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Political Theory
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DOI: 10.1177/0090591703258118
2004 32: 519 Political Theory
Richard Boyd
Pity's Pathologies Portrayed : Rousseau and the Limits of Democratic Compassion

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Rousseau and the Limits of Democratic Compassion
University of WisconsinMadison
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is renowned for defending the pity of the state of nature over and against
the vanity, cruelty, and inequalities of civil society. In the standard reading, it is this sentiment of
pity, activated by our imagination, that allows for the cultivation of compassion. However, a
closer look at the pathologies of pity in Rousseaus system challenges this idea that pity is a
pleasurable sentiment that arises froma recognition of the identity of our natures and leads ulti-
mately to communion with our fellow-creatures. Instead, pity rests inexorably on a sense of dif-
ference, is fueled by an aversion to suffering, and is more likely to yield a world of reluctant
spectators than one of simple souls eagerly rushing to the aid of others. Because compassion is
unlikely to encourage the moral equality and willful agency requisite to democracy, trying to
make compassion central to democratic theory may very well prove counterproductive.
Keywords: Jean-Jacques Rousseau; identity; difference; pity; compassion; democratic
Democracys relationship to compassion is deeply problematic. Compas-
sion is frequently heralded as one of the foremost accomplishments of mod-
ern democracy. Only in a wealthy, enlightened, and humane society like ours
does compassion come into its own as a full-fledged moral faculty. What are
the modern welfare state and our rich network of charitable institutions if not
direct and logical extensions of a more elemental compassion made possible
AUTHORS NOTE: Earlier versions of this essay were presented to the Morality and Its Oth-
ersconference at AlbionCollege in 1999, the SouthernPolitical Science Associationmeeting in
Atlanta in 2002, and the Political Theory Workshop at the University of WisconsinMadison in
2003. Thanks to the many participants who kindly offered helpful queries and criticisms. This
essay also owes much to conversations about Rousseau with Andrew Norris, Jarrell Robinson,
John Scott, and Tony Sung. It was greatly improved by the careful readings and suggestions of
Stephen K. White, Elizabeth Wingrove, and an anonymous reader.
POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 32 No. 4, August 2004 519-546
DOI: 10.1177/0090591703258118
2004 Sage Publications
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by affluence, technology, and a highly refined social conscience? Liberal
democracy rightly puts cruelty first, in the words of Judith Shklar, when it
sides with compassion against a pitiless disregard for humanity.
And yet, ironically, this idea that democracy equals compassion has been
advanced more often by democracys critics than by its defenders. In the
midst of his criticisms, Alexis de Tocqueville admitted that
in democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for another, but they show a general
compassion for all the human race. One never sees them inflict pointless suffering, and
they are glad to relieve the sorrows of others when they can do so without much trouble to
Treating this general compassion as a vice, rather than a redeeming virtue
of modern democracy, Friedrich Nietzsche diagnosed pity as a kind of demo-
cratic sickness or nausea.
Carl Schmitt similarly complained that the
excessive humanity of modern democracies sapped them of the will to
uphold the friend-and-enemy distinction even to the point of obliterating
the concept of the political altogether.
Notwithstanding these and other noteworthy criticisms of democracies as
indiscriminately compassionate, paralyzed by their sensitivity to the point of
being kind when they should be cruel, and consequently cruel when they
should be kind, remarkably few contemporary democratic theorists have
actually appealed to compassion.
As Nancy Hirschmann has observed, the
concept of sympathy is not a major player in the world of political theory,
which is generally more concerned with justice, freedomor rights.
tial democratic theorists like Jrgen Habermas, Amy Gutmann and Dennis
Thompson, and Benjamin Barber say little about the place of compassion in a
democracy, and indeed seem suspicious of the role of affect or emotion in
political life more generally.
Among the few who explicitly make compas-
sion central to democratic theory and practice are feminist theorists like
Carol Gilligan or Joan Tronto who envision an ethic of care as an alterna-
tive to an overly rationalistic emphasis on legalism or justice.
And certain
communitarian critics of liberalismseemto call for a more compassionate
society, if only by implication, when they fault the liberal individuals alleged
indifference to fellow citizens and lack of deeper emotional commitments to
public life.
This disconnect between our intuitive sense that democracies are, or at
least ought to be, distinguished by their compassion and the apparent neglect
of compassion by democratic theorists proper brings to mind the case of Jean-
Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is widely hailed for his commitments to both
compassion and political democracy.
However, like so many other para-
doxes of Rousseaus political theory, we should be wary of assuming that
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these two values are easily combined with one another. His ambivalent treat-
ment of compassion serves as a starting point for this articles two main lines
of analysis. The first is to drawattention to the problematic, indeed pathologi-
cal status of pity in Rousseaus system. This essay challenges the dominant
scholarly viewthat pity is a pleasurable sentiment that inclines us to the aid of
our fellowman; instead, insofar as pity collapses back into self-preservation,
it leads just as easily to aversion and avoidance. Rather than a pathway to the
rediscovery of our natural wholeness, pity serves as a dispiriting reminder of
the profound dependency of the human condition.
These ambivalent aspects
of pity make it, in Rousseaus view, unsuitable for grounding the democratic
political theory he develops in the Social Contract (SC).
The second and broader claim is that, following Rousseaus lead, we too
should be cautious about trying to incorporate compassion more formally
into contemporary democratic theory. If we think of liberal democracy not so
much as a set of political institutions circumscribed by the limits of human
sympathy, but rather, following George Kateb, as premised on an implicit
recognition of moral equality, and in terms of the valorization of will and
individual agency, as Richard Flathman has suggested, then Rousseaus idea
of compassion comes up short on both counts.
Although it is founded on the
apprehension of the identity of our natures as fellow-creatures (semblables),
even in Rousseaus account pity is inevitably bound up with relational differ-
ences that are the very antithesis of natural equality. Trying to make compas-
sion central to democratic theory reifies the very distinctions it aims to over-
come, inviting what WilliamConnolly describes as the dialectical problemof
identity/difference whereby any virtue creates a category of otherness or
difference in those who do not possess it.
Rousseaus treatment of com-
passion also deepens the tension between human beings as actorsin the
dual sense of playing a role and of agents engaging in conductand those
who passively experience the emotion of pity only as reluctant spectators.
In all these respects, Rousseaus treatment of pity underscores the moral
discrepancies between compassionconjured up by the sentiments of the
heartand liberal democratic demands for equal treatment and willful
In the Second Discourse (SD), Rousseau distinguishes two faculties
anterior to reason that are present in natural man: self-preservation (amour
de soi) and pity (piti), the latter of which inspires in us a natural repugnance
to see any sensitive being suffer, principally our fellow-men (SD, p. 95).
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These faculties are presocial; they entail no necessity of introducing that
[faculty] of sociability. Important for Rousseaus broader argument is the
fact that these faculties are negative, in the sense that they are insufficient to
incline us toward the society of others. Although they presumably imply
duties toward other sensitive beings, including animals, the sum total of
these is simplytorefrainfromharming or mistreating another (SD, p. 96).
This inner impulse of commiseration is dictated by our common sensi-
tivity, rather than by the belated lessons of reason. We share this sensitivity
with animals, which entitles them to be brought within the province of natu-
ral right. Nonetheless, being devoid of intellect and freedom, they [animals]
cannot recognize this law (SD, p. 96). What begins as an otherwise flattering
contrast between men and beasts gives way to a deeper problem: for although
all individuals possess this immanent sensitivity inclining themtoward com-
passion, they, like beasts, may be incapable of attending to its dictates until
they possess those perfected faculties of intellect and freedom that Rous-
seau denies natural man. In this rendering, pity and compassion toward oth-
ers can bear fruit only once the process of human development has begun. We
must first acquire the moral liberty, self-consciousness, imagination, and rea-
son Rousseau grudgingly acknowledges as necessary for us to rise above the
level of a stupid, limited animal and to become an intelligent being and a
man (SC, I, viii, p. 57).
Being able to access our natural sensitivity presumes that we have already
become moral beings, possessing souls, free will, moral agency, and presum-
ably also some elementary faculty of reason (SD, p. 114). In order to feel
compassion we must already have become moral agents. Yet as we discover
later in Rousseaus treatment, it is this very process of development itself, and
especially our acquisition of a highly cultivated faculty of abstract ratiocina-
tion, that renders us incapable of any longer attending to this sensible voice
within our nature. With reason come vanity, self-consciousness, and cruelty
(SD, Note O, p. 222). Rousseaus treatment leads us almost immediately to
doubt that modern society and its accomplishments will in any way allow us
to make good on that faculty of pity for other sensible beings.
