DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

4May/10Off

Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 3: Compassion And Justice

We've been talking about the claim, commonly made by critics of personal growth, that self-development techniques are "selfish" because they only benefit the person using them.  As I noted earlier, there's a good deal of evidence that effective personal growth practices actually help us develop more compassion and generosity toward others.  So, it seems to me, personal development can actually serve as a source of positive social change.

Why don't the critics see it this way?  Why do they often treat personal development as, in fact, an obstacle to "social justice"?  My sense is that they, like much of Western political philosophy, think of justice as a set of abstract rules to follow.  Our society, in this view, will be good and just once it starts complying with the right set of rules.

For people who are usually called conservatives, these rules are mostly concerned with preventing forms of violence like killing and theft.  A just society, from this perspective, is one where that conduct is minimized.  For those who tend to be called liberals, the rules are more about how resources are distributed -- to them, a just society is one where the right distribution of money, medical care, and so on exists.

Justice:  Just A Philosophical Abstraction?

For all their differences, these models of justice have at least one thing in common, which is that they treat the way people feel about each other as irrelevant.  Even if citizens of a given society don't care one whit about each other, that society is nonetheless just if it follows the correct rules -- whether through preventing violence, equitably parceling out resources, or something else.

Given these typical ways of thinking, it's no surprise that critics of personal growth see self-development practices as basically irrelevant to achieving justice.  Meditating, for example, may well make people more compassionate, but that emotion alone does nothing to further the cause of a just society.  If anything, practices like meditation waste time that could be better spent fighting real-world injustice.  As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in Bright-Sided, "why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"

At best, if meditation causes people to be kinder, people may do more charitable giving, and thus advance the goal of equitably dividing resources.  But that's hardly the most efficient path to a fair distribution of wealth.  Why not simply have the government take some people's property and give it to others?  Meditation, from this perspective, is an inadequate and unnecessary solution to the problem of inequality.

Abstract Justice In A Non-Abstract World

In the real world, we can see this mentality in communist countries' approach to achieving justice.  To Marxist thinkers, practices for finding inner peace do nothing but distract people from the quest for equality.  Thus, Marxist regimes banned religious and spiritual institutions and practices, from the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union to the Falun Gong movement in China.

These countries' history, I think, illustrates the danger of seeing justice as nothing more than a set of rules for preventing coercion or distributing wealth.  These regimes treated abstract concepts of justice as more important than the lives of actual people, and killed and imprisoned millions they saw as standing in the way of their ideal society.  I think this history shows that, when compassion our inner experience is taken as irrelevant to justice, justice itself becomes a monstrosity.

Compassion Is Critical To Justice

It's important to realize, I think, that compassion is not only relevant to justice -- it's actually the foundation of justice.  Our rules of right and wrong stem from our instinctual concern and respect for each other.  The reason people want a society without killing and stealing, or with a certain distribution of wealth, is because they see such a society as the best vehicle for relieving human suffering.

Of course, as human beings, we are not always in touch with our sense of compassion.  We're also aggressive, competitive, and survival-oriented creatures.  When those drives completely take over, we're unconcerned with others' suffering, and we think only of our own survival and power.

When we're under the sway of these instincts, no abstract principles will keep us from harming others.  Reminding a mugger of the Golden Rule, for example, probably won't stop him from taking your money.  What's more, as in the communist regimes I described, concepts of justice themselves can be used as a weapon, justifying mass murder in the name of "equality" and "fairness."

How Personal Growth Can Help

This is why, I think, merely following the right set of abstract principles isn't enough to create a just society.  As legal scholar Robin West puts it in Caring For Justice, it's important to recognize the "injustice -- not the justice -- of divorcing the pursuit of justice from natural inclination, from the sentient, felt bonds of friendship, and from the moral dictates incident to the pull of fellow feeling."

Instead, we must experience -- firsthand, viscerally, in the body -- the emotions and instincts at the root of those principles.  We must actually feel compassion for one another -- not simply make and follow a logically consistent set of rules.

At their best, I think, personal growth practices help us genuinely experience concern for each other.  Techniques like meditation and yoga work to accomplish this goal at a level deeper than the rational mind, which is why intellectuals are often wary of them.  But I think they're worth taking seriously if we truly want a more peaceful world.

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  1. A few comments.

    Perhaps the critics have a point about some practitioners. And some approaches to the ‘Law of Attraction’ seem to be tantamount to blaming the victim to me.

    It’s not only communist countries that are intolerant. The hutus and tutsi were both Christian tribes. France has laws against Muslim dress. The many legal persecutions of the Jews throughout European history were not by communists.

    Compassion may be more than feeling. I have grave concerns about ‘victim impact statements’ being bolted on to a Western legal system. It means that (like people trying to get a good insurance payout having an incentive to stay sick) people are encouraged to be as badly effected as possible. Conferencing and other approaches of restorative justice don’t have these problems.

    I agree that our emotional (and intellectual and spiritual) development is relevant to justice. I think Levinas – who starts with strangers rather than friends and family – is very important. Fellow-feeling is very easy to mobilise against ‘enemies’.

    I think the linkages in your argument need to be tighter. Especially how to respect feeling but be fair to all (if a Westerner is really miffed about losing their TV how many people’s lives in the Third World does this amount to?). This is by no means easy I know. However, once these connections are made it is possible to answer the critics convincingly.

  2. Hi Evan — thanks for your engaging comments.

    This is how I view something like The Secret and the Law of Attraction. I don’t think either of us see these as the ideal form of personal growth. On the other hand, I would still argue that they serve a valuable function because they encourage people to start actually taking a look at the assumptions they’re making about themselves and world, even if — at the outset — that only happens in the context of, say, “upgrading their money blueprint.”

    This can open the door (or, perhaps, serve as a “gateway drug”) to deeper exploration of why we think and feel as we do. In fact, that’s exactly what “mainstream” personal development authors like Tony Robbins and T. Harv Eker did for me — I started my own “personal development odyssey” reading their material, and over the years this led me to a deeper exploration into meditation, therapy, workshops, the whole nine. :) As for the social harm of The Secret and so on, I’ve talked about this before, but can we really argue with a straight face that Rhonda Byrne is turning people into amoral psychopaths?

    I certainly don’t mean to claim the only tyrants in the world have been communists. But I do think the communists are a great example of my point in this article. For hard-core materialists like Marx, justice is simply about achieving a certain distribution of resources, and anything people do to work on the level of their inner experience, like meditation — or, more traditionally, prayer — is useless and even harmful. The critics who say things like “inner work is worthless because there’s so much real work to be done,” I think, are basically taking this view as well. The Marxist regimes offer a sobering real-world example of what happens when this strict materialist philosophy is put into practice.

    Now that I think about it, I don’t like the line “when compassion is treated as irrelevant to justice.” I think I’ll change that to “when our inner experience is treated as irrelevant.”

    One thing I think it would be helpful for me to clear up is that I’m not advocating any government policies in this piece, such as victim impact statements during criminal sentencing (or something like mandatory meditation for that matter — definitely not!). I’m just answering the critique of personal growth techniques that basically says they have no social benefit because they do no “real work.” I think that, to the extent they promote inner peace and compassion, they are beneficial. The audience I have in mind for this piece is not policymakers, but just the intelligent individual who’s on the fence about self-development ideas/practices because of the critiques out there.


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