Radical Compassion, Technology, and the Destiny of Mankind
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Technology plays a central role in transhumanist narratives -- even to certain degrees of religiosity found in Singularitarianism. Indeed, there are good reasons to view narratives about the emergence of a super-intelligence from a technological singularity to be as transformative as narratives of eternal life or millennialism found in religion. However, what is sometimes missing or seen as a footnote in transhumanist narratives is an equally strenuous focus on compassion, not merely as a byproduct or guide of transhuman technology, but as an author of it.
I've seen the phrase "Radical Compassion" being used increasingly in conjunction with technology and ethics. I think this is very much needed as we move beyond empirically-driven "Hows?", "Whys?", and "Whats?", which are the necessary drivers of our technological advancements to morally and ethically-driven questions of "How?", "Why?", and "Who?", that necessarily shape our communities and relationships. Because our tools and technologies are increasingly and exponentially capable of transforming the human condition (for good or evil), the role of compassion may prove to be even more important than those tools and technologies themselves.
While it's hard to pin down new or returning terminologies as they germinate, Khen Lampert offers a definition of "Radical Compassion" in his book Traditions of Compassion: from Religious Duty to Social-Activism:
Lampert examines different models of compassion in different cultures and religions in history. He offers a model of compassion which is presented as a possible antidote to "neocapitalist postmodernism". It's interesting that Lampert characterizes compassion as an "impulse" that is not reducible to Darwinism, Freudian logic, or other postmodern ideas. His perspective can support the case that compassion is much more central to the core of what it means to be human and is an independent force far more powerful and necessary than I think we realize.
Mormonism, as a Christ-centered faith, draws it's most powerful narratives on compassion from the life and teachings of Christ. The Book of Mormon echoes the necessity of charity that the Bible testifies of. In Ether chapter 12 Christ warns that without charity mankind's destiny with Him will be unattainable:
And Moroni writes that charity must be a the center of our identities:
Mormon narratives on charity and compassion don't see those as a mere byproduct of religion but instead as the author of it.
For me, the most powerful story in the Christian world-view that illustrates the principle of compassion and charity is the Parable of the Good Samaritan told by Christ in the New Testament:
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Here, a Samaritan helps a Jew left for dead on a road between Jericho and Jerusalem. This parable is a wonderful pattern of the courage and need for mankind to recognize our shared humanity. But beyond the surface of the parable there's a deeper lesson when we look at the historical context around the Jewish and Samaritan nations at the time of Jesus.
The history between the Samaritans and Jews is fascinatingly tragic, and we can learn a lot about the intent of Christ's parable by understanding that. Here are some highlights.
- The separation of Samaritans and Jews went back more than 700 years before the time of Christ. These tensions and differences were very much woven into the fabric of each other's race, culture, religion, and even their genes. The conflict can even be attributed back further to the sons of Israel.
- The Jews and Samaritans make conflicting claims of ancestry, priesthood authority, scripture, land rights, and temple worship. There's lots more to read about that here.
- Less than 200 years before Christ, probably still very fresh in the minds of the Jews and Samaritans, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was seeking to establish a universal religion with the penalty for resistance being death. Facing almost certain genocide, the Samaritans aligned themselves with Antiochus which required cutting religious and cultural ties with the Jews in the south. Naturally feeling betrayed, the ancient Jews viewed the Samaritans as traitors, heathens, and heretics.
- About 100 years before Christ, the Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus waged war on Samaria and eventually conquered, destroyed their temple, and treated the Samaritans as slaves since they weren't considered true worshipers of Jehovah.
Needless to say, these weren't just neighbors who didn't get along. This was an ancient and deeply rooted hatred and disdain for each other that had attached itself to the very identity many had of what it was to be a Jew or Samaritan at that time. It must have pained Jesus to see this rift of hate between the children of Israel. So it's important to acknowledge that Christ's choice to make a Samaritan the protagonist of this parable wasn't a random thought, but instead a divine call for those hearing it to see past what society sees as insurmountable or unfathomable differences and conflicts and instead choose to see each other as fellow neighbors and children of God: a powerful message for our often divided era.
IMAGE: PHOTO OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Martin Luther King gave insight on this parable (ironically and tragically) just one day before his assassination, in his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech:
I absolutely love this insight here because it gets at the essence of charity and compassion. That they fundamentally change our nature and perspective. Compassion powerfully refutes the kind of political and epistemological tribalism and self-destructive behavior that can be so prevalent today. Going back to Lampert, the powerful impulse illustrated in the protagonist of the Samaritan caused him to overcome both the physical risks and societal risks that loomed over the situation he found himself in. This kind of impulse is a unique tool that can break free of the reductive impulses of self-preservation and cultural norms. Radical indeed!
This kind of charity and compassion may be the source of change that proves essential as mankind begins to wield technologies capable of playing out our greatest aspirations as well as our darkest nightmares; often portrayed in our fiction and mythologies. Indeed, our ability to cross self-destructive Great Filters which may lie in our future may hinge not on our technological tools but in these impulses of the heart. When facing the great threats and opportunities that can come with technology, it's important to focus on what we can control. And certainly, as illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, the degree of compassion and charity in our hearts and communities is within our power to control.
But this is hardly a task just for Mormons or the larger Christian community. The Charter For Compassion is a great example of an organization dedicated to the idea of restoring compassion as the root of worship and ethics; exemplifying one way towards achieving radical compassion. Their charter uses the imagery that compassion leads us to dethrone ourselves and place another there:
The current LDS President elaborated on the essence of charity and its need in this world, in a General Relief Society broadcast in 2010:
The expression from the Mormon faith, "except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father", is not meant to be merely cute or poetic. And when Christ chose to strike the nerve of hatred between two nations and cultures to illustrate the radical nature of charity, He wasn't merely trying to be inflammatory. God seems to be warning us that unless we get a handle on this principle of charity and compassion we all face together a very negative future.
This idea is succinctly put by Martin Luther King:
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
And from his inspired speech "Loving Your Enemies", he says:
“Radical compassion" may be a newer term, but the essence of what it is calling for has ancient origins shared across time and cultures. And as we move beyond postmodern attitudes that often dismiss historical and ancient expressions of charity as merely platitudes, we'll begin to see compassion and charity's power as a universal truth; one that may ultimately determine our eternal destiny individually and the destiny of mankind with our tools and technologies.