Rousseau observes, albeit in the formof a conditional objection, that com-
miseration is obscure and strong in savage man, developed but feeble in civil
man (SD, p. 132). At least the modern condition allows the potential for, if
not the likelihood of, this more developed social conscience. But under
what conditions might this otherwise feeble voice of pity become accessi-
ble to us? As we see in both the Second Discourse and Emile (E), whether or
not we heed this voice of sympathy hinges on our ability to recognize and
identify with another. Pity hinges on the problem of recognition or what
Rousseau himself calls identification (SD, p. 132). Yet the difficulty of rec-
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ognizing something of ones self in another is exacerbated by the growing
inequalities of civil society. Because commiseration will be all the more
energetic as the observing animal identifies himself more intimately with the
suffering animal, it follows that this identification must have been infi-
nitely closer in the state of nature than in the state of reasoning (SD, p. 132).
Natural sensitivity and other common features of natural equality are over-
whelmed by manifold conventional differences, to the point where individu-
als are so different from one another that they can scarcely recognize any
common humanity beneath the layers of acculturation. This is a lamentable
consequence of the growth of reason, which engenders vanity and turns
man back upon himself, preventing him from identifying himself with the
man who is being assassinated (SD, p. 132).
But if reason bears some responsibility for robbing us of the more elemen-
tal ability to identify with another by apprehending the natural sensibility we
all share, it also supplies us with the surrogate faculty of imagination. As
Rousseau distinguishes, Imagination, which causes so much havoc among
us, does not speak to savage hearts (SD, p. 135). Only once we have gone
some distance along the philosophical anthropology of mankind can we
identify with another by imagining ourselves in his position, so as to commis-
erate with his pain or rejoice in his happiness. Although the details of this
identification are blurry, Rousseau does suggest an important difference
between the obscure and strong sentiment of natural pity and that compas-
sion that is developed but feeble in civilized man.
Presumably, the natural pity of the state of nature depended only on our
ability to hear its gentle voice wholly within ourselves (SD, p. 133). How-
ever, what Rousseau describes as compassion is no longer a sentiment con-
tingent on our natural wholeness and self-sufficiency, requiring neither wis-
dom nor self-knowledge. Instead, it is a force that, moderating in each
individual the activity of love of ones self, demands that we look outward
and consciously attempt to see the world through the eyes of another (SD,
p. 133). Imagination apparently moderates the influence or activity of
self-love neither by conquering or repressing it, nor by restoring our natural
wholeness, as we might imagine, but by drawing us further out of ourselves:
To become sensitive and pitying, the child must know that there are beings like himwho
suffer what he has suffered, who feel the pains he has felt . . . how do we let ourselves be
moved by pity if not by transporting ourselves outside of ourselves and identifying with
the sufferinganimal, byleaving. . . our ownbeingtotake onhis being. (E, IV, pp. 222-23)
Unlike the natural wholeness and self-sufficiency that Rousseau else-
where recommends as uniquely commensurate to the natural goodness of
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mankind, the exercise of commiseration has more in common with the bour-
geois psychology of other-directedness, vanity, resentment, and amour-
propre he declaims.
No less than the modern bourgeois consumed by envy
and self-doubt, commiserating with someone else means living outside our-
selves. Perhaps this is why, as Clifford Orwin has suggested, Rousseau con-
ceives of the virtue of compassion as being so uniquely suited to bourgeois
Bourgeois society is characterized both by conspicuous human suf-
fering and an inability to see ourselves without mediated comparisons with
In order to commiserate, we must transcend our self and the illusion of
self-sufficiency by putting our self in anothers place, seeing the world
through her eyes rather than our own. Rousseau calls this process identifica-
tion. Its etymological connection to identity merits comment. To identify
with another is to discover some common identity among like or fellow-crea-
turessemblables. In contrast to many contemporary understandings of
identity that make this term synonymous with subjectivity, particularity, or
difference, for Rousseau, identit refers to those common equivalencies
that define us all as selves: similarity or equality seem better synonyms.
We must identify with another by looking beyond difference and locating
something identical or equivalent to which we can relate. What this iden-
tity of our natures might consist of and the difficulties of discovering it are
significant (E, IV, p. 221). For ultimately what the imagination reveals to us is
our condition of mutual dependency: It is our common miseries which turn
our hearts to humanity. . . . If our common needs unite us by interest, our com-
mon miseries unite us by affection. The sentiment of their pains affords us
a far better access to what we share in common with others than the exclusiv-
ity of their particular successes and joys, which yield less love than envy
(E, IV, p. 221). Ironically, the constancy of pain and human suffering is the
best reminder of our common humanity.
One of the many paradoxes of Rousseaus account of pity and compassion
is that these feelings require real human beings to suffer. Only by exposure to
the actual presence of human calamities and the sad picture of suffering
humanity do we develop the faculty of compassion (E, IV, pp. 222, 224).
Still, it is striking how little is said about how this commiseration may
assuage the suffering of the afflicted in some, small way.
Instead Rousseau
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insists that the compassionate presumably acquire something even more
valuable. For the very possibility of tasting the sweetest human sentiments
requires that some should suffer in order for others to experience happiness:
Pity is sweet because, in putting ourselves in the place of the one who suf-
fers, we nevertheless feel the pleasure of not suffering as he does (E, IV,
p. 221).
Maybe the best evidence of this voyeuristic, pleasurable aspect of com-
passion is Rousseaus stipulation that the sad spectacle of human suffering
ought to be used, but not overused, as an object lesson in Emiles education,
lest he become callous by an early overexposure to human misery. Rousseau
raises as a possibility, and then summarily dismisses, the life of a Mother
Theresa, who rushes from hospital to hospital and from sickroom to sick-
room, as too likely to obscure human sentimentality: The object is not to
make your pupil a male nurse or a brother of charity, not to afflict his sight
with constant objects of pain and suffering. . . . He must be touched and not
hardened by the sight of human miseries (E, IV, p. 231). This is again to sug-
gest that human suffering should be attended to not so much out of a desire to
relieve those who suffer but instead for the development of Emiles charac-
Describing human suffering as an object, sight, scene, impres-
sion, picture, or spectacle reveals it to be, like nature, an object to be por-
trayed, instrumentalized, and manipulated in the interest of human conve-
nience (E, IV, pp. 222, 226, 227, 230-32). Suffering is neither simply
inevitable nor lamentable. It exists for the sake of sensitive spectators like
Emile to develop their highest human faculties.
In fairness, Rousseau does appear to be genuinely moved by the condition
of suffering humanity. That he should be so intent to define cruelty as the pre-
eminent human vice testifies to his sentimentality and humanism. But in the
end, human suffering becomes a kind of spectacle to be controlled,
showcased, and manipulated for the edification of the few. Let him see, let
him feel the human calamities, Rousseau admonishes (E, IV, p. 224). Like
the syphillitics whose suffering becomes an object lesson for the prodigal
son, suffering humanity exists for the sake of Emiles education and eventual
happiness, and not vice versa (E, IV, p. 231). All this seems bad enough. But
Rousseau goes further still: whatever limited prospects we retain for human
happiness can be attained only when, after immersing ones self in anothers
misery, we return to our selves and experience sublime pleasure in the real-
ization that we do not share the others misfortunes. Only this voyeuristic
thrill can possibly make us happy with our lot. The resultant sweet sensa-
tion of pleasure, according to Rousseau, is the negative, paradoxical version
of that frail happiness that consists only in the absence of suffering (E, IV,
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p. 221; SD, p. 132). Yet its very sweetness appears to be parasitical on the
suffering of another, just as the contentment and status of the master rests on
the subordination of the slave.
Tragically, Emile can find the key to happiness only in viewing (but not
acting upon) the sufferings of others. In part, this is the unfortunate corollary
to Rousseaus pessimism: living in civil society ensures that we cannot regard
the good fortune of others without falling prey to the vices of vanity, envy,
and jealousy (E, IV, pp. 228-30). Seeing another happy appeals to the lowest
forms of our imagination. Yet the perversity of Rousseaus alternative is that
while denying the vicarious pleasures of the friend or lover, who experience
pleasure by partaking in the happiness of others, Rousseaus compassionate
soul becomes a kind of moral voyeur. After imagining himself in the place of
suffering humanity he achieves the heady rush of sweet relational happi-
ness that comes upon returning to his own superior condition.
