Friday, June 27, 2008

In Defense of Compassion


Why, you might reasonably ask yourself, do I want to blog in defense of compassion? After all, most of us would agree that of all the feelings we engage in, compassion is probably one of the most universally respected.

In fact, I had never even questioned the supremacy of compassion as a way of life until I read How an Emotion Became a Virtue – it took some help from Rousseau and Montesquieu, over at In Character. Clifford Orwin argues that compassion is little more than an emotion, and as such, an inferior state if we define virtue as the "perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion." That isn't how I define virtue, but that will become more clear below.

As I read the essay and felt myself recoiling from its arguments, I decided that blogging a response to it would be a good exercise in discovering just what I mean by compassion in my own life.

Here is the beginning of his argument:
Compassion today is widely regarded as a good, and those who display it as good people. Indeed, many see compassion or some related virtue (e.g., empathy) as the core of goodness, as the virtue of virtues. It’s not only a private but also a public virtue, much cherished in our politicians. Even in international affairs, of all places, the apex of virtuous action is widely taken to be “humanitarian intervention” or the use of force to relieve suffering. Compassion has not always enjoyed so lofty and uncontroversial a status; will it someday once again relinquish it?

That compassion is natural to human beings there is no question. But does it pertain to our higher or to our lower natures? As even or precisely those who take compassion for a virtue acknowledge, it is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue? Yes, if the keynote of virtue is naturalness in the sense of spontaneity or authenticity. No, if what defines virtue is the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. For this reason the long history of thought about compassion (stretching back at least 2,500 years now) has revolved around just this issue.


I. The thinkers of classical antiquity for the most part struck a dispassionate or even disapproving stance toward compassion.

They recognized its power and therefore its utility in political life, but doubted its reasonableness and therefore its justice. It figures in Plato’s Republic primarily as a threat to justice (cf. Republic 415c, 606a–c). Aristotle treats it not in his Ethics, his account of those virtues for which human beings are to be admired, but in his Rhetoric, his exposition of those passions by which those lacking virtue are swayed. Since for both thinkers virtue consists of the proper (which is to say rational) disposition toward the passions, it follows that pity, as a passion, is not to be confused with the virtues. Just as virtue requires us to get a handle on our other passions, so it requires that we become masters of our pity.

To better understand the ancients’ position, consider that the locus of the virtues as they understood it was not the “self” (a distinctly modern notion) but the soul, and the relevant opposition was that of soul and body. For them concern with the “self” or our particularity was an expression of concern with the body. Such concern was natural, even inevitable, but it wasn’t virtuous; good character consisted in surmounting it.

Compassion, however, displays precisely such selfish concern. As was already evident to Aristotle, we tend to pity most those who most resemble ourselves or whose misfortunes most resemble our own (Rhetoric II.viii.13–14). Like “identifies” readily with like, much less readily with unlike. This suggests that our pity for others is a vicarious expression of our fears for ourselves.

Moreover, those least able to bear the sufferings of others are commonly least able to bear their own (Republic 606a–c). But self-pity is a vice, not a virtue. In the classical view the virtuous man will display a certain hardness toward others, demanding of them as he does of himself that they bear their sufferings like men. And yes, we can expect women to be more compassionate than men, because they are weaker and more fearful than men. None of which should be misinterpreted as an endorsement of cruelty or a complete repudiation of pity. But again the classical view was that the virtuous must master their pity even as they do their other passions, indulging it only insofar as it is just and reasonable to do so (Republic 516c, 539a, 589e, 620a). Reverence for pity there was none.
From here, Orwin goes on to make several, it seems to me, erroneous interpretations of history and philosophy. Such as this:
“Modern” compassion, then — and what we mean by compassion is something distinctively modern — stands in an ambivalent relationship to Christianity. On the one hand its triumph drew on the extraordinary prestige enjoyed by charity under the Christian dispensation. On the other, it implied a powerful critique (and rejection) of Christian otherworldliness.
His position here is that Jesus' disposition to "Love one another as I have loved you," is beyond the reach of mortal humans -- that this is not within the capacity of human beings, only God. I disagree. Why would Jesus have offered this teaching if he did not feel it was within our grasp as mortals to follow it?

