Just when I think nobody’s paying attention, my email box fills up responses to this column! In what was apparently a delayed reaction to an article from a few weeks ago, many of you asked if the emotion of pity was, in fact, veiled contempt.
Well, it’s probably not ‘nice’ to say this (regular readers know my feelings about fake ‘nice’), but yes, pity is most often filled with contempt.
People try to masquerade this emotion as empathy or compassion, but in the majority of cases it is not. Many expressions of pity are based on the premise that, “Your vulnerability allows me an opportunity to feel superior.” The person expressing pity for another is not doing the object of the pity any favors. Why do you think that so many people don’t want to be pitied? It’s because they quite accurately sense the truth of what I’m asserting. The contempt lurking behind pity is like the proverbial elephant in the living room. Everybody knows it’s there, but nobody talks about it.
Pity becomes particularly interesting when the person feeling the pity wants others know about it. If that desire could speak, it would say, “Look at me. I’m feeling ‘compassion’ for this person and I want everyone to know it.” The public display enhances the subsequent feeling of superiority. “There are witnesses to my empathy. This proves I’m a compassionate person, and everyone sees it.” But the truth remains: Genuine compassion needs no such public attention. If you truly feel something for someone, you act on it, and then that’s where it should end. There should be no need for anyone to know; not even the person towards whom you’re feeling pity.
In cases where the emotion might involve sincere empathy toward a victim of a natural disaster or crime, or sadness over the death of a friend’s loved one, that feeling is more like true sympathy (not pity dressed up as compassion). Pity and compassion are not the same. Compassion is usually the result of the feeling that, “It could be me.” But we have to be careful here. Could it really happen to you, as in the death of a loved one, or is it a reaction to, for example, someone losing his job, doesn’t bother to look for a new one, and decides to live off the government? “That could be me. I could lose my job or business too.” Well, that could happen, but would you handle it the same way? This sort of compassion, however misplaced, is not the same as pity.
Before you log on to your email to disagree with me, think about your first reaction if somebody said, ‘I pity you.’ If you’re like most people, you would be insulted. Pity (as well as misplaced compassion) arises from a deeper error people make regarding the subject of ethics. We are encouraged to believe that the definition of morality is service or sacrifice to others. However, if you look closely, the alternative to this is survival, self-responsibility and rational self-interest. In other words, the more you take care of yourself, the less harm you do to others and the more you’re truly able to give to others — if you choose to do so.
What is truly moral is to achieve your own happiness first. That’s why the virtues of rationality, productivity and self-responsibility are so important. Once you’ve accomplished that, the benefit to those you love (and whomever you choose to help) will come naturally. Why? Because it makes you happy to do so, and there you are, achieving your own happiness.
Interestingly, while some proponents of ethics support these ideas, they don’t define them as the nature of ethics. They couch it in the erroneous idea that the purpose of life is to live for others. Ridiculous. What possible good are you to others if you don’t take care of yourself first?
And even if you somehow do manage to pull that off, aren’t others benefiting from those vaunted sacrifices? By making their lives easier at the expense of your own well being, they are selfishly benefiting. It still doesn’t square with the mistaken notion that all self-interest is bad.
If everyone took care of themselves first, there’d be a lot less pity, along with the truly selfish contempt that it implies.