Nietzsche's critique of pity

Nietzsche’s alternative account of mitleid illuminates what people are doing when they perform an act of empathy, and his account does this by cutting against our beliefs about what we think we are doing in the empathic act.

Nietzsche's critique of pity
"Friedrich Nietzsche genuflecting in the style of a Roman Catholic icon" – Looks more like Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door in Wittenburg. Well, he was the son of a Lutheran minister.

Today's post comes from a draft of a chapter from the book I'm currently writing. I've been working on a book about Endo Shusaku's novel Silence in which I explore some crucial themes about emancipation, political agency, and the ability to transcend our particularity by thinking the universal. The book is scheduled for release on February 5th, 2024, and you can pre-order your copy here.

This section attempts a comprehensive presentation of Nietzsche's critique of pity. In the book, Nietzsche's critique of pity lays the groundwork for us to discern the crucial role which compassion plays in Fr. Rodriguez's decision near the end of the novel, and how the Inquisitor mobilizes victims against Fr. Rodriguez.

I've put most of this piece behind a paywall in hopes that you'll want to sign up for a premium subscriber, and also pre-order the book. I would love to hear your comments on this portion of the draft though. Thanks for reading!

Friedrich Nietzsche clearly intuited the centrality of compassion to the Christian religion, and consequently made his critical account of pity a pillar of his critique of Christianity. Strictly speaking, Nietzsche does not critique the notion of compassion per se, but rather uses the German word mitleid (mit - with, leid - feel), often translated ‘pity.’ In light of this nuance, I contend that Nietzsche is really developing an alternative account of empathy.

While the concept of empathy has a recent provenance in our moral vocabulary, empathy and compassion do seem to be two closely intertwined notions, almost as though empathy has come to function as the secular organizing concept for all the “sympathetic” acts which involve some form of pro-social feeling of solidarity or connection with others.

Nietzsche’s alternative account of mitleid illuminates what people are doing when they perform an act of empathy, and his account does this by cutting against our beliefs about what we think we are doing in the empathic act. The way then that Nietzsche de-constructs empathy’s self-delusions possesses important ramifications for our investigation of Fr. Rodriguez’s experiences and motivations which lead him to apostatize.

I once encountered a meme which I return to whenever I think about Nietzsche’s critique of pity. The unknown creator of the meme masterfully (and with requisite mockery) captured the critique that Nietzsche is trying to launch against empathy.

I present the meme below:

Top text: I’m an empath. Bottom text: Sometimes I can tell how people are feeling simply by deciding how I think they feel in my own mind and instantly believing it.

This meme nutshells what Nietzsche thinks is going on when we perform an act of empathy — we imaginatively project the other person’s mental state, immediately believe our own projection, and then adjust our actions based on our own projection.

Typically, this is not what we think we are doing when we are exercising empathy. While this meme primarily aims its mockery at woo types who trumpet the efficacy of their empathic powers for divining the inner world of others (we all know these people), the critique really hits us all. We all operate as though in our empathy we are inhabiting the other person’s experience, and Nietzsche points out that this just isn’t the case.

In fact, he goes on in his work to contend that our mundane intuitions about our own empathic acts fail on a number of grounds —

First, since each human being is radically unique, we strictly cannot “put ourselves in another person’s shoes,” so to speak This doesn’t mean that humans can’t share sufficient commonality to achieve some minimal level of understanding [], but it should serve to chasten our confidence about our ability to project into another’s subjectivity. At the very least, we should be honest about what we are doing when we attempt to do so - we are imaginatively projecting. Each person is a singularity, so to speak, constituted through a distinct chain of historical events, personal experiences, and biological realities. We therefore display an immense hubris when we glibly claim that we can step into another’s person’s world at a moment’s notice.

Second, we have no way of verifying whether our projection was correct or not. Because we cannot directly inhabit the other person’s experience, and we only have their own self-reporting about the matter to go from, we can only ever make extrapolations about another person’s inner states. Ultimately, we cannot know if we were right even if the person behaved as expected, for there are a myriad of alternative subjective structures which can produce the same external response but for many different reasons [ ]. Thus, we can think we were right when we were really just lucky.