Rousseau repeatedly emphasizes the visual aspects of suffering humanity
the salutary effects of witnessing it, if not of acting upon it. One must, he
notes, have seen corpses to feel the agonies of the dying (E, IV, p. 226). At
first glance, the theater promises an alternative to this view of human suffer-
ing as a slaughter bench of history whose ultimate goal is to foster perfection
and happiness in the sentimental few. In the theater, at the very least, the
object lesson of human suffering may stoke the fires of human imagination
without requiring real persons to suffer: it is there that they go to forget their
friends, neighbors and relations in order to concern themselves with fables in
order to cry for the misfortunes of the dead, or to laugh at the expense of the
living (Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. DAlembert on the Theatre [LDT],
p. 17).
But this quote is also suggestive of how the theater may function as an
escape fromeveryday moral obligations. Rather than protecting an otherwise
virtuous society from the corrupting influence of the arts, as Rousseau is
often read, his criticism of the theater may also be taken as a further indict-
ment of the lack of compassion in bourgeois society.
In bourgeois society,
after all, we are all actors and spectators.
From the elementary songs and
dances in the Second Discourse that give rise to vanity and affectation we are
soon confronted by a world where to be and to seemto be became two alto-
gether different things (SD, pp. 149, 155). Living mediated lives in bour-
geois society means that our sense of self comes only through the eyes of oth-
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ers. We are constantly engaged in performance and dissimulation. As a
microcosm of this imaginary world of performance, the theater epitomizes
this alien, bourgeois condition of seeming rather than being. The theater,
in the words of David Marshall, teaches people how to become spectators,
how to act like spectators.
Despite these apparent continuities between the world of spectacle and the
politics of the ordinary, the force of Rousseaus criticism rests on stressing
the discrepancy between our moral position as spectators and our status as
political actors in everyday life. Rousseau disparages the false sensitivity of
average theatergoers who are moved by pity for those who suffer at the hands
of a fictional tyrant while they themselves would aggravate his enemys tor-
ments even more if allowed for even a moment to take the tyrants place.
Like bloodthirsty Sulla, so sensitive to evils he had not caused (and hence
presumably indifferent to those he has?) they are moved by a love of human-
ity in the abstract that they are incapable of conjuring up in the particular (SD,
p. 131).
Rousseaus examples of the tyrants Sulla and Alexander of Pherae sug-
gest, optimistically, that even the hardest of heartsliteral tyrantscan still
be moved by human suffering. And yet the very extremity of Rousseaus
examples goes to suggest an even more damning criticism of the quotidian.
The fact that we so easily cry at this imaginary spectacle implies a criticismof
the sentimentality of modern civilization, where the cultivation of the fine
arts takes the place of the more authentic natural sentiments of pity or com-
passion. In our everyday conduct we are untroubled by our own propensity
for cruelty. This gross disparity between the love of humanity in the abstract
and callousness toward real particular beings in the here-and-now is hardly
confined to the likes of Sulla and Alexander of Pherae. Modern compassion
may prove, as Rousseau suggested it would, simultaneously developed but
feeble. As moral spectators we unavoidably feel pity when we witness suf-
fering, but in everyday life we are unlikely to act upon these feelings.
Even if we ignore Rousseaus complaints about these sentiments as
effeminate or corrosive of civic virtue, this sentimentalism invites problems
on its own terms.
No doubt the ease with which we identify with the tortured
character, and readily imagine ourselves in her place, is due in part to the
romance of the theater. When performed in the theater the suffering of
humanity becomes dramatic, romantic, and sympathetic. By way of contrast,
Rousseau himself admits that the suffering of the mass of humanity is ugly
(E, IV, p. 225). One danger of blurring the line between the performative and
personal dimensions of suffering is that misery comes to be seen as the stuff
of fiction. Suffering humanity becomes an abstract, imaginary category iden-
tified with charismatic actors rather than the particular individuals we know
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in everyday life. Insofar as the suffering of real human beings is never so
glamorous, noble, or epic as its romanticized theatrical counterpart, we may
become less able than ever to sympathize with it. The continual emotion
which is felt in the theatre excites us, enervates us, enfeebles us, and makes us
less able to resist our passions. And the sterile interest taken in virtue serves
only to satisfy our vanity without obliging us to practice it (LDT, p. 57). The
pathologies of this kind of escapism are easy to anticipate. In everyday life
we are actors in the sense that we pretend and dissimulate, but merely pas-
sive spectators when the practice of compassion is actually called for. We
lack agency and will. Worse still: like those animals that are reluctant to pass
near a dead member of their species, real suffering yields a kind of aversion.
We may flock to the theaters to viewthe heady rush of human suffering, trag-
edy, and commiseration, but in our own lives, like Rousseaus animals, we
avert our eyes and cross to the other side of the street. Leaving the theater we
ignore the homeless outside the door.
Rousseaus point hinges on the moral contradiction between our delight in
witnessing suffering in the theater and our revulsion when confronted by it in
reality. And yet this dissonance itself presupposes two mutually exclusive
accounts of the moral psychology of pity. There is on the one hand Rous-
seaus description of compassion as being the sweetest of sentiments.
feel an undeniable, vicarious pleasure in imagining our self in the position of
another who suffers and then returning to our own more enviable position.
And yet this notion of compassion as being a pleasurable sensationone that
persons might selfishly seek outstands in stark contrast with the account of
pity to which we have just alluded. Pity, in this other view, is among the most
unpleasant of sentiments insofar as it reminds us that we, too, might suffer or
even perish. The issue is not whether we are more or less capable of attending
to the natural voice of compassion in modern society; rather, it is the sub-
stance of what those sentiments suggest to us that may prove most troubling
of all.
Rousseau begins his discussion of natural pity on a curious note by setting
aside one of the most conspicuous examples of sympathy, Without speaking
of the tenderness of mothers for their young, and of the perils they must brave
in order to guard them, only to posit the more ambiguous example of the
aversive behavior of feral animals (SD, p. 130). Could his implicit rejection
of the analogy between pity and maternal affection be because to label this
sentiment pity would ask too much of pity, suggesting the very fact that
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Rousseau aims to deny, namely, the existence of some kind of natural socia-
bility? Or because, in what becomes Rousseaus ironically Hobbesian world-
view, the care a mother lavishes upon her child is not in fact an act of natural
sympathy at all, but simply the biological necessity of dispensing milk belat-
edly sentimentalized out of habit or convenience (SD, p. 121, cf. pp. 108-9,
142, 146-48, 191-92n.)?
Rousseaus subsequent observations about the daily repugnance of
horses to trample a living body underfoot or the uneasiness of an animal to
pass near a dead animal of its species hardly yield a society of simple souls
eagerly rushing to the aid of others. Instead they are suggestive of the mecha-
nisms of aversion or avoidance (SD, p. 130). Connecting pity with the lowing
of animals in the presence of death does more than just highlight the prob-
lems of a modern society where pity has been lost or corrupted. The deeper
and more troubling suggestion is that aversion and avoidance may be rooted
in the elemental sentiment of pity itself:
[Emile] will begin to have gut reactions at the sounds of complaints and cries, the sight of
blood flowing will make himavert his eyes; the convulsions of a dying animal will cause
him an ineffable distress before he knows whence come these new movements within
him. (E, IV, p. 222)
This uneasiness when confronted by signs of our own vulnerability is
enough to make us want to shun the suffering altogether. Rousseaus exam-
ples of feral animals and the lowing of cattle entering the stockyards stress
that pity has less to do with a compassionate concern for the welfare of others
than with the even more elemental sentiment of self-preservation.
than pity successfully moderating or regulating the activity of our self-
love, as Rousseau suggests, his examples reinforce the notion that pity only
collapses back into this most elemental Hobbesian faculty of self-preserva-
tion. Moderating the activity of our self-regard is different from extin-
guishing that self-regard altogether. Whatever pity these animals feel is not
for other dead or injured animals, but stems fromthe recognition of a similar,
and indeed inevitable, mortality in themselves (E, IV, pp. 226-27).
Derrida notes,
We neither can nor should feel the pain of others immediately and absolutely, for such an
interiorization or identification would be dangerous and destructive. That is why the
imagination, the reflection, and the judgment that arouse pity also limit its power and
hold the suffering of the other at a certain distance.
