Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Compassion As Emotional Blackmail

One day last week, as I drove home from work, I tuned in to “Catholic Answers Live” on the local Catholic radio station (KATH, AM 91). It must have been Tuesday (July 1), because it was an “open forum” night; the guest, if I be not mistaken, was Tim Staples, a convert from an Evangelical background. (He has a CD set about his conversion which has a most intriguing title: Jimmy Swaggart Made Me Catholic! It almost sounds like a Watchtower headline.)

A mother handed her ten-year-old wannabe skeptic daughter’s question over to Staples to answer: “If two people love each other, and one goes to heaven and the other goes to hell, how can the person who goes to heaven be happy there?” Staples confessed that there was no set answer to the question. “Some people believe that being in the Presence of God is so wonderful that we just forget about the loved ones in hell.”

The mother replied ruefully, “I tried that already. Her response was, ‘Sounds awfully selfish, Mom.’”

It’s a difficult problem: the kind of casuistry anti-Christians commonly employ, although perhaps a bit too low-key for that crowd. Indeed, the question is almost (but not quite) factitious; it reminds me very much of a joke the late Leo Rosten told in his book The Joys of Yiddish to illustrate Talmudic reasoning: “Two men fall down a chimney. One comes out clean; the other comes out dirty. Which one washes?” It’s highly unlikely that two people who love each other in any Christian sense would end up in such a state that only one would go to heaven.

To call it “casuistry”, however, doesn’t do away with its validity. The difficulty lies in the challenge it presents to Christian compassion: Does God have no pity, no compassion for those He sends to hell?

Compassion is a marvelous emotion. It enables us to feel the pain and distress of others, and motivates us to lessen their hardships. When Jesus speaks about the judgment of the nations (in Matthew 25:31-46), the ones who inherit the kingdom are those who exercise compassion: they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill and visit the imprisoned. They do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21); they “walk the talk”.

However, nothing holds so much potential danger as compassion combined with defect of reasoning … unless it is compassion combined with absence of moral courage. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” the old saying goes. There are many initiatives present today which would be utterly rejected as morally reprehensible were they not defended on grounds of compassion. The very fact that they’re promoted to aid the sick, the poor and the outcast gives them an electroplating of respectability, which clouds the moral issues and throws our policy debates into confusion. Compassion drives the arguments of the ill-advised promoter, and undermines the resistance of the ought-to-be opponent.

For example, in the thirty-five years since Roe v. Wade was handed down, the acme of pro-abortion symbolism has been the very young victim of rape or incest (which, if you think about it, is but a subset of rape).[*] No words can express the disgust the gentle heart feels for the man who perpetrates such a devastating trauma, who perverts the act which generates life into a weapon of humiliation and helplessness. The youth of the victim magnifies the inherent evil, since—for reasons we haven’t really examined among ourselves—we presume the adult woman more capable of defending herself. Certainly the victim is worthy of compassion; what person worthy of membership in humanity would not want to ease her suffering?

Therein lies the danger. The major weakness of all pro-abortion arguments is their reliance on the belief that only one person, the mother, needs to be considered. The young rape victim is suffering from an act of violence (the argument proceeds); to ask her to carry her pregnancy to term is to reinforce the trauma with an additional injustice. Well and good; however, Johnny Unborn is not the person who inflicted the initial trauma, nor is his continued existence an act of malice on his part. To cause his death because he was unlucky enough to be conceived in violence is even more unjust. To argue that he should die because his mother would resent him for the manner of his conception defies rationality; it’s not merely compassion misguided but compassion perverted.

I reread the last paragraph, and the argument against abortion for rape/incest victims remains so obvious, so lucid that I wonder one would not accept it once put in these terms. It’s so clearly a case of punishing the child for the sins of the father that I can’t fathom how anyone can put it forward with a clear conscience. Yet to state it in a context where opposition is immediately available is to invite abuse: “How can you be such a cold, heartless bastard? How can you be so cruel as to tell a woman who’s been raped that she has to remain pregnant with the child of the man who raped her?” This presents the immediate temptation to give in: who wants to be thought of as a heartless, cruel bastard? It takes both clarity of reasoning and moral courage to hold the line against such a naked appeal to pity.

Speaking of appeals to pity: I have tremendous respect for Michael J. Fox as an actor. However, shots of his living with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease (which, dear God, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy) obscures not only debate on fetal stem cell research but a closer look at in vitro fertilization and its blurring of the beginning of human life. The same could be said when appeals are made to the memory of that most famous of Alzheimer’s disease victims, Ronald Reagan. In vitro fertilization itself depends on the appeal to the childless couple now able by The Miracle of Science to have a baby which carries their own genes. We’re not far now from the edge of cloning humans; if we step across the line to creating clones for the sake of harvesting healthy organs, it will be because of a combination of compassion for the ill and a market-driven ethos which deems morally acceptable whatever creates an economic demand.

The problem is not that compassion of itself clouds moral thinking. Rather, the problem is that promoters of otherwise reprehensible policies use compassion as a form of blackmail: Give in or be damned as an unfeeling, unsympathetic machine. We’re invited to feel pity for the victims of degenerative disease, the victims of infertility, the victims of rape and incest, and we’re told directly that whatever alleviates their suffering is unquestionably correct. Any hesitations or qualms about methods is subsequently dismissed as ivory tower nitpicking, if not condemned as brutal insensitivity.

How does this all relate to our ten-year-old borderline skeptic? Very simple: Grant the existence of Satan, and you grant that he would be more than willing to use our compassion to manipulate us into doing evil in the name of good. Consider Jack Kevorkian, whose approach to suicidal depression is to assist the suicide rather than to assist psychological therapy. Consider the old man who shoots his wife because her terminal disease causes her to suffer. Consider all the Europeans whose sympathy for the poor and oppressed led them to espouse Communist-backed terror groups like the Red Brigade in the 1970s. On a more intimate scale, consider the drug addict or alcoholic who plays on the pity of his co-dependents to sustain his addiction. Oh yes, Satan must definitely consider compassion something he can turn to his own malefic ends.

However, the choice to do evil remains our own. There is (or will be) no person in hell who did not (or does not) in some sense choose to be there by his actions, thoughts and words. While Jesus, in his parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), makes clear that the deathbed penitent will receive no less than the lifelong disciple, it still remains true that some will resist God’s grace even at the last. Given that the people who are most likely to end up outside of heaven are those who have inflicted the most misery and suffering on earth, then tell me: What claim have the unjust on the compassion of the just that they can continue to inflict pain upon them throughout eternity as well as in their earthly life?

In heaven, there will still be compassion. However, those who go to hell will no longer be able to use the compassion of the merciful for emotional blackmail. Those who go to heaven will be gifted with such clearness of sight and strength of will that pity will no longer have the power to sway their actions away from righteousness, nor will there be anyone present with the ability to use their finer emotions against them. The heaven-bound person who loses a loved one to hell will be compensated for that loss beyond measure, while the hell-bound person will be left with nothing … even that for which he rejected God.
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[*] I find myself less sympathetic towards the young teen who became pregnant through sexual experimentation; I find myself wanting to say, “You want to engage in adult behavior, you’d better be ready for adult responsibilities.”