Virtues and vices are supposed to be universal, which means that they apply at all times and in all circumstances. That is what Kant meant when he spoke of honesty. You are supposed to tell the truth even if a policeman is at the door asking you for the whereabouts of a friend. You never know but that the inquiry is harmless. I guess Kant never met a Nazi stormtrooper but the point that Kant was trying to make was that a virtue applies even in hard cases. The same is true of what the Catholics call the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is bad even if everybody has to eat to keep alive because gluttony refers to an obsession with eating and so would apply to present day people who let themselves go as well as to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had a weight problem. In similar fashion, lust is and always was a vice in that it doesn’t refer to appetites fulfilled within marriage so long as the conjugal relation is clothed in modesty and darkness; it applies, rather, to people who have no respect for custom and are insatiable, whether that is cloaked by marriage or not. As a sociologist, however, I am uncomfortable with such categorical assertions. I look to make comparisons of situations in which a virtue or a vice seems to be that as opposed to situations in which a virtue or a vice appears to be the opposite of what it is usually taken to be. I want to consider the virtue of compassion in that light. What are the circumstances under which it makes sense to feel compassion and what are the circumstances under which compassion changes from being a virtue into being a vice? A lot of morality, as well as the central question of Christian theology, which is the status of Jesus, hangs on what compassion is.

The New Testament holds out compassion to be a universal virtue. Indeed, it is the greatest of virtues, in that St. Paul commends it as greater than faith and hope, compassion to be taken as the meaning of charity. A person reaches out to all other people by appreciating their plight and the emotions they are feeling and that makes the person who is compassionate into a better person, perhaps even into a “saved” person, if we understand salvation to be psychological rather than supernatural. The person who becomes compassionate has been transformed into a qualitatively better person, lifted out of their fears of other people, capable of engaging the entire world. And so when Virgil, in the Inferno, counsels Dante, the character, to withhold his compassion from the damned, to steel his heart against their cries, he is advising an unusual act, one that cuts across the grain of a good person, the temptation to be compassionate itself admirable but not under these very special circumstances, where it is God’s wisdom as well as their own natures that has condemned these people to Hell. A secular reading of the same doctrine, that compassion is the greatest of virtues, is to be found in David Hume, who regards all of social life to arise out of the ability of people to have sympathy with one another or, to use a more modern word, to identify with other human beings. That flies against the Hobbesian argument that self-love as that is expressed in self-interest is the fundamental process in social life.

I would suggest, however, that compassion is circumstantial. It applies only to some situations and not to others. The centurion who observes Jesus on the Cross feels compassion for him because there is no danger to him or to others in this defanged prophet who might once have been a danger to Rome but is now merely pathetic in his suffering, however just was the administration of this death sentence. Any jailor can feel that way about the inmate he escorts to the death chamber. Slaveholders, on the other hand, had limited compassion for their slaves because they always feared that the slaves would revolt and at least temporarily take the upper hand. So be nice to slaves if you must but most of all fear them as they are always potential adversaries. And so Jesus’ counsel of compassion, which he evokes when he says that only those without sin should stone the adulterous one, is a way of saying that one ought to pity or have compassion for those rich or powerful people who now have the upperhand but will not make it into heaven. They will become the helpless and hopeless ones, no longer a threat to anyone. Compassion is the other side of a contemplation of a revenge sometime in the future to be achieved, and that Nietzsche-like observation turns the idea of compassion sour unless it is somehow again transvaluated into becoming a virtue where we bless our enemies and our betters, whether in our work lives, or because an adversary has bested us by taking our girl away, but then the supposed virtue seems merely grotesque, a betrayal of any respect for ourselves, of our amour propre.

