The Pity of it All

The successful candidate for one of Pennsylvania’s seats in the American Senate, John Fetterman, said in his victory speech that health care was a fundamental human right, citing as evidence the fact that his own life had been saved by it.  

Fetterman’s statement, cheered by the crowd, carried the implication that whatever was highly desirable—in this case, that everyone should receive medical care whenever he needed it—was a fundamental human right. It is not very difficult to make a list of other highly desirable tangible ends, perhaps even more important than medical care even from the point of view of the health of a population, that might similarly be considered fundamental human rights, among them decent housing, warm clothes, good food, access to education, and so forth. As expectations and the standard of living increase, so will the number of fundamental human rights.

Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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The provision of tangible benefits as of right not only creates a psychological dialectic between ingratitude when a right is fulfilled and grievance when it is not, but it imposes forced labour on everyone in order to pay for the fulfilment of those supposed rights, which are not free gifts of nature but have to be provided by human activity.

Mr Fetterman’s victory speech was more or less a paean to the underdog, to the failure, to the insulted and injured (or those who felt themselves to be such). In essence, it was deeply sentimental, a powerful appeal to the self-pitying and to those who felt sorry for those who felt sorry for themselves. Of course, it also carried the implication that more government was the answer to their dissatisfactions; but there are few more powerful electoral gambits these days than appeal to self-pity. A coalition of the self-pitying is so powerful because reasons to feel sorry for oneself are legion and always plausible, and therefore they are numerous. Why, even the most fortunate can, with a little effort, make themselves out to be victims. Mankind, at least modern mankind, is united by self-pity.

Those who make a career of appealing to this protean emotion enjoy a great rhetorical advantage, for practically all of us, myself included, would claim to be on the side of the underdog, at least in theory, and would feel shame in openly sympathising more with the rich, powerful and successful. Those who, on the contrary, laud the superior man and denigrate the underdog, such as Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, are deeply unattractive, though perhaps less so in the case of Nietzsche because much of his theoretical braggadocio might be interpreted as a defence against a warm but timid heart, too easily overwhelmed by emotion. I do not think that could be said of Ayn Rand. In her case, it seems, hardness of heart was the real thing.

I am a typical sentimentalist in that I am more attracted to people who are failures in life than to successes. I do not think that this is wholly attributable to the more flattering comparison with myself that failures allow me to make: it is rather that they stimulate a melancholy, both pleasing and painful, that renders their company grateful to me. Moreover, the reasons for failure (at least in people whom one thinks could have been successes if they had been more fixated upon it) are more complex, more multi-dimensional, than those for success. In short, failures are more interesting than successes.

Whenever I see a beggar in the street and give him money, I know that I may, in some highly attenuated fashion, be encouraging mendicancy, which is a bad thing. Moreover, I know that the majority of beggars in a country like Britain are almost certainly the victims, so to speak, of their own choices and conduct: at any rate, such mendicancy is not straightforwardly the consequence of poverty, for the mendicants rarely come from the very poorest section of society.

Be that all as it may, I see in the beggar in the street only a human being whose lot cannot be enviable, to say the least. Irrespective of the reasons for his descent into beggary, I give him a little money (feeling slightly guilty that it is less than I can afford), because even a small gesture is likely to give him a moment of pleasure, perhaps even a fleeting faith in the goodness of mankind. At any rate, the majority express some gratitude which seems to me genuine enough, compared with, say, the affability of a head waiter.

Now I am perfectly well aware that by giving I may be funding the purchase of the very things—drugs and alcohol—that were in part responsible for the beggar’s resort to begging in the first place: still, I keep the apprehension of the beggar’s unfortunate condition foremost in my mind.

I am aware also that the answer to mendicancy is not for every passer-by to do as I do, and that therefore there is a disconnection between my action in giving on the one hand and a solution to the social problem of mendicancy on the other. Indeed, if everyone gave as I do, mendicancy would be a highly profitable business, which would hardly discourage it. Thus, I would not pass a law to the effect that every passer-by must give a certain proportion of whatever he has on him to beggars in the street. If others do not give to beggars, for whatever reason, I do not blame them.

I am also aware that, by giving, I am pleasing myself at least as much as I am pleasing the beggar. I feel myself to be a good fellow when I have given, as I would feel myself to be a bad one if I did not give. This would, I suppose, seem like a vindication to those who want to maintain that there is no such thing as altruism, that, at bottom, all generosity is selfish and all altruism egocentric. This would be but an empty truth, however.  

To return to the disconnection between personal feelings of sympathy, pity and so forth on the one hand, and public policy on the other. I accept that on occasion abstract arguments from the dismal science (political economy) may be used to justify personal meanness or disinclination to give to those less fortunately placed than oneself, but that does not mean that the arguments are always wrong.

It is easy and tempting to confuse these two realms, and advantageous too if one is running for office. Many people are confused by the confusion, such that the word solidarité in France, for example, now means redistribution of resources by bureaucratic means rather than individual action consequent upon any actual feelings, though the word nevertheless retains the connotation of those feelings.

No doubt the confusion of the two spheres has always existed: it is difficult, if not impossible, to look down the two ends of a telescope at the same time. But it seems to me that our epoch is particularly propitious for the confusion because of the decline in religion, or rather belief in the truth of the historical claims upon which religion is based. However, an immemorial worldview cannot just disappear without trace, as G.K. Chesterton well understood:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered … it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

The Sermon on the Mount enjoins us not to judge, and from this commandment stems the untruth (for example) that addiction to heroin has no moral aspect whatever and is straightforwardly a disease like any other. This is untrue and obviously untrue, but so anxious are we not to be censorious that we abandon judgment altogether. Judgment, however, is like Nature in Horace’s Epistle: though you drive it out with a pitchfork, yet it will return. We must judge when not to judge, and remember that blame does not preclude sympathy unless we think of human beings as not only perfectible but already perfect except for their circumstances.       

4 thoughts on “The Pity of it All

  • STD says:

    Begs the question, could kindness be conceived as a ruminant act?

  • 27hugo27 says:

    I too give cash to beggars, for the same reasons Dr Daniels. I refuse to give to any NGO’s, as most of them siphon for their ever growing bureaucracies, and get the self-righteousness for free. I know that most homeless have only themselves to blame and but “For the grace of God, go I” and they are always grateful.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    What Chesterton observed was that goodness or virtue, when separated from the divine source of all goodness and virtue, and taken into the hands of men, will inevitably devolve into wickedness.

  • Peter C Arnold says:

    Are there any “human rights” in the sense of a contractual relationship made between the individual human and some or other ‘higher’ authority? Citizens can ‘expect’ their elected governments to provide some protections: from invaders, criminals, famine, lack of potable water, etc. But when dollar provision must be allocated in government budgets, is it logical to think that government can meet all of the citizens’ expectations? I suggest that it is not.
    Governments must choose, favouring some and disadvantaging others. Utopia does not exist.

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