Looking more closely at Rousseaus invocation of pity explodes the care-
ful theoretical distance he seeks to maintain between solicitude for others, or
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pity, and self-regard, or amour de soi.
Incapable of imagining or fearing
death in the abstract, animals can nonetheless sense their mortality when con-
fronted by its immediate presence (SD, p. 130). Natural man would retreat in
fear at the least prospect of suffering harm rather than risk the dangers of
communing with other sensible beings (SD, pp. 107, 129). Far froma primor-
dial dose of natural sociability, the emotion of pity makes Rousseaus natural
beings less inclined toward society than even Hobbess emphasis on mans
desire for fame and recognition, which may, after all, prove the strongest psy-
chological impetus of all for individuals to seek the company of others and
depart the Hobbesian state of nature.
Ironically, then, it is by making his nat-
ural psychology more purely Hobbesian even than Hobbes that Rousseau
differentiates his natural condition from a state of war.
Similarly, although pity will dissuade every robust savage from robbing
a weak child or an infirmold man of his hard-earned subsistence, this is only
if or so long as, he himself hopes to be able to find his own elsewhere
(SD, p. 133). This statement is proscriptive or negative (notice: this is not the
same as the positive disposition which carries us without reflection to the
aid of those we see suffering) as well as conditional. Whatever small mea-
sure of self-restraint is imposed by pity (Do what is good for you with as lit-
tle harmas possible to others) remains hostage to conditions of scarcity and
to subjective judgments about the dangers of this forbearance to ones own
self-preservation. And yet by depriving natural man of the faculties of reason
and judgment that Hobbes and Locke allowed him, Rousseau seems to call
into question just howsubstantial are the kinds of mercy that pity might yield.
Ultimately, pity does not so much moderate self-love as deepen and rein-
force the natural self-regard that leads us to avoid danger, pain, or suffering in
ourselves and in others.
So the very same pity Rousseau depends upon to
dissuade natural man from unnecessarily harming another also discourages
him from willfully intervening on behalf of another suffering being.
This permeable line between natural sensitivity and self-regard is further
blurred in Rousseaus example of the prisoner-spectator. Does Mandevilles
prisoner suffer because of the intrinsic horror of a wild beast tearing a child
fromhis mothers breast, breaking his weak limbs in its murderous teeth, and
ripping apart the palpitating entrails of this child in the street beneath his cell
(SD, p. 131)? Or rather does his horrible agitation stem from the fact that,
being imprisoned, he has no place to turn and hence cannot avert his gaze? It
is significant that Rousseaus presentation of this pathetic image actually
serves to redirect our own sympathy away fromthe sufferings of the child and
mother and toward the prisoner-witness. We are asked to consider What
anguish must he suffer, when, being confined, this witness is forced to
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watch the horrible spectacle unfolding beneath him in which he takes no
personal interest (SD, p. 131, emphasis added).
Rousseau deliberately chooses the example of a prisoner to illustrate the
force of natural pity, which even the most depraved morals still have diffi-
culty destroying: his point is strongest in the case of one who has already
committed some heinous act against other sensible beings (SD, p. 131). Even
criminals feel an elemental connection with human suffering. Notice, how-
ever, that the more horrific the spectacle of suffering, the more our sympathy
comes to rest with the criminal-witness. Indeed the fact of having suffered
sufficiently may even be enough to transform the criminal himself into an
object of our pity. At least this was the claimof Adolph Eichmann, for whom
the alleged necessity of committing unspeakable atrocities was enough to
ground an appeal for compassion.
The case of the pitiable criminal shows
the ease with which we transfer the object of our pity fromthe actual victimto
at least a potential victimizer. What horrors have I witnessed, how painful it
was for me to perform such atrocities, how much suffering have I seen and
caused: thus, feel pity for me. The victimizer may usurp the agonistic dimen-
sions of pity so as to make himself the victim. One of the liabilities of pity as a
stand-in for natural right, and of compassion in turn as a surrogate for justice,
is its labile quality.
Natural compassion seems unable to drawfirmand con-
vincing lines between right and wrong. It treats all humans as equally piti-
able, or, at best, dispenses compassion based on a relative hierarchy of human
suffering that blurs the line between criminals and victims.
There is something nettling about pitys potential for limitless compas-
sion, even for criminals like Eichmann. But from the point of view of demo-
cratic equality, compassions indiscriminacy may be less of an issue than its
tendency to discriminate. In real life some are more sympathetic than others,
after all. For all of his self-pitying, Eichmann was unlikely to garner much
compassion, whereas Julien Sorel, the sensitive and dashing young protago-
nist of Stendahls novel Red and Black, would likely have been acquitted of
his crime had the public of Besanon been called upon to judge him.
tening to our hearts (rather than legalism or the more abstract reasoning of
our minds) may be an unreliable guide to determining who truly deserves our
sympathy. If, as I have suggested above, democracy presupposes equal treat-
ment, then the notion that we must somehow look to the heart and our emo-
tions in lieu of more abstract standards of justice seems misguided. However
rigid and punitive its criteria for distinguishing between the categories of
those deserving of our compassion and those others to whom we must steel
ourselves to be unkind, the case of compassionate conservatism has per-
haps the singular redeeming virtue of warning us that just as compassion
ought not to discriminate, neither can it be wholly indiscriminate.
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There are also the requisite democratic values of individual will and politi-
cal agency to be taken into account. At its best, pity may awaken our natural
repugnance to seeing human misery. But we have seen that this need not
incline us to do anything much about remedying it. Avoidance proves the
unfortunate side effect even of the refined modern compassion grounded in
pity that Rousseau elsewhere praises. In his Reveries (RSW), he tells of his
initial delight in giving alms to a lame, homeless child he regularly passed on
his walks. And yet after time this pleasure, having gradually become a habit,
was inextricably transformed into a kind of duty that Rousseau finds oner-
ous and takes special pains to avoid by changing his usual route (RSW, p. 74).
So long as the act of compassion involves only the heart it yields the sweetest
of pleasures. Once transformed into duty by habituation, as Rousseau alleges
it must inevitably be, it quickly loses its charm and becomes burdensome:
Constraint, though in harmony with my desire, suffices to annihilate it and
to change it into repugnance, even into aversion, as soon as it functions too
strongly (RSW, p. 77).
Rousseau alludes to the special, permanent relationship that develops
between benefactor and sufferer. Among the natural effects of the rela-
tionship are that a single, heartfelt act of kindness engenders further obli-
gations. Knowing this full well, however, Rousseau admits that he has often
abstained froma good action I had the desire and the power to do, frightened
of the subjection I would submit myself to afterward if I yielded to it without
reflection (RSW, p. 78). This suggests all sorts of things about obligation and
dependency. One of the reasons Rousseau wishes to cultivate pity in Emile is
to make him aware of his dependence on others. Imagination yields the rec-
ognition that no single being is self-sufficient. Against all his best intentions
Rousseaus portrayal of this dependency leads ineluctably toward a conclu-
sion he adamantly denies: because all alike experience misery and misfor-
tune, to be human is by definition to be dependent upon others. Looking
beyond the mirage of human autonomy suggested by the liberal fiction of the
rights-bearing individual, or indeed the Rousseauian rhetoric of the nobility
of savage freedom, Rousseaus individual, rightly thinking, arrives at an
almost Christian recognition of his natural indebtedness and the burdens of
the human condition. Pity is, as Rousseau observes, a disposition that is
appropriate to beings as weak and as subject to as many ills as we are (SD,
p. 130). Still, being aware of ones hypothetical condition of dependency, like
Emile, is very different than actually living up to the reciprocal obligations
this would apparently impose upon us. Instead, dependency and obligation
are moral duties to be fled simply because they are duties. Our lamentable
condition of natural and conventional dependency can hardly be improved
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and is in fact only deepenedwhen we engender further obligations by help-
ing others.
Rousseaus criticism of the dialectic of compassion and dependency
strikes familiar, contemporary chords. First, in our role as benefactors we
should resist the tug of our heart and withhold compassion because it subjects
us to additional, unwanted obligations in the future: whether it is jumping in
to stop a crime or only phoning the police, dont get involved lest you become
further entangled. And second, the aspiration to eliminate dependency in oth-
ers provides a convenient justification for denying those who seek our help.
Better that we do the hard thing and refuse them now lest we render them
dependent on us in the future.