Third, our projection often says more about ourselves than it does about the other person, primarily because the only resources we have for constructing the projection stems from our own reservoir of experiences and reactions. Thus, our empathic act consists primarily of a narcissistic projection. We can only see what we have already put there to see, which is to say, ourselves. Not only do we not have the same experiences as the other person, but we also know for a fact that we only have our experiences (which are not their experiences). The empathic act is therefore poisoned with our subjectivity from the very start.

Notice that Nietzsche is not making this argument from any claims about human beings as having a nature which makes them inherently self-interested or narcissistic. He’s simply arguing from the structural limitations of the experience of relationality itself, that is, the inherent boundaries of what it means to be an embodied creature encountering other embodied creatures. Although Nietzsche believes that human beings are self-interested by default, the veracity of that claim is irrelevant to the critique which he makes of empathy. Instead, he’s making an argument about what is and is not possible in the realm of mutual understanding.

Nietzsche’s critique presses us by insisting that, due to the limitations of human consciousness, our most common reflexive and unexamined intuitions about what we’re doing when we think we are empathizing are, strictly speaking, impossible. We aren’t actually doing what we purport to be doing — we are not entering the other person’s experience. We are imagining a projection of their experience based on our own set of experiences. We use our imagination to consider what it would be like to undergo those experiences, how we would react to them, what we think that pain might feel like, and what type of view we might have of the world from that position.

If then, for a moment, we accept Nietzsche’s account of what is actually happening when we empathize, then what does he think that compassion is?

For Nietzsche, the exercise of compassion is a self-serving act which seeks to extinguish the internal pain which has become inflamed by witnessing another’s suffering. When we see another human being suffering, we experience both physical distress (our body tenses up, our heart races, our palms get sweaty, etc…) and mental distress (pain, anxiety, fear, guilt, etc…) [], and this internal pain is only intensified by the empathic act which we inflict on ourselves in which we use our imagination to project ourselves into their suffering.

Let us put it this way — the act of compassion is aimed at accomplishing what we believe will relieve the other person’s pain so that we might assuage our own pain.

Nietzsche notes how compassion drives us towards the other, which might superficially appear altruistic, but the compassionate act resembles any attempt to relieve pain in that it motivates us to locate and draw near to the wounded region, the source of the pain. In the situation of compassion, the pain exists within our hearts, and the drive to extinguish this pain causes us to become more proximate with the cause of the pain — the other person’s suffering.

The human is committing something of a mistake here though. By witnessing another’s pain, their own internal pain has been inflamed, and yet this pain drives them towards the other under the pretension that the pain they are feeling is the other’s pain, not their own! **While they believe their desire is to relieve the other person’s pain, underlying this belief is the deeper operative desire to relieve their own pain.

Nietzsche does not claim that the desire to relieve the other person’s pain is entirely fabricated, but rather that it’s not the only desire or even the primary driving desire in the scenario. Rather, that desire (real or not) provides a plausible but ultimately incorrect rationalization for one’s behavior, and thus serves to obscure the situation more than it does to provide illumination. The belief that we act primarily to relieve the other’s person’s pain only becomes fake or hypocritical when we insist on it retroactively as an explanation which we offer to others.

While some might pan this claim as cynical, we can simply point out that even cursory experience of human behaviors provides an abundance of evidence that humans are most satisfied when they feel they have helped someone, regardless of whether they have actually helped them or not. Many folks are happy to stop short of the actual helping if only they can achieve a sufficiently plausible experience of feeling as though they have helped the other person. When we give the homeless person a dollar, have we helped them? We do not know, but the pain has subsided, and so we are no longer curious about what happened.

The Christian Scriptures also explicitly warn against the self-satisfaction which would cause one to stop short of true aid — St. James asks the readers of his epistle, seemingly to their shame, “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:16) Good intentions are not enough, and saying the right things are not good enough, but most of the time, it can feel like enough. Donating money to the organization helping sad puppies on commercials might make the pain go away (for a time), but the pain did not disappear because the puppy’s suffering was actually extinguished.

