Power, Organization and Community:
The Complex Components of Compassion
By Ed Democracy
Compassion is not derived only from emotion. Compassion can be derived from logic. In fact, unless compassion is understood both emotionally and logically, it cannot be sustained. Logic and emotion must have compassion for each other. Logic and emotion must love and understand each other. Logic and emotion are biological components of human anatomy. In some people logic is more developed. In others emotion is more developed. In still others it is nearly evenly balanced.
Why should this be important for people who are thinking about the relationship between the individual and the community? I can give three reasons. First, compassion, in the philosophical tradition, is a central bridge between the individual and the community; it is conceived of as our species' way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods. ... Second, some modern theories - liberal and individualist moral theories in particular - have treated compassion as an irrational force in human affairs, one that is likely to mislead or distract us when we are trying to think well about social policy. ... Third, this simple opposition between emotion and reason has also been invoked by communitarian critics of liberalism, who have suggested that if we are to make room for sentiments such as compassion, which do not seem to be much honored in liberal theory, this will mean basing political judgment upon a force that is affective rather than cognitive, instinctual rather than concerned with judgment and thought. ... If we want a compassionate community, we can have one without sacrificing the Enlightenment's commitment to reason and reflection - because compassion is a certain sort of reasoning. (Nussbaum (1):28)
To keep reason and emotion in constant opposition in the individual will cause the individual to be conflicted and divided against itself. A community of such individuals will inevitably be divided against itself. A divided community is a conquered community. A conquered community is, by definition, powerless.
Power is at the heart of compassion. When one finds oneself in a context which calls for compassion, power is invariably a factor in the context. "[D]ifferences in class, race, gender, wealth, and power do affect the extent to which the sense of helplessness governs the daily course of one's life." (Nussbaum (1):45) I submit that the essential difference between pity and compassion is the effect on one's balance of power. Pity is a false emotion which exacerbates a loss of power while compassion is a true emotion which restores power. In discussing Nietzsche's anti-pity, Stoic argument, "against cruelty and in favor of self-command," Martha Nussbaum writes that, a "suffering person whom one respects will, if an enemy, be regarded with admiration for the fortitude with which he bears his suffering; if a friend, he will be regarded with a delicate respect for his pride and a concern for his ability [or power] to continue creating himself." (Nussbaum (2):150) A potential target of compassion finds oneself facing a significant threat to one's balance of power. A potential source of compassion seeks to help the target regain one's balance of power.
An individual finds oneself in a context. No individual exists purely qua individual. "Man is by nature a political animal." (Aristotle, Politics, c.343 B.C.E.) Even a hermit depends upon nature. Likewise, it is impossible to achieve a pure community with absolute uniformity and synchronization of all members. Even if the difference is only being one individual as opposed to another individual. There is still a distinction between individual number 8 and individual number 9 even if the difference is only in serialization. To be a true individual requires a true community.
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something in nature that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. (Aristotle, Politics, c.343 B.C.E.)
Only another can offer one a different perspective on oneself and, hence, opportunity for growth. Only another can help to create novelty in one's context. Only novelty can create choices. Only choices can create power. An individual must choose from among choices oneself. In so doing one defines oneself. One can only define oneself in a community.
A true community requires organization. A true community is composed of true individuals. A false community composed of false individuals is not sustainable. False individuals cannot think independently of the community. True individuals can think independently and as a group. An assortment of individuals independent of a group approximates chaos (the many). Order (oneness) can be imposed from the top down or from the bottom up. Order is organization or complexity. In biology, the more complex the organism, the more energy it can contain and the longer it can maintain itself. (Garrison:304) The most harmonious is a self-organizing, stable, chaotic system. This would be considered a "middle-out" system versus "top-down" or "bottom-up". These systems are said to exhibit negative entropy. Entropy is a measure of inefficiency. It indicates how likely a system is to dissipate or maintain energy. Negative entropy represents a gain of energy generated from within.