The awful paradox is that a life in which we
studiously strive for autonomy and avoid forging dependenciesboth for
ourselves and in othersseems fully compatible with Rousseaus account of
More than just illustrations of his own misanthropy, Rousseaus discus-
sion here underscores an important point about the moral theory of compas-
sion. In order for compassion to have any moral significance, it must be heart-
felt. We must actually feel compassion. Otherwise, one is simply being
forced to perform actions that she experiences as onerous and alien. And yet
if a kind action is done only because it is expected, or in the last resort, com-
pelled by Good Samaritan laws, howcan one expect anything other than that
it will be resented? Rousseaus discussion would seemto reveal both the vir-
tues and vices of compassion. Compassion is admirable in that it transcends
our ordinary rationalistic concerns with justice, statistics, or even utilitarian
consequences. Getting to know just one family on welfare may do more to
stir us than volumes full of poverty statistics. This explains why it is often
hard to swallow the more abstract notion that charity to others around the
world may have more salutary consequences than helping those we knowand
see in our own nation or community. And yet if compassion is to be dispensed
only on a sentimental whim, or worse yet, withheld for fear of engendering
further obligations and dependencies, it loses whatever power it might have
as a source of democratic community.
If for whatever reason our heart does-
nt move us, we may either fail to act, like Rousseau, or act only out of resent-
ment for being required to play a role or honor an obligation we have not
imposed upon ourselves.
Imagining ourselves in the position of another creates challenges for dif-
ferent groups. For the lower classes this imaginary flight of fancy is easier.
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Those who suffer most can well imagine themselves in the position of the
wealthy, the downtrodden, or in the guise of the heroic characters of the the-
ater. It is the wife of the fishmonger who rushes first into the crowd to stop an
act of violence (SD, p. 132). However, the situation of the rich is categorically
different. They risk becoming callous precisely because they cannot identify
with the masses of humanity:
Why are kings without pity for their subjects? Because they count on never being mere
men. Why are the rich so hard toward the poor? It is because they have no fear of becom-
ing poor. Why does the nobility have so great a contempt for the people? It is because a
noble will never be a commoner. (E, IV, p. 224)
Only by a colossal leap of the imagination can the rich recognize anything of
themselves in the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed.
Rousseau focuses mainly on the barriers to compassion between different
social classes, but the problem of identity and difference is closely related.
Among those conventional differences impressed upon the modern self are
religious, ethnic, and occupational differences arising from the pluralism of
the modern world. Insofar as we are socially constituted as Christians, Jews,
or Muslims, as Serbs, Croats, or Bosnians, we are that much less able to
imagine ourselves in the position of another. We are consequently that much
more likely to lose touch with the gentle voice of compassion. This fixation
on difference explains not only why we are so often incapable of mustering
what William Connolly has called a generous ethos of engagement
across differences, but also why difference so often gives way to callowness,
cruelty, and even atrocities.
In his Social Contract, Rousseau takes a strong stand against difference.
He criticizes religious diversity and those partial societies that limit the politi-
cal community to something less than the harmonious, homogenous whole
of an idealized Sparta or Geneva. Difference and particular identities limit
the possibilities of political community, and reckoning up the sumof the dif-
ferences gradually necessitates compromise on ever less specific and more
general laws (SC, II, 1, p. 59; II, 3, p. 61). Yet what we have seen so far would
suggest that Rousseaus bias against particular differences has far less to do
with his advocacy of the moral values of citizenship or political community
than with his sense of how otherness and difference foreclose compassion
and commiseration between private individuals. Among the foremost values
of political community is the fact that it increases the likelihood of compas-
sion between citizens by making it more difficult to be cruel to those with
whomwe share so much. Conversely, to the degree that our identity with oth-
ers is obscured, it becomes that much easier to forget that others deserve our
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consideration as fellow sensible beings. Judith Shklar has aptly noted that
once any recognition of the identity of our natures has been obscured, cruelty
cannot be far behind.
But thinking about the kinds of differences that usually evoke pity raises
fundamental questions about whether pity can ever take place simply by rec-
ognizing the identity of our common natures. Instead, as Connolly has sug-
gested, doesnt pity (ostensibly grounded in identit) inevitably entail some
reference to difference?
Colored by self-consciousness and invidious com-
parisons with the other, modern pity can assume many forms. Compassion
may thinly disguise condescension. These poor suffering souls deserve our
pity because we are stronger, more intelligent, wealthier, or more fortunate
than they. Even at its best, this bond of commiseration rests upon the very
sorts of relational differences Rousseau is concerned to extirpate.
As Rousseau wonders, what are generosity, clemency, humanity, if not
pity applied to the weak, to the guilty, or to the human species in general
(SD, p. 131)? Here at long last are examples of the modern ages ability to
marshal the sentiment of pity toward concrete, positive ends. Yet it is note-
worthy that Rousseau raises this as a rhetorical, perhaps even purposefully
ironic question that he is reluctant to answer in the affirmative. Are these
accomplishments of modern compassion really the developed and general-
ized versions of the elemental faculty of pity that remains obscure in sav-
age man? And in what respect is their developed status in civil society com-
patible with his complaints about their alleged feebleness?
Rousseaus categories apply not to concrete, particular individuals qua
individuals but instead as members of abstract groups. In this formulation,
we pity the weak not as equal, fellow sensible beings but because of their
condition of weakness, which Rousseau elsewhere insists is an unnatural dif-
ference. The status of guiltwith its conventional notions of criminality or
moral approbation and disapprobationis what evokes our sympathy. And
even in the case of the universal love for all of humanity, compassion is
awarded based on the recipients membership in the highly abstract category
of humanity, rather than by her particular, concrete presence as a fellow
sentient being.
Such abstract and conventional categories as Rousseau
invokes are irrelevant to and beyond the conceptualization of natural man.
Pity may also be colored by vanity and invidious comparisons. The strong
pity the weak because they are beneath them. The guilty deserve clemency
from the guiltless because they are in some respect their moral superiors.
Thinking long and hard about these relational comparisonsand the secret
feelings of self-importance and righteousness they often disguisereveals
just howmuch they color and inspire much of what passes for pity in modern
Pity is either so universal as to be based on membership in abstract
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categories that transcend ones individual sensibility, or so particular as to lay
emphasis on the very relational differences it is supposed to overcome. It
seems doomed either to obfuscate, or to fixate upon, the identity of the suf-
ferer. In the words of Connolly, Identity, then, is always connected to a
series of differences that help it to be what it is.
The central question both for Rousseau and modern democracy is whether
we can ever feel compassion for another without somehow invoking our self
and its standing relative to the condition of another. Surely we must first
experience the other as a self similarly endowed with sensibility; commiser-
ation will be all the more energetic as the observing animal identifies himself
more intimately with the suffering animal (SD, p. 132). We feel no pity for
rocks or trees.
Yet the self for Rousseau is pure potentiality, susceptible by
its perfectibility to the diverse influences of environment, convention, and
social status. What happens, then, when the selves who confront one another
are no longer the simple, sensible beings who accidentally crossed paths in
the state of nature, but instead are subsequently and indelibly stamped by
conventional differences like strong, weak, rich, poor, honorable, and mean?
Between the denatured selves of civil society whom Rousseau describes as
having attained self-consciousness, the act of recognition is twofold. Even
if the initial recognition of another reveals the universal sympathy we all
share as sensible beings, the next and inevitable recognition must be that
everything else that constitutes that self is conventional, particular, and
This leaves us with two apparently paradoxical insights into the political
role of compassion. Like todays proponents of greater community or an
ethic of care, Rousseau wants to encourage a more compassionate society.
So far, so good. And yet his treatment of pity also suggests why trying to
incorporate compassion more explicitly into democratic theory is such a
problematic way of accomplishing this.
We have seen the unlikelihood, if
not impossibility, of pitys recognition of similarity transcending the con-
comitant recognition of difference it seemingly entails. But assuming that we
are somehowcapable of this kind of recognition, it hardly seems an adequate
basis for thick and meaningful obligations, as contemporary advocates of an
ethic of care or others more amenable to community might insist.
