The Pitfalls of Compassion

Posted on April 20, 2018 by

It has been quite a long time since the last time I posted on A Philosopher’s Take. In that time, I have finished my PhD and my partner and I had our first child, Oliver. But I figure it is time I start getting back to it, and I guess there is no better place to start than discussing my recent work on compassion. The piece is entitled “Compassion and its Pitfalls,” (penultimate version can be found here) and is part of an amazing collection of works on the topic of compassion, The Moral Psychology of Compassion, edited by Justin Caouette and Carolyn Price. I had the great pleasure of working with a long-time friend and mentor, Trudy Govier. Our article is the product of many discussions on compassion, and I thought it might be fruitful to share a bit of our motivations for the project and provide a bit of insight into our overall view. And, of course, my main purpose for this post is to generate discussion on compassion, the limits thereof, or any other aspect of our article, or the volume more generally.

When thinking of compassion, it is fair to say most of us think of it as an obviously valuable emotion, one necessary for a variety of human experience and interaction. As discussed in the volume, compassion is often thought to be an essential part of a fully moral life. Compassion is seen by many as a virtue and is thought to be necessary for navigating both our private and public lives. And while these positive attributes of compassion can hardly be denied, what Trudy and I wanted to explore were the potential limits, if any, to compassion. We wondered if compassion ever lead individuals astray, or whether compassion could actually interfere with living a good life? When is compassion insufficient or even misplaced? Is it possible to have too much compassion? These were just some of the questions we found interesting and led us to explore the ‘other’ side of compassion.

Rather than summarize the article here, I would like to briefly mention some of the potential pitfalls we associate with compassion. One concern, which impacts a variety of apparently virtuous emotions, is that relying solely on the emotional response of compassion can lead us to act in rash and unwise ways. While this isn’t unique to compassion, we do think compassion may be particularly vulnerable to such a pitfall, as compassion has an inherent call-to-action that may not be present in similar emotional responses. It is because the feeling of compassion brings with it an immediate impulse to act that a thorough deliberation as to how one should respond may be somewhat hurried, increasing the potential of failing to consider all the morally relevant factors of a case, resulting in less effective and even irresponsible responses. As the story of Rob Lawrie indicates, the impetus to act on our feelings of compassion can be so strong that we may actually risk act immorally, be it in our direct response or with regard to ignoring other important moral duties. While compassion surely has the power to provide important moral insight, we argue that compassion is itself insufficient to guide moral action.

Other pitfalls associated with compassion are revealed when we look at the phenomenon of “poverty porn,” understood as representations of those in distress or need meant primarily for the purpose of raising social or financial support for a given cause. The dangers of such representations are multiple. Firstly, such representations are potentially demeaning to those portrayed and risks failing to respect the dignity of those suffering. Among other things, this can lead to a failure of recognize the autonomy and agency of the sufferer, which can lead to problems of paternalism that may in fact exacerbate the suffering.

Further, “poverty porn” is often used in a manipulative manner that can be exploitative and misleading. While an emotional response is often evoked, such a response can be unreflective and may provide little guidance as to what the appropriate actions might be. Unfortunately, there are numerous example of exploitation with regard to the compassion of others, wherein individuals have successfully elicited the compassion of others in a fraudulent way. When the feeling of compassion is elicited and acted upon in such a fraudulent manner, those who have been deceived may react with suspicion and skepticism when encountering the suffering of others moving forward.

While evoking a compassionate emotional response would appear useful in many contexts, a further danger is that the emotional response is seen as sufficient in responding to the suffering of others. Upon seeing the images of the suffering of others, the emotional response of compassion is likely to follow. But there is a risk that those feeling compassion will regard their emotional response as reflecting their own virtuous disposition and mistake their mere feeling of compassion as itself a virtuous action.

Finally, there is the threat of compassion fatigue. This may occur when one is overexposed to a particular kind of suffering, making it more difficult to identify or relate to the sufferer, which may interfere and even stunt the ability to feel and act on compassion. Compassion fatigue implies there are limits to our ability to feel compassion, particularly when faced with a high degree of suffering over a lengthy period of time.

Hopefully I have offered enough detail for those who have not yet read the article (which can be found here). As mentioned, the goal of the post is to generate some discussion and get a bit of feedback on our article. I would love to hear what folks think about the potential pitfalls of compassion we outline in the paper. Are such concerns warranted? Are there any ways to resolve, or at least mitigate, such pitfalls? Are there any other pitfalls associated with compassion?

Dave can be found on twitter @DavidBoutland