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Compassion and the "New Priesthood": Transforming the Victorian Moral Economy? (GW 703)

Principal Investigator:

With the rise of evolutionary models of morality after 1859, to what extent was social practice reconfigured according to new notions of the meaning of compassion?

According to Bain's 'Emotions and the Will', compassion is "sympathy with pain" and a "sure source of good actions under all forms of distress". The "sympathizer takes on the pain that he witnesses" and "works it out as if it were his own". This mixture of "tender feeling" and "sympathy" is activated through "fellow-feeling" under all circumstances of injustice. But the precise nature of compassion, and the moral actions stimulated by it were contested in the late Victorian period. This contest forms the major focus of research in this project. Should men of influence be callous, then society as a whole would be risked. This, in short, was the fear of those who saw in the rise of Darwinism after 1859 a bleak materialism, subject to an amoral natural law in which the fittest would survive and the strong would crush the weak. To be a proponent of Darwinism, it was averred, was to be a man without feeling, and a man with no basis for morality. Thomas Chalmers once complained of the State’s appropriation of matters of compassion, through legislative interference in morality. "Nothing", he said, "more effectively stifles compassion… than to be thus meddled with". This study asks whether the rise of the Darwinian moral economy, which explicitly denied the divinity of conscience, effectively raised the stakes of such "meddling".