And,
The morality of compassion, then, is an aspect of an early modern naturalism. As such it took aim not only at Christian supernaturalism but also at that classical rationalism that Christianity had co-opted in the form of Scholasticism. Much as we might suppose that a morality of compassion signifies some kind of idealism, it in fact participated rather in the new realism of modern thought. The ancient philosophers had themselves recognized that their rational morality was in a crucial sense utopian: as a morality for the fully rational, it necessarily excluded the vast majority of human beings. It was an ethics by philosophers for philosophers, but philosophers are nowhere more than a tiny minority.
Again, he is supposing that most people are not capable of realizing this form of rational morality. Granted, at the time many people were not, but that is the role of philosophy -- to lay the groundwork for the evolution of culture and its values. We have grown into that perspective and beyond it.

And,
On the Spirit of the Laws had appeared in 1748; already by 1755 the hitherto completely obscure Rousseau had displaced Montesquieu as Europe’s leading intellectual celebrity by turning his teaching on its head. In Rousseau’s hands compassion (his counterpart to Montesquieu’s humanity) figures not in the vindication of the emerging liberal/commercial way of life but as the core of a radical critique of it. Stated most simply, Rousseau was the founder of the modern Left, and compassion figured prominently in his articulation of this fateful new moral and political sensibility.
With that I agree to an extent -- Rousseau is the beginning of modern liberalism in many ways. I tend to reject Rousseau's recourse to naturalism, or the noble savage. Rousseau took a good impulse -- to yoke reason and passion -- and took it too far in his rejection of reason in favor of the "natural man."

I don't, however, reject his views on compassion. I don't disgard the whole project because he made a few pre/trans fallacy errors.

But wait, there's more:
With democracy, by contrast, the tight bonds of caste having fallen away, we respond to one another directly as human beings. Where all are more or less the same and equal, each readily identifies with the other, and so with his misfortunes. (Tocqueville was a profound student of Montesquieu and Rousseau, and there are few passages of his work where their influence is so evident.) Few things so impressed Tocqueville about Americans as their ready sympathy with each other’s troubles. Of all peoples the Americans could most be counted on to come to the assistance of their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (II.iii.4).

The qualification is significant. Not democracy but aristocracy is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. Democrats are good-hearted, but they’re also people in a hurry, necessarily preoccupied with their own business. The obverse of compassion is what Tocqueville calls individualism. As men become more equal and alike they also become more isolated, more preoccupied with their own affairs. Tocqueville presents enhanced compassion as merely the most attractive aspect of that loosening of bonds that is the fundamental social fact of democracy. It’s because we all know what it is to bowl alone that we commiserate readily with solitary bowlers. If in aristocracy conventional bonds of caste enjoyed a more than natural force, in democracy the natural one of common humanity proves fleeting and frail. Compassion is particularly to be cherished as the sole force tending naturally to unite human beings whom almost everything else in democracy conspires to dissociate.
He seems to be arguing here that Americans, in their praise of individualism as the highest good, are by nature only compassionate insofar as it does not cost them anything or any inconvenience. But that rings false to me.

Look at how Americans respond to natural disasters. Look at the rural tradition of volunteer fire brigades. The list could go on and on.

He also seems to be arguing that only the wealthy elites -- the aristocracy -- engage in compassion. I disagree. The aristocracy is compassionate only when it does not inconvenience themselves. Again, Oriwn seems to have it backward.

Finally, he takes recourse in Nietzsche:
Although Nietzsche often described himself (and has been described by others) as an immoralist, his ultimate objection to compassion was an ethical one. The core of humanity was its ambition to greatness, and all greatness depended on suffering. The modern project of compassion, then, taken as the elimination of suffering, was ipso facto a campaign against humanity as such in favor of a descent into the subhuman.

