Compassion and Judgment

 A good colleague writes in response to my posting about compassion for Dzhokar Tsarnaev:

I'll think about this Tom. My wife, who is a criminal defense attorney, often remarks of mass murderers who then take their own lives, "why didn't they just commit suicide first?" Was Bonhoeffer lacking in compassion (or less happy) for attempting to assassinate Hitler? And if we feel compassion for whoever is in front of us, doesn't that rob the perpetrator of the opportunity to repent his misdeeds and then receive pardon from his victim -- since the perpetrator is already receiving the victim's compassion? I don't think I'm enlightened enough to answer these questions.

Compassion is an emotion.  In any particular circumstance, people either feel it, or they don't.  Those that develop it as a habit of the heart feel it more easily, and more independently than their more rational sense of judgment.

Bonhoffer's decision to conspire to kill Hitler was an act of his judgment.  

Finally, my emotional response to another is just that: my emotional response. It doesn't change anything, except me.  Another person wrote that they feared that the compassion of others gives evil people peace.  

We are afraid that our emotional response of compassion will result in an injustice somewhere.  I have worried about this.  The form that worry would take would be as second thoughts.  I feel it now.  I see the pictures of this 19 year old kid and I feel for him.  Emotional response.  Then I remind myself that he built an anti-personnel weapon and put it in a public place for the specific purpose of killing and maiming people.  Second thought.  

My emotional response is true, in that I really do feel it.  

My second thoughts are true, at least by all I now know, (and will be weighed and measured by a court sometime).  

Tsarnaev and Hitler are extreme cases.  In my daily life, I find it makes me a happier and healthier person to avoid treating the people I meet as potential terrorists or war criminals.  It makes me happier and healthier to not worry about the emotional response of compassion that, on occasion, flows out of me toward the person in front of me.  My second thoughts of judgment will come soon enough.  

I have come to see a freer flow of compassion as being a liberal spirit at work within me.   



  1. I'm not sure compassion is exactly the right word for the attitude that we should have for fellow human beings who commit terrible crimes. There are a variety of emotions and attitudes that fall between at least some meanings of the word compassion and on the other hand giving in to the dehumanizing desire for vengeance. The danger of the word compassion is that it can be mistakenly confused with sympathy, as compassion in many cases does lead to sympathy.

    In his book "Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus", Karl Jaspers comments on these individuals' teachings about attitudes towards enemies, and also mentions Lao-tzu:

    "All [of these men] asked the ultimate question: How shall I act toward my enemy who wrongs me? But their answers were not identical. The radical injunction to love our enemies occurs only in Jesus. Lao-Tzu also bids men answer enmity with benevolence. But Confucius rejects this imperative and declares: "Requite kindness with kindness ,enmity with justice". Socrates says in the Crito: "Doing evil in retaliation for evil is not just." And "Neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right."...Buddha teaches the universal love which offers no resistance to evildoer, suffers with infinite patience, and does good to all living things."

    This provides a fuller range of choices. All of these wisdom traditions reject dehumanizing vengeance, and seem to invoke notions of always treating the evildoer with respect as a fellow human being and with justice, which requires some ability to see and feel the other as a human being, but I don't think all these wisdom traditions would necessarily agree in describing this attitude as compassion.

  2. Anonymous11:08 PM

    Well said. I can identify with what you have written. It is so true that the judgment will come in a situations like this. My biggest hero is a man that I don't even know the name of. I should learn it though. Several years ago his precious young son was kidnapped by two men who later identified themselves as members of MBLA. (not sure if that is correct)It is that group of men who advocate pedophilia with boys. They raped and murdered this innocent child and his grieving father wanted the death penalty for his son's killers. Completely understandable. Years after this incident he came out against the Death Penalty saying that he had experienced the killing of his loved one and killing is not the answer. Such an amazing person.

  3. In the spectrum of human responses that we have available to us, I have a hard time believing that, as a society, taking a step toward compassion would be anything but beneficial.

  4. I've been thinking some more about this important topic: how do we respond to the evildoer, the enemy who wrongs me?

    I withdraw my previous comment that compassion and sympathy aren't good words for what should be part of our attitude. I think that we always need to recognize everyone as fellow human beings, and be able to both see them rationally as fellow human beings, and to be able to feel their suffering.

    But I think compassion and sympathy are incomplete in describing what should be our attitude towards the evildoer. These emotions are necessary but insufficient.

    To really treat others as fellow human beings is also to respect their ability to make choices, their agency and free will. Hence, it is a part of our recognition of the evildoer as a fellow human being that we also must and should hold them responsible and accountable for their evil actions. That is part of what treating others with justice means.

    So if the Golden Rule is to treat others as we would want to be treated, we would hope that when we do wrong, while others have some fellow-feeling towards me, we should also hope that we would be held accountable for our wrongs.

    I think this post is trying to get at this by mentioning the "second thought" of judgment. Although I would add that both compassion, and judgement, involve both the head and the heart, and are likely to be needed as both immediate and long-run responses.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

The 8th Principle

Complicating the Great Reformation: Dialectical Theology (Part 11 of many)

"What Time Is It? Questions from James Luther Adams to Unitarian Universalists of Today."