Truth and compassion: Which takes priority?
- by B. T. Newberg
In a recent guest post at The Friendly Atheist, Marcus Mann posed a question:
“I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind… atheists need to be wary of valuing correctness over the much more important values of kindness, sobriety, and pluralism.”
In that spirit, I want to ask: Which is more essential to you, truth or compassion?
By truth I mean factual accuracy, fidelity to reality, or tracking what’s objectively “out there.” I realize there are other kinds of truth, such as poetic truth, but today let’s stick to factuality. By compassion I mean non-suffering, non-harm, or the promotion of well-being for others and yourself.
Most of the time these two enjoy happy agreement, but occasionally they may conflict. In those cases, which takes priority?
Precedents in Paganism
The priority of truth in Paganism has precedent. For example, the myth of matriarchal prehistory, though important to many and no doubt painful to give up, has largely been discarded. So have many of the more fantastical notions about our past, thanks in no small part to the work of Reconstructionists. Many polytheists today value accuracy of historical fact over fanciful invention, no matter how warm and fuzzy it may make one feel. They draw a line (rightly, in my opinion) at the reality of the gods beyond which they will fight for their views vociferously.
The priority of compassion also enjoys precedent. The principle of non-harm, encapsulated in the popular counsel “Harm none, do as you will”, puts the wellbeing of others on center stage, alongside the freedom to pursue one’s path regardless of what others may think. Buddhism is also well-known for making compassion, alongside wisdom, one of its highest values.
Are truth and compassion ever really in conflict?
It might be argued that the two never actually conflict. Truth will always lead you to do the compassionate thing, and vice versa. I don’t agree, personally. That might be characteristic of wisdom, but not of truth in the sense of factual accuracy. We can imagine scenarios where they conflict, and a moral decision must be made.
Scenarios of conflict
Some situations are fairly clearcut. When grandma leads the family in a dinner prayer to a God you don’t think exists, compassion would probably tell you not to take that particular moment to “enlighten” her. On the other hand, when politicians propose a bill based on beloved-but-incorrect beliefs, it’s clearly time to stand up for the truth.
But what about those situations when it’s not so straightforward? What if, for example, you positively glow with love derived from your spirituality, but the beliefs you spread in the process sow disinformation in an already-confused society? To take another example, what if society could successfully expunge erroneous beliefs about reality, but only at the price of never again feeling as intimately connected to the world and each other?
Where to draw the line?
Some communities have a do-not-cross line. As mentioned above, some polytheists have chosen to make questioning the existence of their deities such a boundary.
Having a do-not-cross line may sound bellicose, but it can be liberating. Everything beyond it can be taken in stride, and you can feel at ease working alongside a wide diversity of other people without wondering if you’re compromising your principles. Likewise, others can feel comfortable working with you if they know exactly where you stand.
One might decide on a do-not-cross line, before which compassion takes priority but after which truth must be defended. The exact point at which to draw that line might be somewhat arbitrary, but it would at least make it clear, to others as well as yourself.
Thus far, the discussion has been rather abstract. But ethics, in practice, is always embedded in concrete situations. Priorities may vary depending on the specific context. Appealing to situational ethics is probably more realistic, though it makes things a lot more complicated.
What kind of situation would cause you to prioritize truth? What would call for compassion as top priority?
Finally, where do you draw the line between the two?
(Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments)
What do Druid Naturalists do? by WhiteHorse
Appearing Sunday, May 26th, 2013