Community is simply the biological, human organization of groups of humans. Other species exhibit degrees of communal behavior -- wolves, lions, dolphins, whales, etc.. -- but, here, we are concerned only with human community. Community can be considered from the local to the global levels. Energy, or power, is generated by individuals and either dissipates or is collected and held by community. An individual has only a finite capacity or potential to store power. However, a community can store power greater than the sum of the power of its parts. If power is not collected at one level of community then it dissipates and is collected in the next nearest community it encounters.
When a given community fails to collect power, another community gains access to that power and the resultant differential in power increases the probability of actualization of that power by one community against the other. One must consider the various degrees of community in various contexts. In the state of nature, one is closest to the elements and other species. A small group of humans in the wilds constitutes one degree of community. A minimal degree. Each member carries a larger portion of the overall load of maintaining a community. For example, if one member is careless and cuts oneself or breaks one's leg the rest of the community must decide whether to carry the individual and to care for the individual. This slows the community down and poses a threat to the community by possibly attracting predators to the smell of blood. The negligence of the individual threatens the entire community. They become more vulnerable to either elements, predators, or other communities of humans. It is possible that by bearing the risk of carrying this negligent individual, the community benefits from the mutual commitment to each other forged by this effort. However, they must weigh the risk against the potential benefit.
As communities establish themselves against the elements and predator species, the only internal threats are from negligent individuals or groups of individuals. The only external threats are from other human communities. There may be conflicts over resources or direct physical conflict. The strength and cohesion of one community versus another depend upon its organization and maximization of resources -- human and material. Internally, conflicts may occur over various issues. The greater the disparity of power from group to group the less stable the overall community and the more vulnerable it is to attack from without.
Any discussion of submitting to the risks of life's vicissitudes and opening oneself up emotionally to human relationships (Nussbaum (1):43) only becomes viable in the cave (the community) where the women waited with the children for the men to return from hunting sabertooth tigers and woolly mammoths. This possibility of humanity or compassion can only take place in community. The hunters in the wilds cannot afford to risk humanity and compassion except in very limited and controlled measure. Perhaps anyone - male, female, or other - when faced with a context which is potentially emotionally overwhelming and paralyzing and is forced to suspend social emotion and engage in an instinctual, animal, fight or flight mode of operating.
Yet, community is not possible without compassion. Compassion can only take place in a protected context. Ironically, at least at one point in human development, compassion in some humans posed a threat to community and compassion in others. Some humans had to move from worlds where compassion meant life to worlds where compassion meant death and back again. Somehow sense had to be made of this. It seems that to this day this same confused dynamic is yet to be resolved. For some, the comfort of compassion and the safety of society represent a baited trap. Nietzsche seemed torn between the wildness of our animal nature and the compassion of our mammalian nature. He struggled mightily against the biological and social pressures to abandon our animal nature in favor of our compassionate nature.
Lacking external enemies and resistances, and confined within an oppressive narrowness and regularity, man began rending, persecuting, terrifying himself, like a wild beast hurling itself against the bars of its cage. This languisher, devoured by nostalgia for the desert, who had to turn himself into an adventure, a torture chamber, an insecure and dangerous wilderness-this fool, this pining and desperate prisoner, became the inventor of "bad conscience." Also the generator of the greatest and most disastrous maladies, of which humanity has not to this day been cured: his sickness of himself, brought on by the violent severance from his animal past, by his sudden leap and fall into new layers and conditions of existence, by his declaration of war against the old instincts that had hitherto been the foundation of his power, his joy, and his awesomeness. (GM II:XVI)
To his credit, he had the courage to wrestle with this problem in his cerebral cortex, the uniquely human section of the brain. In this sense, and, no doubt, many others, Nietzsche was Human, All Too Human. The cerebral cortex is the seat of both creativity and of reason. This human part of the brain is where problem-solving takes place. (Restak:417) To be human is to be a creator, a problem-solver, compassionate, and an animal. Additionally, to be human is to be communal. To be compassionate is to recognize this fact. Noone can transcend oneself without the community of others, not even Nietzsche. For the individual to transcend, the community must transcend. This requires organization. It is a major logistical problem to get the community across the bridge of transcendence.
