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  • Compassion and Moral Condemnation: An Analysis of The Reader
  • Jeremiah P. Conway*

Human relationships are shaped decisively by how we respond to each other’s suffering. Nearly all religious traditions emphasize that compassion, defined in a preliminary way as the emotional ability to be moved by the suffering of others, marks the spiritual development of both individuals and communities. But precisely because compassion is so widely praised, questions about its limits are often neglected. Are there instances when compassion must be checked or set aside? Is there something misguided about responding compassionately to people in certain situations? Are there, in short, appropriate limits to compassion?

In a recent, highly acclaimed German novel, The Reader, 1 Bernard Schlink probes one possible limit: moral condemnation. The narrator (and main character of the story) struggles with the tension between compassion and condemnation as he witnesses the suffering of a proud woman desperately trying to hide the fact that she cannot read, an inability causing profound shame that dominates her entire life. His impulse to condemn her arises from moral outrage over the fact that this same woman willingly participated in the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust as a concentration camp guard. Complicating an already combustible emotional mix is the fact that, years earlier, when he was fifteen and she in her mid-thirties, the two were lovers.

Part of the appeal of The Reader stems from the fact that its struggle with the issue of compassion and moral condemnation is a salient one. We wrestle with this problem in our everyday lives, our judicial system, our public policy. Compassion for friends, associates, even strangers, is sometimes difficult, but compassion for those who commit moral crimes is extraordinarily rare, provocative, and questionable. The [End Page 284] popularity of this novel and other works similar to it, such as Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, 2 is rooted in the unsettled and largely un-examined tension between the claim of compassion and the need for moral judgment.

I want to investigate such contested, emotional terrain from two starting points: by summarizing the analysis of compassion set forth by Martha Nussbaum in several of her recent books, and then by testing her understanding against the grain of The Reader. 3 I focus on Nussbaum’s analysis of compassion for several reasons: primarily because it is a prominent one in contemporary philosophy; additionally because Nussbaum herself finds it necessary to test her understanding of compassion against particular and provocative cases in literature and in the courts—precisely the kind of case The Reader provides; and, finally, because Nussbaum’s analysis addresses the issue of the limits of compassion. My interest in comparing her analysis with The Reader stems from the suspicion that this novel challenges Nussbaum’s understanding of compassion in some significant ways. I think the author comes to a different conclusion than Nussbaum and shows the possibility of reconciling moral condemnation and compassion on grounds other than she indicates.

Nussbaum traces her understanding of compassion back to Aristotle. 4 Following him, she argues that compassion involves three key recognitions. First, it entails the belief that another person is suffering some significant pain or misfortune. We feel compassion for someone who undergoes a serious illness or bears the loss of a loved one but not for a motorist who is ticketed or a person who sneezes. Second, compassion entails the belief that the other person is suffering “some significant pain or misfortune in a way for which that person is not, or not fully, to blame” (CH, pp. 90–91). The claim here is that we do not feel compassion for those who are responsible for their own misery. Third, compassion requires a sense of one’s own vulnerability to misfortune. “To respond with compassion, I must be willing to entertain the thought that this suffering person might be me” (CH, p. 91). Compassion arises from the recognition of a shared humanity—that we are frail, vulnerable creatures who depend in many ways for our well-being upon circumstances not fully under our control.

I have little trouble granting the first and third criteria; the second qualification, however, is more problematic. One can appreciate, of course...

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pp. 284-301
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