Even if we are able to transcend the manifold conventional differences
that constitute modern selvesan act of the imagination that Rousseau him-
self admits grows more doubtful by the daythe underlying commonality
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that we discover is of such an elementary character that we share it even with
beasts. Recognizing our self in another yields only the most basic animal fact,
namely, that she, like us, feels pain and suffers. Recognition of what we share
in common leads to the dispiriting reduction of the distinctively human to
the merely biological: All are born naked and poor; all are subject to the
miseries of life, to sorrows, ills, needs, and pains of every kind. More pessi-
mistic still: Rousseau confesses what best characterizes humanity is the
Hobbesian recognition that all are condemned to death (E, IV, p. 222). This
hardly illuminates robust, inspiring, and uniquely human possibilities. It
dictates only the thinnest and most minimal of obligations. Less even than
the Christian admonition to do good unto others, recognition among
Rousseauian selves says only that we should Do what is good for you with
the least possible harm to others. When in doubt, do no evil.
Rousseau asks rhetorically whether desiring that someone not suffer
can be anything but desiring that he be happy? Strictly speaking, it may
prove difficult to answer Rousseau in the affirmative. For desiring that some-
one should be happy or enjoy a good life seemingly requires more than just
the necessary but insufficient condition of removing suffering. Yet it is here
that Rousseaus account of pity conspicuously stops, as though a life without
suffering would alone yield happiness, or that the prospects for happiness in
political society are so greatly circumscribed that the minimization of suffer-
ing may be the best that we can do. Beneath his surface-level ovations to clas-
sical virtue and the heroic life of the ancient citizen Rousseaus philosophy
conceals a decidedly modern, realistic bent that few have acknowledged.
To be sure, preventing cruelty is an honorable enough vocation. Obvi-
ously a humane, tolerant, and forgiving society is preferable to one that is
intolerant, vicious, and senselessly wicked. But it is hard to understand howa
common commitment to minimizing suffering can serve as a sufficiently
inspiring goal upon which to found purposive and robust community. That is
to say that Rousseaus account of pity suffers fromsome of the same theoreti-
cal debilities as the liberal philosophy it seemingly castigates.
Like contem-
porary liberalism, Rousseauian pity is negatively oriented (concerned with
the prevention of harm, understood narrowly as unnecessary cruelty), non-
perfectionist (concerned only with the means with which individuals pursue
their ends, rather than the substantive content of those ends themselves), and
seemingly indifferent if not directly hostile to the higher aspirations of com-
munity and shared purposes.
The second issue is whether this act of recognition, however uninspiring,
can be made general, that is to say, a reliable and egalitarian source of politi-
cal community and allegiance, rather than simply an individual whim or
caprice. One solution to the incommodities of the civil state is to tutor imagi-
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native, sentimental souls like Emile who live within civil society but are not a
part of it. Yet this is an individual rather than a political response to the ail-
ments of civil society. Rousseau also holds out the prospects of a more gen-
eral, political solution to modern alienation and dependency in the compen-
satory realm of citizenship. Whatever conventional differences divide us,
there is at least one respect in which all remain equal and free. Citizenship,
such as Rousseau describes in the First Discourse and the Social Contract,
offers a much-needed ground of commonality whereby love of ones fellow
citizens presumably displaces love of self. At first glance, it seems that the
generalization of compassion might be an important part of this enterprise,
forming the constitutive bond of citizenship that is written not in laws but in
the hearts of citizens.
But reinstating pity as a conventional and publicas
opposed to a natural and privatevirtue raises further difficulties.
It is unclear howan ultimatelyprivate virtue like pity might be generalized
into the imaginary realm of the public sphere without surrendering the
intensely personal sensibilities that gave it its original force. As difficult as it
may seem, the act of imagining what we share with a single, sensible individ-
ual requires considerably less of us than recognizing something of ourselves
in the abstract construct of an entire nation. And even if stretching pity to
encompass the abstract category of citizenship might conceivably yield
something like Habermass constitutional patriotism, this Kantian concep-
tion of patriotismas something rational, abstract, and unemotional seems the
very antithesis of Rousseaus description of pity.
The difficulty of seeing compassion as a source of democratic community
is exacerbated by Rousseaus recurrent linkage between citizenship and mar-
tial virtue. His ultimate expression of citizenship embraces the Spartan ideal
of a citizen-soldier willing to fight for the political community. But presum-
ably such a citizen in the truest sense of the termone who kills and even
dies for his political communitymust be capable of bracketing the natural
sensitivity to see another suffer harm. Citizenship in its extreme guise of
friends and enemies demands that we repress the natural and sensible in favor
of a pitilessness that is profoundly unnatural to human beings. As Shklar has
observed, citizenship in large part rests on a suppression of the natural,
including most notably that natural faculty of pity.
Furthermore, linking pity to citizenship and the public sphere serves only
to reintroduce the problem of difference at a higher level. Even if we could
stretch our natural sympathy to include all members of the political commu-
nity, the category of citizenship is by its very nature exclusionary. In prefer-
ring one part of humanity to the rest, Tzvetan Todorov has observed, the
citizen transgresses a fundamental principle, that of equality. Without explic-
itly saying it, he accepts the notion that men are not equal.
Too often, love
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of all members of our own political community is allied with ressentiment
toward those of another. Pitys moral others emerge full-blown in the formof
nationalism, xenophobia, and exclusion when one attempts to transpose
compassion onto the political sphere.
We should hardly be surprised, then, that Rousseaus political ideal of
democratic citizenship under the social contract does not rest on compassion
for others. Instead, as John Scott has argued, Rousseaus political thought
aims to restore the natural wholeness of the state of nature by instituting a
social contract whose explicit goal is to put every citizen in a position of per-
fect independence from all the others, while remaining excessively depen-
dent on the political community as a whole (SC, bk. 2, chap. 12, p. 77,
emphasis added).
The irony is that pity carries within itself virtually all of the vices Rous-
seau most criticizes in his moral and political theory: first, the fact that pity is
aversive means that it discourages willful agency; second, it rests inescap-
ably upon the very differences and inequalities that ultimately alienate and
separate us fromourselves and others; and third, its practice apparently entails
the creation of altogether newdependencies between otherwise autonomous
individuals. In fairness, these problems with compassion are not unforeseen
by those who envision a larger role for compassion in political theory. Joan
Tronto has misgivings about what she calls the otherness, paternalism,
and privileged irresponsibility of an ethic of care. Because
care arises out of the fact that not all humans or others or objects in the world are equally
able, at all times, to take care of themselves. . . . The result is that those who receive care
are often transformed into the other, and identified by whatever marks themas needing
care: their economic plight, their seeming disability, and so forth.
Tronto further notes that the convenient fiction of human equality is just
thata fictionand thus a moral theory of compassion that takes these fun-
damental dependencies and inequalities into account may be preferable to a
moral theory, that because it presumes that all people are equal, is unable
even to recognize them.
The consequences of this last move are, I think, problematic for many of
the reasons Rousseau suggests. Even if the governing principle of political
equality is, as Tronto rightly notes, in some sense fictional, and the justice
of liberal political theory is too often sentimentally unaware of private differ-
ences and inequalities among citizens, it is unclear that as a consequence
these underlying differences should be made more morally relevant with
respect to the political sphere.
The danger is that in trying to make political
theory more attentive to difference, especially by displacing the centrality of
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justice, rights, and equality, the political sphere may be tainted by the other-
ness, privilege, and paternalismthat Tronto herself admits sometimes plague
an ethic of care, and which Rousseau earlier foresawlurking in the emotions
of pity and compassion. Tronto is not interested in debating the proposition
that politics necessarily involves the corruption of whatever moral principles
enter its arena, and she has a good sense of what these kinds of debates
But the difficulty raised by Rousseau would seem to be precisely
the opposite one: rather than compassion being corrupted by politics, the real
danger is that the pathologies of pity, as described by Rousseau, might actu-
ally distort the ideals of democratic political life when one tries to make com-
passion more central to democratic theory and practice. Hannah Arendt, for
example, complains that in its extreme political analogue, compassion may
shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation and compromise,
whichare the processes of lawandpolitics, andlendits voice tothe sufferingitself, which
must claim for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of violence.
Inspired instead by the Kantian thrust of Rousseaus political theory in the
social contract, contemporary democratic theorists have sought ways of
securing a kind of compensatory political equality that supercedes the differ-
ences and inequalities of civil society and encourages more willful agency
and self-legislation on the part of citizens.
We have seen why Rousseaus
account of political compassion is of little help on both of these scores.