So apply this bifurcated doctrine of Christian compassion to actual situations that require some moral decision in that a person is being required to mobilize a sense of what is right to stand between a situation and an action. The Christian idea of compassion would require a person to offer charity to a beggar only if the beggar were obsequious and so going out of his or her way to show how helpless and harmless the beggar was, while the beggar who claimed a reward as a matter of right could be rejected for having exercised his or her power to deny the almsgiver a sense of pride and condescension in the exercise of charity, leaving to the almsgiver control over the extent of the vanity of giving alms. And that, I take it, is what is to be made of the charities that aim themselves at communities other than their own, like the Nineteenth Century charity for spreading the Gospel to Sub-Saharan Africa that is parodied in Wilkie Collins, a woman more interested in that effort than in the well being of her own daughter. The same can be said for the aid provided by the Bush Administration to combat AIDS in Africa while not being so compassionate with regard to people at home. All this is in line with how to treat a very approved object of compassion, the handicapped, who are weaker than we are, no threat to us except that our feelings might be hurt by our exposure to deformity, and in spite of the fact that the handicapped themselves might prefer respect to compassion and assistance unburdened by emotion in that it is just one human being helping out another, like carrying in the groceries for an old lady. A person can also work up compassion for people who are in some way superiors rather than inferiors. You can think of the burdens a leader like a President or a Pope takes on, all those grave responsibilities to decide matters of moment, or merely pause to reflect that a leader may get sore feet from standing all day as a parade goes by. You are seeing the vulnerability of even an august person and so are compassionate even if that person can order that you are subject to a military draft or determines whether or not you can use birth control. The weak have power over the strong because they can blame them for whatever goes wrong, except, that is, in a democracy, where they can only blame themselves for whatever is the leadership they vote in.

So, aside from the radical psychology of David Hume, what we might call Christian compassion is always about hierarchy, about how the powerful and the not powerful relate to one another, how they try to bridge the gap between them. What of compassion between equals? It disappears to be replaced by respect, of a sense that each person is an independent actor. Consider the heroine in the recent movie Tulip Fever. She is an orphan in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam who enters into a marriage of convenience so that she can get out of the orphanage and become a respectable lady. You would feel sorry or compassionate for her only if her husband were abusive, which he is not, only a poor lover. She got what she wanted out of the bargain even if she decides to take a portrait painter as a lover. That is her free choice, whatever were the original terms of the marriage. Similarly, we feel sorry for a small farmer who is cheated out of his land because he is paid only a small fraction of what it is worth, although it will get to be worth a lot more only if the buyer makes improvements or, as in the case of There Shall Be Blood, drills for oil. Getting a good if not spectacular price is not exploitive even if the seller comes to see it that way after a time. So compassion is extended only when a contract seems coerced or an especially bad deal because that is taken as evidence that the subordinate person was taken advantage of, though that might not be the case. So compassion has to do with inequality, and that is what is built into the Christian concept of compassion: feel sorry for the underdog or even for the overdog beecause the overdog will not remain that way. Abolish inequality and then compassion is no longer a necessary virtue, which means it will disappear when the Second Coming occurs, but that is contrary to the New Testament doctrine that compassion or charity is always and eternally the ultimate virtue. The New Testament just didn’t always get it right. Moreover, Jesus is a figure for whom to feel compassion if He is a gentle soul who has come to preach compassion but He is a figure to be feared if, soon enough, He will be pronouncing judgment on mankind. Take your pick.

Compassion is, then, at best, a minor virtue, an emotion conferred on strangers as they are passing and so they are not threats, either overt or potential. Compassion is therefore nothing but courtesy and is therefore not as significant as are other virtues that are more engaged to a person’s whole of life. Major virtues struggle against reality, trying to impose honor where there is not enough honor, beauty in place of ugliness, charity in place of meanness. Major virtues are callings or quests, not irrelevant to major issues of life and death and well being, but compassion, in this minor sense, does not accomplish very much. It offers water to a traveller, nothing more, neither solace nor safety. That could not be what Jesus and his followers had in mind, nor is it what secularists have in mind when they say that we owe the poor a living wage out of simple compassion, even though it really does not cost the treasury all that much but clearly says that we are to be cognizant of the way other people who are out of sight and therefore out of mind suffer and so their pain should be recognized, respected and alleviated.