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August 29, 2013

The Torturer's Horse

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. -- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Love keeps no record of wrongs. This is to me the most lovely phrase in the Christian Bible. It is a call not just to forgive others, but to prevent resentment and anger from festering in your own heart. However, the passage does not occur in isolation; it exists in a deeply moral context where the believer is assumed to be always thinking and acting in a Godly way. This passage is not a call to suspend moral judgement.

Empathy -- the ability to understand, or even vicariously experience, someone else’s feelings -- is a vital part of a normal human being’s emotional makeup. Empathy is projected; you actually try to cast yourself into another person’s mind and feel what they are feeling. In a sense, when you empathize with another person you try to become that person in some small way. Sympathy, on the other hand, is purely internal: you feel sadness or pity or compassion, but it is not projected.

A human being devoid of the ability to empathize or sympathize with others is a moral monster. We label people like this as sociopaths because we understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with them.

As vital as empathy and sympathy are, though, they carry a great danger. Emotion unanchored by a moral sense can lead to much harm. There is vast moral chasm between empathizing with the victim of a serial killer and the serial killer himself. And it is possible to over-empathize with others, to subordinate yourself to the emotional weather of other people to such a degree that your own emotions and feelings get dulled or even lost.


W. H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts has a passage about suffering in the world that is both beautiful and disturbing:


About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The torturer’s horse knows nothing of the cruelty of its master; it is simply a dumb beast. It exists only in the moment. It is a creature of the eternal present. To the horse there is no past or future, no regret but no real happiness either. There is only the temporal relief of scratching an itch, a relief completely forgotten moments later. When the torturer mounts to go home after his dreadful work, the horse will bear him without complaint. The torturer’s horse bears no moral burden for its master’s work because it has no moral sense -- no soul.

Human beings do have souls, and thus do bear moral burdens. The torturer is a moral monster in a way his horse is not and cannot be. The difference lies in free will. A human can choose his path, and must bear the consequences (moral and otherwise) of that choice.

For the left, empathy and sympathy often eclipse morality entirely. It’s not a cliche to say that most leftists are governed by their feelings, for this is observably the case. To most of the left -- becoming more pronounced the further left ideologically you go -- the moral sense is atrophied to near-uselessness. The left has come to view morality with a deadly kind of skepticism, a postmodern cultural-relativist suspiciousness that shrinks and shrivels the moral sense. Empathy and sympathy reign supreme. To a person of the left, “right” and “wrong” exist not as moral poles, but as emotional ones: what’s right is what feels right, in the moment.

But when decision-making is driven by in-the-moment emotion, consequences are often ignored. We see this all the time from "activists" on the left. They act without thinking of the consequences, which are often harmful to the very people they claim to want to help. They are governed by their passions.

A classic example of this behavior is the banning of the chemical DDT. One of the most effective treatments for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, DDT was banned based on largely-unfounded concerns about the environment (empathy for Mother Gaia, you see). Yet in the years since, millions of actual human beings have been killed or damned to a life of suffering by malaria, a disease that could have been easily curtailed with DDT. Empathetic leftists could preen that a “dangerous” chemical was banned while millions of actual human beings (most of them poor and black) suffer and die.

I’ve wondered for years why the left continues to engage in this observably-harmful behavior. Surely if they empathize with the poor, the downtrodden, the hungry, and the repressed, they wouldn’t do anything to deliberately hurt those very people...would they? Yet, time after time, this is exactly what happens.

Empathy or sympathy unbound by a moral sense is at base deeply selfish and harmful, because it is almost never deployed to solve a problem. Rather, it is deployed as a substitute for solving a problem. Feeling bad (or good) about something is, to most leftists, an action>. They believe they have done something positive by simply feeling a certain way. It validates them, reifies them, and centers them in their own universe.

And this is the rotten core of leftist “feeling”: it always faces inward, not outward. It is an act of narcissism, not of kindness.

When a person of the left accuses a conservative of being “heartless” or “racist”, what they’re actually saying is that they’re not. It’s not an insult directed against their opponent but rather a reassurance to themselves that they are creatures of deep empathy: for the downtrodden, for the weak, the poor, the minority. But their emotion is almost never directed towards any specific person; a leftist speaks vaguely of groups and collectives because, ultimately, he is only concerned with himself and how he feels. Other people exist merely as props in the long-running drama of his life.

Rousseau and Hobbes are the rocks upon which much of the leftist church rests. Rousseau places Man in nature as a feeling, emoting animal; Hobbes places Man under external control of an elite because Man cannot govern himself or his passions. Control, to the left, is not something internal or personal; it is impersonal and imposed from without. Control is something left to Authority. To an empathy-driven creature, this is not just acceptable but necessary: to a creature of feelings but little if any moral compass, self-control is always a somewhat shaky concept. Leftists need external control because they often cannot muster it from within.

Which brings us back to the torturer’s horse in Auden’s poem. The horse has no agency, no control over its fate. It carries no blame or moral burden for the actions of its master. The horse feels; in fact, it is nothing but feelings. We do not condemn the horse because it cannot do anything but feel -- it cannot bring a moral sense to bear, and thus can do no moral wrong. A dumb animal has no choice in what it becomes. A man does.

Choice requires free will, and agency. What makes a choice moral is not how we feel about it, but how it leads to a considered action, and acceptance of the consequences of that action. Empathy and sympathy in service to a moral sense are good things because they inspire us to be kind, understanding, careful, and cognizant of our own weaknesses. But emotion without a moral sense is simply a rank kind of self-indulgence, a kind of masturbation. It is a sign of a selfish, narcissistic, cramped, narrow mind.

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posted by Monty at 08:10 AM

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