What does a compassionate society look like and why should we care?

We live in interesting times. I’m not sure we’re going to make it as a species (see here) and, recently, I’ve been writing about some of the things that we’re going to need if we’re going to survive (like a sense of humour). I’ve also written a lot about compassion and its benefits for humans and humanity, especially in comparison to our outmoded default settings.

Orangutan and Baby

Today, I thought I might postulate at what a compassionate society might look like – in other words, a society that allows humans a chance to survive as a species, by reducing the likelihood of destroying ourselves directly (violence) or indirectly (destroying the biosphere).

Let’s start (briefly) with a discussion of ethics versus morals. It’s a good place to start, because a lot of what might be considered compassionate is often confused with a moral stance.

OK, so what are ethics? A simply as I can state it, ethics are the philosophical study of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’. There are many branches of ethical philosophy, which can probably be broken down into two main viewpoints: deontological and teleological ethics. In deontological ethics, it is held that it’s not the outcome that matters so much as the motives behind an action. For example, euthanasia would be deemed an ethical behaviour if it was performed to reduce the suffering of an individual, or was done with his or her willing consent. Thus, deontological actions are concerned with the wellbeing of the individual, even if the actions taken to preserve that wellbeing could be considered immoral (from a teleological viewpoint). A teleological or consequentialist stance opposes this outlook by proposing that, in effect, the end justifies the means. That is, an action is ethical if it produces a ‘good’ outcome. The danger in this viewpoint, however, is that the morality of an act is determined by a preexisting set of rules. Thus, if a church decides that an act contravenes its rules (e.g., abortion), it would be considered immoral. Teleological ethics fall victim to the motives of the rule makers, and seldom allows for an evolution of ideas.

Sitting someway between deontological and teleological ethics is virtuous ethics. In this viewpoint, it is the duty of the individual to behave virtuously, despite urges or desires to the contrary. Practising virtuous ethics is difficult: it requires doing the right thing to the right person at the right time, and respects the rights of another equally to the rights of the self. It’s not a long way from the notion of values that I’ve presented before (here) and the act of choosing to behave congruently with those values even though there are strong (evolutionary) urges to the contrary.

Morality is simply the differentiation between right or wrong, usually determined by an ethical standpoint. Thus, if your ethical standpoint is teleological, an action will be inherently immoral if it doesn’t fit within your predetermined set of rules for moral behaviour.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, we probably need to look at what compassion actually is, and how it might be applied at a societal level. Put as simply as I can, compassion is the ability to understand that others are inherently the same as yourself; that they are thinking, feeling, caring, loving, confused, irrational human beings just the same as you, and that they deserve your kindness, respect and understanding, whether or not they share your worldview. Expressed at a societal level, compassion means caring for those around us by recognising their preferences, rights, and choices (again, so long as their actions don’t fuck it up for the rest of us) without being constrained by a preexisting moral stance.

So where are we at the moment? Well, we’ve come some way in the last 100 years. For the most part, racism and sexism have been reduced (alas, certainly not eliminated). This required an evolution in the way we thought about humanity as a whole, and roles within the sexes. It required a recognition that, no matter what skin colour or genitalia a person has, he or she is a person and, like us, deserves the same rights. But we’ve also got a long way to go. Currently, for instance, there’s a strong push for the legalisation of gay marriage. Those who oppose it take a moral stance. Their teleological (rule-based) ethics do not allow for the notion that two people of the same sex can have the same rights as those of opposite sexes. In this case, they claim that a poorly translated collection of 3000 year-old tribal history is the word of God (and therefore are immutable), and that these writings forbid same-sex marriage. Thus, for many Christians, gay marriage must be immoral.

The problem with the current debate over gay marriage is that it’s not based on any type of compassionate stance. Rather, it’s predicated on a moral argument that is at best outmoded and at worst contradictory, irrational and exclusory. A compassionate society is one in which the rights of its members are respected, so long as those rights do not harm another. From this perspective, the only harm in gay marriage is to the limited world view of those who oppose it.

Sadly, when a government takes a moral stance, based on a teleological ethical viewpoint that stems from a religious tradition, we’re a long way from compassion. Too often, governments claim that they are doing it for our own good – because the ends justify the means. This argument allows for too much, and too much atrocity has been committed using this excuse. In a compassionate society the ends never justify the means.

Gay marriage might be topical, but there’s a raft of other actions that a compassionate society might embrace, and which are currently considered immoral (again based on an outmoded ‘rule book’). Personally, I think the most important ones are (in no particular order) the rights to euthanasia and abortion, animal welfare (considering animals as sentient beings, not as commodities or resources), truly placing the health of the biosphere ahead of economic arguments, and learning to recognise that our internal feelings and urges are largely irrelevant (that last one’s a bit cryptic – read this for an explanation).

Here’s a particularly current example that breaks my heart. Over the last 10 years, the demand for palm oil has risen dramatically. Palm oil ends up in pretty much everything (including your food as ‘vegetable oil’ and your shampoo and toothpaste as sodium laureth sulphate) because it’s cheap. Unfortunately, it needs to be grown, and to do so large portions of rainforest in Indonesia and Borneo have been destroyed to plant palm. Without the rainforest Orangutans are dying out – and will probably face extinction within the next decade. All so we can have a cheap source of foaming agent for our fucking shampoo. When pressed, most of the companies that provide the products will claim that there isn’t an economically viable alternative, but when one is created, they’ll happily switch over to it. It’s this attitude that makes me want to weep. Despite being directly responsible for the destruction of a species, they’ll claim they don’t have a choice because it’s not economically viable to change. Oh, that reminds me: please stop buying products containing palm oil.

Look, it comes down to this. We’re hardwired to want rules. They make us feel safe, they help us feel that we have control over our too-complex world, and they provide comfort. This makes sense: we evolved in a dangerous world where something was always trying to eat us. Taking a moral stance based on teleological ethics helps us deal with a scary, complex world. But (and this is really important) it won’t work for much longer. We need to stop listening to the demands of our mid-brain (see here) – yes it wants us to feel safe, but it often provides that feeling when we consume, act in violent or petty ways, or put our own needs above those of others (including entire species). These demands helped us survive for a long time. Ironically, the same demands will wipe us out, because they decry compassion on a wide scale.

Recognising your prejudices allows you to question them. Instead of just going along with the knee-jerk reactions of your mid-brain, take a compassionate stance. See things from another’s perspective, even if that perspective is different to yours and ask “are they really doing harm, or do I subscribe to a rule system that insists that their actions are harmful”.

Oh, and it’s actions that count, not intentions. Yoda said it best: “Do or do not… There is no try.”

Every time we question our rules we open the door a little more to a compassionate society. One in which we recognise the needs of others and the needs of the planet as equally important to our own. One in which we take action to help those around us, and not only for personal gain. What do you think, do we have a chance?

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