Despite the allure of a kind of generalized compassion, which might, like the
ideal political citizenship of the social contract, serve as a way of transcend-
ing the invidious distinctions of civil society, Rousseaus account of pity
seemingly founders on the problem of difference. What democratic political
life most needs is some ground for equality or likeness that transcends differ-
ence. And yet we have seen that pity carries within itself the very differences
it is supposed to transcend. Conversely, at those moments in democratic
political life when we are most in need of the ability to make judgmentsfor
example, in determining when cruelty needs to be met with force, or who
truly deserves our compassionpitys indiscriminacy becomes a stumbling
block. Finally, pitys negative or aversive character would seemto beget only
reluctant spectators and thus does little to encourage the kind of political
agency and willful actors necessary for a truly democratic political life.
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1. Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer (New York: Harper,
1988), vol. 2, pt. 3, 564. This generalized compassion perhaps stems, as Tracy Strong argues,
from the kind of equality and transparency that democracies alone permit. Tracy Strong, Jean-
Jacques Rousseauandthe Politics of the Ordinary (ThousandOaks, CA: Sage, 1994), 145-46.
3. Nietzsches complaints about moderncompassionare complex. Most conspicuous is his
contempt for pity as a sickness or nausea endemic to democratic society. Friedrich Nietz-
sche, Genealogy of Morals, esp. Preface, 5-6; III, 14. But he also alludes to a kind of noble or
aristocratic mercy, borne of the pathos of distance andthe consciousness of power, as a fitting
attitude of the powerful toward the weak or parasites beneath them. Nietzsche, Genealogy, II,
10. Cf. Beyond Good and Evil, V, 201-2; VII, 225.
4. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 1976), esp. pp. 28-29, 35-37, 54, 68.
5. On this latter point about how, notwithstanding their veneer of compassion, modern
democracies may still vent their cruelty upon those who are outside or alien, see Nietzsche,
Genealogy of Morals, I, 11, p. 40:
the same menwhoare heldso sternlyin checkinter pares . . . andwhoonthe other handin
their relations with one another show themselves so resourceful in consideration, self-
control, delicacy, loyalty, pride, and friendshiponcethey go outside, where the strange,
the stranger is found, they are not much better than uncaged beasts of prey.
6. Nancy Hirschman, Sympathy, Empathy and Obligation, in Feminist Interpretations of
David Hume, ed. Anne Jaap Jacobson (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,
2000), 174.
7. Jrgen Habermas, Citizenship and National Identity, in Between Facts and Norms
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996); Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and
Disagreement (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1996); Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Partici-
patory Politics for a NewAge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). For a treatment of
the more general problem of affect in democratic theory, which raises questions about this
characterization of Habermas and problematizes the strict antinomy between reason and affect,
see PatchenMarkell, MakingAffect Safe for Democracy? Political Theory 28(2000): 38-63.
8. Notably, Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1982); Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New
York: Routledge, 1993). This case has been recently made in similar terms but without reference
to Rousseau by Maureen Whitebrook, Compassion as a Political Virtue, Political Studies 50
(2002): 529-44.
9. Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American
Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985); Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule: Community and
Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1996), esp. chap. 5.
10. Consider, for example, the widely differing interpretations that make Rousseau into the
apostle of compassion: Allan Bloom, Introduction, in Emile, or On Education, ed. and trans.
Allan Bloom(NewYork: Basic Books, 1979), 17-20. Or, as Leo Strauss puts it, Compassion is
the passionfromwhichall social virtues derive. Natural Right andHistory (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1953), 270; and those others who read Rousseau as the harbinger of contempo-
rary democratic theory, James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy (NewHaven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1984).
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11. Onnatural freedom, wholeness, andgoodness as Rousseaus intendedgoals, see Strauss,
Natural Right and History, 277-83. For a contrary viewof the naturalness of human dependency,
see Joel Schwartz, The Sexual Politics of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Chicago: University of Chi-
cago Press, 1984).
12. On thinking of liberal democracy as distinguished not by any particular set of political
institutions but in terms of its commitment to these procedures and the intrinsic value of moral
equality, see George Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), esp. chaps. 2 and 3; on willfulness and individual agency as
essential to a liberal democracy, see Richard Flathman, Willful Liberalism: Voluntarism and
Individualismin Political Theory and Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); as
essential for a strong democracy, see Barber, Strong Democracy, chap. 6.
13. William Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), esp. xxiv-xxv, 158-60, 172-73; William
Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 144-
14. Unless otherwise noted, citations from Rousseau are to The First and Second Dis-
courses, ed. Roger Masters (New York: St. Martins, 1964); On the Social Contract, ed. Roger
Masters andtrans. JudithR. Masters (NewYork: St. Martins, 1978); Emile, or OnEducation, ed.
and trans. Allan Bloom(NewYork: Basic Books, 1979); The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, ed.,
trans., and with an introduction by Charles Butterworth (NewYork: NewYork University Press,
1979); and Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. DAlembert on the Theatre (Glencoe, IL: Free
Press, 1960).
15. For an excellent discussion of hownatural pity is activated by the imagination and trans-
formed into compassion, see David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux,
Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 148-52. See
also Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997),
16. Compare Arthur Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseaus
Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 93.
17. Clifford Orwin, Rousseau and the Discovery of Political Compassion, in The Legacy
of Rousseau, ed. Clifford Orwin and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1997), 309.
18. Contrast the reading of Mira Morgenstern, for whom the sweetness of pity derives at
least in part fromthe discovery of individual empowerment and independence. Rousseau and the
Politics of Ambiguity (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 65, 68-69.
19. Rousseaus choice of the term commiseration is noteworthy. Literally, sharing the
misery of anotherthis may be the necessary condition for us to think about acting to relieve
that misery, but it is, as we will see below, far from a sufficient condition for this kind of willful
human agency.
20. Compare Alexis Philonenko, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la Pense du Malheur:
Apothose du Dsespoir (Paris: Librairie Philosophique, 1984), 183: Le malheur devient un
instrument de la pdagogie philosophique.
21. Compare Orwin, Rousseau and the Discovery, 302, 307-8: Within the context of
Emile, the greatest importance of compassion is not to society but to Emile himself. Cf. John
Charvet, The Social Problem in the Philosophy of Rousseau (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1974), who assumes that the purpose of pity is to produce good for others and to
serve as the foundation of a new social order (see esp. pp. 83-93).
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22. Compare C. N. Dugan and Tracy Strong, Music, Politics, Theater and Representation,
in The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, ed. Patrick Riley (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 2001), esp. 333, 339, 343.
23. Morgenstern has developed this point at greater length: Rousseau and the Politics of
Ambiguity, esp. 35-47.
24. Marshall, Surprising Effects of Sympathy, 142.
25. Cf. Elizabeth Wingrove, who interestingly suggests that the theater represents not just a
suspension of will, but a willing complicity in the crimes of others, Rousseaus Republican
Romance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), esp. 175-76; for a more extended
discussion of the performative aspect of sympathy in the theater, see Marshall, SurprisingEffects
of Sympathy, esp. 143-48.
26. Christopher Kelly offers a concise account of Rousseaus ambivalence toward the arts.
Rousseau and the Case against (and for) the Arts, in The Legacy of Rousseau, esp. 20-25.
27. There are major scholarlydebates about the consistency of Rousseaus account of pity as
either an immanent or an active virtue (or both), and my analysis addresses these controversies
implicitly. But I ammainly concernedhere with the related but distinct question of whether com-
miseration is ultimately experienced as sweet or irksome.
28. Cf. Melzer, Natural Goodness of Man, 16-17.
29. Contrast the readingof Margaret Ogrodnick, Instinct andIntimacy: Political Philosophy
and Autobiography in Rousseau (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 137. If
my point here is correct, virtually all of what Jacques Derrida has written about the maternal
metaphor for compassion in Rousseau is wrong. There is little textual evidence in Rousseau to
suggest that children have a natural affection for their parents that is written into their hearts by
God. And in the above-cited passages in the Second Discourse, Rousseau makes it clear that
maternal or familial affection, like romantic love, arises only by habit or custom. Cf. Derrida, Of
Grammatology, 173-75.
30. Although her subsequent discussion leads in a different direction, this point is supported
by the following observation of Elizabeth Wingrove: Here the intensity of the spectators reac-
tion is rooted in its inability to differentiate itself from other beings. Rousseaus Republican
Romance, 32.
31. Consider also Rousseaus example of the pongos, who take pains to cover the bodies of
their deadwithbranches or leaves so that theydont have tobe confrontedbyits presence. Second
Discourse, 205n, 208n.
32. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 190.
33. Compare the similar point made by Wingrove, Rousseaus Republican Romance, 35.
34. Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (New York: Penguin, 1968), chap. 13,
pp. 184-85.
35. Compare Ernst Cassirer, The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. Peter Gay
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), 101:
According to Rousseau, Hobbes had quite rightly recognized that in the pure state of
nature there was no bond of sympathy binding the single individuals to each other. . . .
According to Rousseau, the only flaw in Hobbess psychology consisted in putting an
active egoism in the place of the purely passive egoism which prevails in the state of
See also Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans.
Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 298-99.
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36. Roger Masters seems to go even further than this in claiming that natural pity is not just
obscure, immanent, or aversive in the state of nature, but entirely nonexistent. Roger Masters,
The Political Philosophy of Rousseau (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), esp.
140-42. Compare Marc Plattner, Rousseaus State of Nature: An Interpretation of the Discourse
on Inequality (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1979), 84-87.
37. Hannah Arendt develops this point more fully, especially Eichmann in Jerusalem: A
Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1968). The response of Martin Buber, who
felt no pity at all for Eichmann because he could feel pity only for those whose actions I can
understand in my heart, is suggestive (cited in Eichmann in Jerusalem, 251). In this view, com-
passion for the guilty entails the recognition both of common humanity and of a similar suscepti-
bility to evil in oneself. Absent any sense that one could have committed a similar crime, or
indeedof the mental workings of the criminal, it is impossible tofeel pity. Notice that inthis view,
contrary to Rousseau, it is the comprehensibility of deed itself, rather than our overriding com-
passion for the doer as a fellow, sensible being, that is determinative. Compare Nietzsche, Gene-
alogy of Morals, II, 10, who notes that the cognitive ability to separate the deed fromthe doer is
what allows modern compassion to come into full bloom.
38. Martha Nussbaumhas positedspecific andhelpful criteria under whichwe might wishto
exercise compassion in lieu of justice. Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion, Social Philos-
ophy and Policy 13 (1996): 27-58. Whitebrook has criticized these general criteria as too restric-
tive. However, her attempt to incorporate a greater degree of discretion, making compassion into
a kind of default position not just for those who suffer or even those who deserve compassion,
but for anyone who is vulnerable, would seem to render compassion more open to this charge
of its indiscriminacy. Cf. Compassion as a Political Virtue, esp. 537, 540-42.
39. Orwin has similarly described the difficulty of generalizing pity into a universal virtue
because of its inherent partiality. Rousseau and the Discovery, 307-8. Compare Emile, IV,
p. 227, where Rousseau himself raises the distinction between justice and compassion. While
presumablyone cannot be just without havingcompassion, simplybeingcompassionate may not
be enough to make one just. For a similar point, see Philonenko, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 187,
and the discussion of Derrida, Of Grammatology, 191.
40. Stendahl, Red and Black (New York: Norton, 1969), 384-89.
41. See, for example, an early precursor of todays compassionate conservatism in
Charles Murray, Losing Ground, American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books,
42. Judith Shklar notes many of these same limitations of pity as a political virtue. Judith
Shklar, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Equality, in Political Thought and Political Thinkers, ed.
Stanley Hoffman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), esp. 289.
43. Connolly, Identity/Difference, esp. xv, xxv-xxvi; idem, Why I AmNot a Secularist, 143-
44. Judith Shklar, The Liberalism of Fear, in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy
Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
45. Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist, 144-45.
46. Rousseaus ultimate positionwith respect to the divergent pathways of cosmopolitanism
and patriotismis beyond the scope of this essay. But in this context, we should not forget his con-
tempt for those supposed cosmopolites who, justifying their love of the homeland by means of
their love of the human race, boast of loving everyone in order to have the right to love no one.
Geneva Manuscript, ed. Roger Masters (New York: St. Martins, 1978), 161-62.
47. Compare Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 286:
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To accept a gift is to admit ones inferiority; it is to incur an obligation to people whose
kindness is a way of signaling social distance while insincerely glossing it over. The
equality [Rousseau] wantsthe reciprocity of free mindsexcludes dependence of any
kind, and in the first place the dependence created by the kindness of the benevolent.
48. Connolly, Identity/Difference, xiv.
49. Cf. Montaigne, On Cruelty, whose natural sensitivity extends even to plants! Michel
de Montaigne, The Complete Essays (London: Penguin, 1991), 488.
50. Rousseaus revelation of the self as an ungrounded and perfectible tabula rasa invites
dilemmas of difference and recognitionunknown to earlier thinkers. Once the self has become in
Rousseaus hands nothing more than the perfectible reflection of conventional differences and
cultural influences, true recognitioncan take place only under two equally unlikely sets of condi-
tions: either between equals in the pure state of nature or within civil society, when two selves
have been forged by an identical set of social influences. With the advent of civil society, the first
possibility vanishes forever, and with the continuous process of civilization, the likelihood of the
latter diminishes by the day.
51. Rousseau looks to be guilty of pursuing what Joan Tronto has criticized as a morality
first strategy by conceiving of pity as ultimately best confined to private relationships between
individuals rather thanconstitutive of the political bonds betweencitizens. Tronto, Moral Bound-
aries, 158.
52. Here, I have inmindcertaincommunitariancritics of liberalismsuchas Robert Bellah,
Amitai Etzioni, Michael Sandel, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Even if they do not explicitly or uni-
formly call for more compassion (or more democracy!) as a remedy for these ailments of liberal-
ism, they have presented a challenging criticism of the excessive thinness, legalism, neutrality,
and sentimental inertness of liberal political theory.
53. Cf. Orwin, Rousseau and the Discovery, esp. 298-99; Plattner, Rousseaus State of
Nature, 128-32.
54. By reading Rousseau here as a critic of liberalism and the primacy of private property,
self-interest, and individual rights, I do not mean to suggest that his critique was not also applica-
ble to aristocratic or courtly society.
55. Rousseaus stipulation that the sum of our obligations to our fellow citizens consists in
refraining from causing them undue suffering is compatible with even the least flattering criti-
cisms of contemporaryliberal society by Bellah, MacIntyre, or Sandel. Amarket society charac-
terized by self-interest, anomie, and atomization may prove the quintessential example of a
world where we take no special pains to be cruel to others. Emphasizing both the thin obligations
of fellowcitizens to one another and the relative unlikelihood of even these minimal duties being
recognized makes Rousseau among the most realistic of political theorists.
56. Cf. Melzer, Natural Goodness of Man, who suggests that an immanent human expan-
siveness to identify with others forms the basis of patriotism, political community, and justice
for Rousseau, esp. 170-71n. Compare Ogrodnick, Instinct and Intimacy, 135-38. Below, I raise
questions not just about this possibility for Rousseau, but also and more importantly whether
even this immanent expansiveness can overcome the problem of moral otherness.
57. Cf. JrgenHabermas, CitizenshipandNational Identity, inTheorizingCitizenship, ed.
Ron Beiner (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995). For a characterization of the
particularistic and affective dimensions of Rousseaus thoughts on patriotism, see Marc Plattner,
Rousseau and the Origins of Nationalism, in The Legacy of Rousseau, esp. 187-93.
58. Judith Shklar, Men and Citizens: AStudy of Rousseaus Social Theory (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1969), 15-17, 21; Ogrodnick, Instinct and Intimacy, 139-45.
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59. Tzvetan Todorov, Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau, trans. John T. Scott and
Robert D. Zaretsky (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 29.
60. John T. Scott, The Theodicy of the Second Discourse: The Pure State of Nature and
Rousseaus Political Thought, American Political Science Review 86 (1992): 708.
61. Tronto, Moral Boundaries, 145.
62. Ibid., 147.
63. One problemwith doing so is compassions tendency to eclipse civic equality. See espe-
cially Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 90:
Measured against the immense sufferings of the immense majority of the people, the
impartiality of justice and law, the application of the same rules to those who sleep in pal-
aces and those who sleep under the bridges of Paris, was like a mockery.
64. Tronto, Moral Boundaries, 93.
65. Arendt, On Revolution. 86-87.
66. Habermas, Citizenship and National Identity, esp. 503-6; Barber, Strong Democracy,
esp. chaps. 6 and 8.
Richard Boyd is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin
Madison. He is the author of various journal articles on seventeenth- and eighteenth-
century political thought and a forthcoming book titled Uncivil Society: The Perils of
Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism (2004).
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