Compassion, simply defined, means suffering with other people or animals. An excess of compassion might immobilize us; a lack of compassion--a far more common problem--might lead us to behave brutally.
My argument is that the only moral system worth its salt is one based on compassion. In order to make this argument, however, I want to dispose of two preliminary problems: 1. Is morality itself empirical or semantic? (when we talk about morality, what are we really talking about?) 2. Should morality consist of a very well-defined set of rules (inconsistent with impulsive actions of the heart), or can it be intuitive, generous and inconsistent?
Most moral discussion in our society takes place in a condition of ambiguity; the parties have not agreed in advance whether they are discussing the ought or the is, and many are likely completely unaware of the distinction. Philosophers have long known that you can never derive an ought from an is, so this is a crucial distinction.
Most moral discussions, when analyzed, turn out to begin from an ought, and then attempt to derive one or more other oughts from it. An example: Drugs are (ought to be) illegal; alcohol is a drug; alcohol ought to be illegal. Another: killing a sentiment human being is (ought to be) wrong; a fetus is (ought to be regarded as) a sentient human being; abortion is therefore killing and is (ought to be regarded as) wrong. I have put some oughts in parentheses to illustrate the ambiguity, that freqently when we talk about what we think is an is, we are really talking about an ought. For example, those who say "abortion is murder" are really making the statement that "society ought to regard abortion in the same way it regards murder." The unbridgeable gap between the "is" and the "ought" can be described more simply this way: there is not a single moral rule that can be deduced from any empirical fact. The fact that it is physically possible for one human to kill another does not generate any moral conclusion, either that killing is right or that it is wrong.
What this leads us to is a conclusion that all morality is normative, which is regarded by some people as a very frightening and dangerous statement. In response to a piece I wrote called Morality Without God, I received a very upset and rather sarcastic letter from an individual who pointed out that, without God, the most one can say in favor of a moral system is "I like morality," which, without God, is much the same type of statement as saying, "I like ice cream." I was rather shocked by this at the time, and I responded by trying to underline a deeper derivation for morality: it arises from human nature; we are genetically wired for it; etc. The truth of the matter is that ice cream also arises from human nature, and we are genetically wired for it in the same way that we are for morality. So my correspondent was correct.
God is humans' attempt to hold that the ought is an is, and we do this because we do not trust ourselves. If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. We are weak animals, at the mercy of our impulses, and require empirical moral rules rather than normative ones, to stop us.
A particularly stark, bleak and uncompromising analysis of the insubstantiality of ethical rules is set forth in A.J. Ayers' Language, Truth and Logic. Ayers relentlessly analyses the distinction, in all fields of human endeavor, between empirical and logical propositions. Only logical propositions can be proven, because we have invented language; thus we can determine with absolute certainty that certain uses of words are internally consistent, logical, and follow whatever rules we have set for them. All empirical propositions, even gravity, are theories only, and can never be proven, because of the inadequacy of the observing equipment.
When Ayers gets to ethics, he is particularly merciless. For his purposes, all ethical statements are senseless, in that they can be analyzed neither logically or empirically:
[F]undamental ethical conceptions are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgments in which they occur....[T]hey are mere pseudoconcepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money,", in a particular tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.
In Ayers' estimation, only the logical can be "truth", and the empirical, logically presented, can come close but can never be proven. He is not at all interested in the "ought", which is merely sociological. Rules are norms, and norms have little to do with logic or truth.
Ayers makes me remember Professor Mothersill of Barnard College, whose ethics course I took around 1975. Her favorite question of students who discounted the meaningfulness of the concepts of "right" and "wrong" was: "Would you steal pennies from blind newsboys?" If you answered no-- as virtually everyone did, motivated by propriety if nothing else--she would ask, "Why not?" Presumably, Ayers did not go around robbing blind newsboys.
An excellent answer to Ayers is Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics (written fifty years earlier, to be sure). Huxley acknowledges that ethics are a human creation, not part of the fabric of the universe: "The cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends...the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of ethics...."
Here is where compassion arrives in the picture. Motivated by our incomparable ability to suffer along with others, humans have determined to oppose the random cruelty of nature:
[T]he practice of that which is ethically best--what we call goodness or virtue--involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless asertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence.
