The Psychology of Pity

In response to my last column, several people wrote in and asked: “Is pity an emotion of contempt?”

My reply is that yes, pity is an emotion filled with contempt. Pity is not genuine empathy or compassion. Pity is based on the premise: “Your vulnerability allows me an opportunity to be superior.” The person feeling pity for another is not doing the object of the pity any favors. Why do you think that most people don’t want to be pitied? It’s because they sense, quite accurately, the truth of what I’m asserting here.

Sometimes pity is a private matter, and often it’s a public matter. When pity is public, the person feeling the pity wants at least one

other person to know about it. “Look at me. I’m feeling compassion for this other person and want you to know it.” This enhances the feeling of superiority. “I’m feeling pity and I have at least one witness. This proves I’m a compassionate person. I’m SO good.”

Genuine compassion needs no such public attention. If you really feel something for someone, then that’s that — and you don’t need anyone else to know, not even the person towards whom you’re feeling the compassion or empathy.

Sometimes pity is more private. The person feeling the pity wants the object of the pity to know — but not necessarily anybody else. This doesn’t change the fact that pity is based on contempt. The person feeling pity wants the object of pity to know about it, as if to seal the deal on the experience of being superior to another.

Pity can be a response to someone who brought the problem on himself, or not. It doesn’t really matter, because the point of the pity is, as I’ve been saying, to feel superior. If I have an unhealthy need to feel pity, then I’ll feel it towards an innocent victim of a natural disaster or crime, or someone who is chronically irresponsible.

Pity and compassion are not the same. Compassion involves a sense that, “That could be me.” It doesn’t imply superiority or contempt. This is not to say that compassion is always rational. Sometimes people feel compassion erroneously. They feel badly for another because, “It could be me,” when in fact no such thing is true. Someone loses his job, doesn’t look for a new one, decides to live off the government — and as a result soon goes bankrupt. “That could be me. I could lose my job or business too.” Well, maybe I could, but I wouldn’t necessarily handle it the same way. This sort of compassion is misplaced compassion. It happens all the time. Still, it’s not the same as the contempt of pity.

Pity (as well as misplaced compassion) arises from a deeper error people make regarding the subject of ethics. Nearly everyone believes or assumes that the definition of being moral is service or sacrifice to others. The alternative to this ethic is survival, self-responsibility and rational self-interest. The more you take care of yourself, the less harm you do to others and the more you’re able to give to others, if you want to do so. But the central purpose of life is the achievement of one’s own happiness. This is why the virtues of rationality, productivity and self-responsibility are so important.

Unfortunately, while some proponents of ethics support these ideas, they don’t define them as the nature of ethics. The purpose of your life, we’re all told, is to live for others. How ridiculous. How can I live for others without caring for myself? And even if I can somehow pull that off, aren’t others benefiting from my sacrifices for them? By making their lives easier, aren’t they selfishly benefiting — and how does that square with the notion that all self-interest is bad?

If the dominant view about ethics changed, there’d be a lot less pity, along with the contempt that it implies.