Nietzsche’s teaching thus echoed the Christian one in raising the question of whether human suffering was simply bad. (For if not, then the modern ethics of compassion cannot be regarded as simply good.) Yet Nietzsche also recalled the classics in suggesting that for human beings to reach their full potential they must master their compassion in the name of higher considerations. It seems that we would be rash to regard these questions as settled.
As I reached the end of this argument for the second time, it finally dawned on me why I find it so "wrong-headed." It smells an awful lot like the objectivism of Ayn Rand. Specifically, it seems to be proposing the superiority of the virtues of of rational egoism and individualism.

In opposition to Orwin's views, allow me to present some other perspectives (and yes, I am arguing by recourse to authority):
Abraham Joshua Heschel:

A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair. [New York Journal-American, April 5, 1963]
Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Thomas Aquinas:

I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it.

Thomas Jefferson:

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.

Vaclav Havel:

Genuine politics -- even politics worthy of the name -- the only politics I am willing to devote myself to -- is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.

Viktor Frankl:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

HH the Dalai Lama:

Compassion is the radicalism of our time.

HH the Dalai Lama:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Keshavan Nair:


With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate, and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity.

Mairead Maguire:

We frail humans are at one time capable of the greatest good and, at the same time, capable of the greatest evil. Change will only come about when each of us takes up the daily struggle ourselves to be more forgiving, compassionate, loving, and above all joyful in the knowledge that, by some miracle of grace, we can change as those around us can change too.

Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.

Molleen Matsumura:

Reason guides our attempt to understand the world about us. Both reason and compassion guide our efforts to apply that knowledge ethically, to understand other people, and have ethical relationships with other people.

Pema Chodron:

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.

It strikes me that nearly all religious traditions have some form of practice centered on compassion. Here is a generalized version applicable to any tradition:
The Basic Practice

Compassion is a feeling deep within ourselves —a "quivering of the heart" — and it is also a way of acting — being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. Buddha and Jesus are the most well known exemplars of compassion, and it is the central ethical virtue in the two religions that developed from their teachings.

The spiritual practice of compassion is often likened to opening the heart. First, allow yourself to be feel the suffering in the world, including your own. Don't turn away from pain; move toward it with caring. Go into situations where people are hurting. Identify with your neighbors in their distress. Then expand the circle of your compassion to include other creatures, nature, and the inanimate world.

Finally, as a Buddhist, compassion is central to my practice and to my life. I am not always as compassionate as I would like to be, but I try. Here is a Wikipedia view of compassion in Buddhism:

The Buddhist tradition

"Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others. Thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed." - The Buddha

Compassion or karuna is at the transcendental and experiential heart of the Buddha's teachings. He was reputedly asked by his secretary, Ananda, "Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice? To which the Buddha replied, "No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindess and compassion is all of our practice."[citation needed]

The first of what in English are called the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering or dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or stress). Stress is identified as one of the three distinguishing chacteristics of all conditioned existence. It arises as a consequence of the failure to adapt to change or anicca (the second characteristic) and the insubstantiality, lack of fixed identity, the horrendous lack of certainty or anatta (the third characteristic) to which all this constant change in turn gives rise. Compassion made possible by observation and accurate perception is the appropriate practical reponse. The ultimate and earnest wish, manifest in the Buddha, both as archetype and as historical entity, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings everywhere. [1]

The noted American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states that compassion "supplies the complement to loving-kindness: whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha."[citation needed]

At the same time, it is emphasised that in order to manifest effective compassion for others it is first of all necessary to be able to experience and fully appreciate one's own suffering and to have, as a consequence, compassion for oneself. The Buddha is reported to have said, "It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found."

One other note in opposition to Orwin -- to me, compassion may be an emotion, but it is not a lower emotion such as anger or fear. It is a higher emotion, like love. By many standards, emotions of all kinds are lesser than reason, but reason without compassion is corrupt and selfish. We -- human beings -- are better than that. When Jesus asked us love others as he has loved us, he knew that we are capable of that highest form of love.


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