Pity's pathologies portrayed: Rousseau and the limits of democratic compassion

Political Theory 32 (4):519-546 (2004)
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 Rousseau's system challenges this idea that pity is a pleasurable sentiment that arises from a recognition of the identity of our natures and leads ultimately to communion with our fellow-creatures. Instead, pity rests inexorably on a sense of difference, 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
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