Thus, according to Huxley, ethics combats nature. It is founded in compassion, "the tendency, so strongly developed in man, to reproduce in himself actions and feelings similar to, or correlated with, those of other men." While modern evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins analyze ethics as an "Evolutionarily Stable Strategy" (ESS) which coexists in a Manichean world with more selfish and cruel strategies, Huxley seems to think of ethics more as a step humans took to remove themselves from evolution.
This is a crucial point, rarely overtly considered, for all modern political debate. The Hobbesian, or as I like to call it, the NRA worldview, that life is a war of all against all, leads to a Social Darwinism that we saw resurgent right after the 1994 elections. It is inherent in views of welfare as a system artificially creating dependency, and of a liberal immigration policy as being contrary to nature. This view, of life as essentially competitive rather than cooperative, conflates "fittest" and "best" as the same. Huxley has a very persuasive refutation of this argument:
"Fittest" has a connotation of "best", and about "best" there hangs a moral flavor. In cosmic nature, however, what is "fittest" depends upon the conditions. Long since, I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the "fittest" that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its color...They, as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive.
Though it may be meaningless to Ayers, as beneath his notice, Huxley says that ethics are a set of rules upon which we agree, based on compassion, to make all our lives easier and to remove ourselves from a state of nature. As such, they are wholly normative; everything I have written in The Ethical Spectacle therefore advances my view of the "ought", that we will be better people and live more happily if we agree to eliminate campaign finance, countenance same sex marriage, renounce guns, and so forth. Therefore, in ethical debates such as those I carry on via email with scores of correspondents, there is no hope of persuading you that my system is more empirically correct than yours; I may only try to persuade you that my system is more logical, more likely to promote your happiness or everybody's, or (as I prefer), that it is more "beautiful" than yours (like a better flavor of ice cream.) I will return to the concept of beauty in ethics.
I keep referring to a "system" of ethics, but is ethics a "system"? It seems to me that we typically go wrong when we attempt to work out an encyclopedic set of normal rules. The fallacy of doing so is encouraged by our confusion of ethics with empirical reality; tomes of thousands of pages may be necessary to describe gravity, its mathematics, conditions and exceptions; but it seems to me that when we are creating norms, the fewer and more vivid the rules, the better. After all, the old testament boils morality down to ten rules, and Jesus--a great human being--managed to posit one rule from which you could derive all ten: Treat thy neighbor as thyself. Here is compassion.
It is notorious that all extended systems of norms run up sooner or later against hard cases in which they produce shocking results, especially when norms of equal value clash. Free speech advocates debate these kinds of problems all the time. If equality is an important goal, what do we do about speech offensive to equality? If freedom of speech is an important goal, what do we do about speech which kills speech? Law, our society's most detailed expression of norms, is not science. Most of us recognize that law, untempered by compassion, produces brutality. Even people who support the death penalty may be shocked by the decision of a Delaware prosecutor to seek the death penalty against a frightened teenage couple who delivered their baby in secret, then killed it or let it die. Norms are fuzzy. If you try to write rules that cover every imaginable situation, you will have rulebooks thousands of pages long, and they will still not deal with every possibility.
As a young attorney drafting contracts, I recognized that shorter contracts are better, giving basic rules that the parties can use, in good faith, to resolve differences. Otherwise, a contract, like any other kind of rulebook, would need a thousand pages of detail. Lawyers accordingly are fond of a kind of shorthand, using phrases like "reasonable" and "in good faith", which may seem relatively content-free on the page but are actually stuffed with centuries of normative precedent, making them easy to interpret.
Ethics and law are both fuzzy systems. "Fuzzy" used to be a pejorative adjective, implying "poorly thought out, vague." Now, the science of "fuzzy logic" reflects the fact that empirically, our world is not composed of on-off switches. Bart Kosko tells the story of Descartes' plug of beeswax. He held it near a fire and it melted; some of it flowed as liquid onto the hearthstone, and some of it evaporated. At what moment did it cease to be a "plug" of "beeswax"?
The finger shades into the hand, the hand shades into the wrist, the wrist into the arm. Earth's atmosphere shades into space. The mountain crumbles into a hill and in time crumbles into a plain. The growing human embryo passes into a living human being and a living brain decays into death.