Here’s the surprising cash out of Nietzsche’s analysis — his work helps us ask “how can we actually help people, rather than be controlled by a compassion which seeks to relieve our own pain?” Now we can start to see how, in this account, compassion is both the thing which drives us towards the person to help them but also serves as **the single most difficult obstacle to surmount in the quest to actually help them.

Nietzsche thinks that people are way way too confident about their ability to help other people. We take for granted that we can see a person’s situation, diagnose the problem, and provide the solution. But part of what he wants us to see from his analysis of empathy’s shortcomings is how compassion distorts our ability to properly diagnose issues and provide effective help.

It does this primarily by distorting the incentives in the situation, by shifting them from helping the other person to helping ourselves. Ironically, compassion is what helps us get close to the problem, but once we have gotten close, we have to have our compassion mastered such that we can force ourselves to sit with it while we truly focus on the unique person right in front of us.

Compassion is especially bad in situations in which a solution is either not possible or very ambiguous, and Nietzsche contends that more situations are like this than we generally think. Compassion creates a mental pressure that pushes early and fast for a diagnosis so that it can quickly implement a fix to make the pain go away. The desire to help becomes a mechanism that causes us to rush through our analysis and propose a shoddy solution, because while we think our goal is to help, it’s actually just to relieve our own internal pain.

This is how we find ourselves in our contemporary situation where a vast network of non-profits, program managers, NGOs, development officers, social workers, and volunteers can fundraise, circulate, and divert immense sums of money from around the world into poorer countries for all manner of programs, but with middling results at best. We send an incredible amount of funds overseas to implement very limited and fragile stopgaps to structural issues, and this makes us feel good enough about ourselves to carry on from day to day, all while we ignore the pressing needs in our own backyard. We have done our part by “doing something.”

But, Nietzsche wants us to ask, has the doing something done something?

Žižek jokes that Starbuck’s has created the epitome of ideology by embedding the notions of fair-trade and charitable-giving within the products themselves. “We donate 1% of the proceeds of this water bottle to help children in Africa,” or “We only use fair-trade beans so you know the hard working farmers are getting a livable wage.” Then the products’ prices are marked up accordingly. They have, Žižek points out, built the cost of assuaging your guilt of consumption right into the product, so you can enjoy without shame [ ]. Buy, drink, go in peace.

To bring this back to the realm of the personal though, let us take an example of having a conversation with a friend where they confess to you some pain or anxiety in their life. What are our instincts in this situation? We of course experience compassion for our friend, and we want to see them happy, healthy, and thriving. Even if we consider ourselves an empathic person and a good listener, we will still be searching desperately for a solution or something to prescribe to bring some relief to their painful situation.

However, how can we be so sure of our power to help? What if this pain stems from a childhood trauma of which we are unaware, and perhaps even the person themselves is unaware? What if the person does not truly want to change? They may be unconsciously (or not) seeking absolution in their confession to us, and consequently our proposed solutions will be of no use.

What if this problem has at its root a greater problem? What if this problem is caused by the convergence of larger structural forces out of both of our hands? What if there just is no solution to the issue? These don’t have to be “pessimistic” takes on the friend’s situation. Sometimes, acknowledging these possibilities can be kinder than the act of prescribing from ignorance.

In our haste to make a diagnosis, Nietzsche also wants us to see how we are tempted to assign blame to a guilty party. In general, the assigning of blame and the meting out of punishment comes much more readily to humans than careful analysis and problem solving, and this doubly so when operating under circumstances of pain, anxiety, or duress.

Nietzsche devotes large portions of his work to revealing the operation in humans of a vengeful spirit (ressentiment), and while we don’t have space to get into that analysis here, this tendency to want to exact suffering from a guilty party as a “solution” to the suffering of an other plays an uncomfortably important role in the way that compassion operates in our hearts and minds.

Nietzsche’s work challenges the predominant modes of contemporary ethical discourse which emphasize concepts such as care, harm, safety, empathy. In particular, his analysis reveals how the inquisitor Inoue can weaponize victims against Fr. Rodrigez. Inoue understands that the sight of the victim produces a corresponding pain in the heart of the witness, arousing our powers of compassion, and ultimately compelling us to act.

Someway. Somehow. We must do something. Anything at all.

This is the power (and terror) of care.

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