It is also a major psychological problem to get the community across the bridge of transcendence. One way people adapt to suffering is internalization of oppression. By accepting one's suffering as inevitable, one learns to live with suffering. One eventually forgets that one's context is to be transcended.
Suffering and deprivation are usually not ennobling or educative; they more often brutalize or corrupt perception. In particular, they often produce adaptive responses that deny the importance of the suffering; such adaptive responses are especially likely to arise when the deprivation is connected to oppression and hierarchy, and taught as proper through religious and cultural practices. (Nussbaum (1):32)
To reverse this requires organization and community. To introduce new information, new experience, and new culture cannot be established or sustained without organization and community. Absent this, other parts of community will prevail which have the power, organization, and community to sustain themselves and the ability to impose themselves on weaker communities.
The members of the weaker community may have long ago lost the concept of having the power to organize itself and create itself. Worst of all, whole new slave communities can be created by master communities. The master community can dominate the slave community by creating it upon an entirely blank slate. The slave community is thus made entirely dependent upon the master community. As power dissipates from the slave community to the master community so does the humanity and the compassion. Members of the slave community are reduced to their animal natures. Basic needs drive the culture of the slave community -- hunger, thirst, shelter, sex -- basic instincts. Internally, the slaves live in the animal base of the brain where fight or flight instincts, aggression, territoriality, and the willingness to follow leaders blindly also reside. Externally, the slaves live in a herd, corralled as it were. If the herd stampedes it could kill the masters directly, but the herd is only reactive and cannot control and direct its own stampede. The masters would starve without the herd to prey upon. Hence, the masters and the slaves are codependent.
According to Harold Lasswell in Power and Personality, there are five basic human needs: survival, security, social, self-esteem, and self-realization. (Lasswell) Maximum love and understanding of oneself require all needs to be fully met. Compassion requires love and understanding of oneself and others. The five basic needs can be grouped to reflect the basic biological structure and development of individuals and of society as a whole. An individual can be said to consist of three essential elements: animal, mammalian, and human. The animal element corresponds to survival and security needs. The mammalian element corresponds to social needs. The human element corresponds to self-esteem and self-realization needs. Similarly, power relates to survival and security needs; organization relates to security and social needs; community relates to social, self-esteem, and self-realization needs. The relationship between master and slave is inherently about power. Similarly, the ability of the creator type to create oneself and one's context is a function of power. If master, slave, and creator are the three essential classes of society, then power is the essential factor in social dynamics since each of these classes can be defined as a particular power dynamic within the overall social context.
Power manifests itself in three essential forms: numbers, organization, and resources. A community is a collection of a number of individuals organized into a set of classes around a set of values and decision-making procedures which determines the macrocontext for the flow of power and resources. The decisions of individual members of the community determines the microcontext for the flow of power and resources. The level of power of an individual or group of individuals is a major factor in predicting the likelihood of that individual or group of individuals becoming a potential target of compassion. Other factors, such as natural disasters, would fall essentially at a constant level over all classes of individuals. That is, "the difference between the vulnerabilities common to all human beings and those constructed for the powerless by the empowered." (Nussbaum (1):41) Without power, organization and community -- the complex components of compassion -- one is simply naked, alone, and at the mercy of nature and predators.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Francis Golffing. New York: Anchor Books, 1956.
Nussbaum (1), Martha. "Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion," Social Philosophy and Policy. Cambridge University Press (UK). Winter, 1996. Pp. 27-58.
Nussbaum (2), Martha. "Pity and Mercy Nietzsche's Stoicism," Nietzsche. Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. Ed. Richard Schact. University of California Press, 1994. Pp. 139-167.
Restak, Richard. The Brain: The Last Frontier. New York: Warner Books, 1979.
Lasswell, Harold D.. Power and Personality. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.
Garrison, Tom. Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996.