We can put black-and-white labels on these things. But the labels will pass from accurate to inaccurate as the things change. Language ties a string between a word and the thing it stands for. When the thing changes to a nonthing, the string stretches or breaks or tangles with other strings. "House" stands for a house even after the house falls apart or burns. Our world of words soon looks like a fishing boat that drifts with thousands of tangled and broken lines.
Kosko is a professor of engineering and a leading proponent of computers that think in fuzzy terms like human beings. His analysis of ethics agrees with Ayers:
So can we test "Murder is wrong"? How?.... What would count as evidence for it? We think we know the fuzzy set of murder acts and the fuzzy set of wrong acts or wrong things. But what do we tie the string to? "Murder is wrong" is true if and only if murder is wrong. We can find chunks of space-time that are murder acts. But where do we find chunks that are wrong, are full of wrongness? No fact or data or observation or experience or measurement seems to make the claim true.Defining law as the "set of fuzzy moral claims that society or the state backs up with force," Kosko observes that "Law is a fuzzy labyrinth":
Try to draw a line between self-defense and not self-defense or between contract breach and not breach. The lines are curves and you will have to redraw them in each new case.
To an incipient lawyer or a moralist, this is a horrifying condition and you begin to sense yourself lost in that labyrinth. But later you come to understand that a large degree of fuzzy thinking--intuitive, seat of the pants reasoning--is superior in morality or law to a huge system of rules. Writing in 1919, Justice Benjamin Cardozo analyzed the judicial process as a type of fuzzy thinking:
My analysis of the judicial process comes then to this, and little more: logic, and history, and custom, and utility, and the accepted standards of right conduct, are the forces which singly or in combination shape the progress of the law.
In fact, any sufficiently articulated moral system leads to disaster, unless you are flexible about it. A classic example is Mill's theory of utilitarianism, in which we must always do that thing which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. But suppose the torture-murder of a five year old child were the necessary predicate to the great happiness of a large number of people? Or to pick a realistic example from recent history, the murder of a minority of the population, and the division of their goods (including the gold from their teeth) among the majority?
A moral resolution, rather than resulting from the strict application of a rule, becomes more of a work of art, constructed with a fact-based problem at its center. This is probably what Solomon was getting at, when he proposed to split the baby: an artful resolution of a dilemma that could otherwise have been decided by strict application of rules.
Law professor Cass Sunstein proposes a form of fuzzy thinking for lawyers in his article "On Analogical Reasoning". While reasoning by analogy, he says, is apparently intellectually inferior to applying a well-defined, extensive set of rules, in mushy territory like freedom of speech, analogy is likely to lead to better outcomes. He agrees that strict rules lead us down a path of brutal results, while analogy is a better process for reaching an intuitively correct result.
Philosopher Peter Singer discusses a distinction, proposed by R.M. Hare, between "intuitive" and "critical" thinking. Critical thinking is what we have described as the formulation of rule-based systems. "To consider, in theory, the possible circumstances under which one might maximise utility by secretly killing someone who wants to go on living is to reason at the critical level." This kind of thinking, Singer suggests, is a useful way of probing the rules, looking for exceptions, and making sure we have covered all the possibilities. But we cannot actually live our lives this way.
Everyday moral thinking, however, must be more intuitive. In real life we usually cannot foresee all the complexities of our choices. It is simply not practical to try to calculate the consequences, in advance, of every choice we make.....[I]t will be better if, for our everyday ethical life, we adopt some broad ethical principles and do not deviate from them.
Ironically, Singer himself falls into the trap he describes. His moral system, as described in his book Practical Ethics, is so complicated and subtle that it countenances the murder of new-born children while frowning on the killing of animals.
In creating norms--deciding what kind of a morality we wish to have--we do best when we use compassion as our cornerstone. Huxley points out that every major religious system has done so, even those which have no other beliefs in common. Because compassion is seated below reason in our breasts, it can inform and influence our thinking, temper justice, and promote the type of intuitive reasoning which avoids the logical but brutal results of rigid systems. It is only in our secular and social Darwinist age that compassion has become a vice and brutality a virtue.