics/the Logos/karma to worry about and therefore somewhat irrelevant to our walk.

As for the utility of cast systems, that too is an outward approach focused on seeking control over externals – in seeking to instill some larger scale template of how we imagine things “ought” to be and how others “should” behave.

When I have been at my most confused, most distressed, and all of the machinations of if/then scenarios are going through my head and I don’t know what to do – I have found that if I just fall back on the simple power of compassion and act from that, without fear, greed, or hopefully delusion, then things may not always turn out how we thought or hoped, but it will never let you down. You can rest easy knowing you acted in a pure way. At least, that has been my experience.

Good answer… I’ve not found fault with any of your augments; it just seems to leave something out that I can’t quite place -something of the animal struggle which has shaped mankind. The aspect of competition and survival of the fitted… Certainly compassion is a good strategy for both internal peace and getting along in the world.

It’s just had to wrap my mind around applying compassion to all the situations we encounter in life. It doesn’t seem possible in for example scarcity of resources –but that’s just my mind trying to grasp a more universal property of cycles; life and death. Compassion is universal-enough in the context of this human life.


I should follow our with a few comments here. It seems to me that many philosophers engage in ‘descriptive philosophy’ – that is, they seek to understand how human beings function socially and ethically, and describe it as they might describe the function of weather, the rotation of the planet, or the organization of an ant colony. This investigative realm is certainly a valid and important part of philosophy, but it is a bit different than the search for the ‘good life’ and the practices to move closer to it.

The notion of ‘animal struggles that have shaped mankind’ fit comfortably in descriptive philosophy. Marcus Aurelius himself said that life was more like wrestling than dancing. But in the end these notions are merely academic and must ultimately boil down to meaningful prescriptions on priorities, principles, and how we live if they are to be of use. Perhaps I should restate some conclusions from On Retribution, but a system focused on conflict and struggle over resources has not been shown to be a path conducive to real happiness as far as I’ve noticed. A big part of exploring how a contemplative philosophy functions in the face of scarcity of resources, will be the arrival at a place where we realize that biological survival is not the top priority, and death not the worst fate. A lot of folly has come from people getting too carried away about matters of life and death, as if any of us could escape the latter. How strange for a species whose individuals have never commonly lived even a single century.

My friend mentioned Nietzsche earlier and I am certainly no expert on his works. I’ve read that he was an admirer of Heraclitus, who inspired the Stoics conception of Nature, but that he viewed the world in terms of masters and slaves. The timeless competition between these two modes of though explained much about the history of Europe and America according to him. Yet Epictetus, with whom I’d agree, would say that we are all of us slaves, every one. It seems to me there is the potential for only one master and one kingdom – and that is myself and my will. If I am to rebel, then I should rebel first against him.

Written by DT Strain

March 22, 2010 at 11:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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