To What End? The Moral Value of Compassion

Posted on May 1, 2018 by


I am excited to get started as a new contributor to A Philosopher’s Take by engaging with a captivating post by APT peer David Boutland (co-authored by Trudy Govier) titled “The Pitfalls of Compassion,”  which touches on the main points of his recent, similarly titled publication (which can be found here).

First off, many thanks to David for generating a conversation about compassion in such a provocative way. For those who have not read their article, he and Trudy define compassion (and which I am inclined to agree with) as an other-regarding emotion that moves one to feel entitled to act in response to the other’s non-trivial suffering. They offer a number of case studies that demonstrate the limitations of compassion in guiding moral action, a detailed recount of which is beyond the scope of this post, but on David and Trudy’s account, these limitations suggest that compassion is insufficient for guiding moral action, though they are not denying it as a morally valuable emotion.

Herein, I want to try and answer two of David’s calls for feedback at the end of his post, which ask whether their concerns about compassion are warranted and how we might go about mitigating them. An issue that comes to mind when I consider the potential pitfalls of compassion that David and Trudy admirably demonstrate is that they do not tell us how to determine the right thing to do in response to situations that evoke compassion. Must the value of ethics lie ultimately and solely in its leading us to solve moral dilemmas by rational means? As many contemporary philosophers – from Peter Singer to O’Nora O’Neill – would agree, the goal of ethics involves not only describing cases and what is right or wrong about them, but also helping us determine how to respond – not just to them but to a wide range of more or less similar cases – in ways that are appropriate or called for. With this in mind, I will try to show that David’s and Trudy’s concerns about compassion in moral action are not as troubling as they might think because they can be completely avoided, or mitigated, with a particularist framework I offer here for fruitfully achieving meaningful moral deliberation.

To this end, I employ Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of lebensform (or “form of life”). For Wittgenstein, a form of life is a background of experience, values, practices, social norms and expectations, basic metaphysical beliefs and language. So, forms of life are not culturally bound and they may or may not overlap across cultures, communities and people. They shape human judgment about moral principles and thus inform the correct applications and contents themselves of such principles.

Ample room for various permutations inherent in the forms of life theory makes it useful because even if we reached the Enlightenment ideal of universal moral principles on which everyone agreed, such as “everyone ought never to act solely according to compassion,” Wittgenstein thinks we would still not be guaranteed ubiquitous agreement about what the correct application or contents such a principle might entail; but, against any given form of life, the right way to establish and follow a moral principle for any given situation emerges. 

Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, the notion of a form of life is contextualized in language learning, understanding, and the possibility of mutual intelligibility. Basically, to share a form of life with someone is to understand or come to understand one another. “Understanding one another” can be taken as “making oneself intelligible to another” and vice versa given the contexts in which Wittgenstein invokes forms of life.

But intelligibility of such interactions does not require that the two agents fully adopt another’s form of life. For example, Wittgenstein writes, “…there are countless kinds [of assertions, questions and commands]; countless different kinds of things we call ‘signs,’ ‘words,’ ‘sentences’” (PI, 11). If speaking a language is “part of an activity, or of a form of life,” then knowing which of these things are which – i.e. assertions, questions, signs, words, etc. – means sharing or understanding another’s form of life.

Sharing a form of life might involve overlaps, but it is not reducible to a set of overlaps; rather, along with the cultures and practices around them, such sets may be part of any form of life. In learning a language, one learns the meanings of a certain set of words, but also how to use those words in new ways outside of the way they first learned it. For Wittgenstein, coming to understand which language applications will communicate successfully necessarily involves coming to understand the form of life that involves speaking that language. Conversely, for example, just because I have not yet learned German does not mean that I cannot come to learn it or that I find the people of Berlin utterly unintelligible.

Here it may be helpful to yield the notion of the human form of life, as Daniele Moyal-Sharrock has distinguished it. I can come to learn German (and therefore understand the form of life that involves speaking German) and find Berliners intelligible in the process because we still share a form of human life – the human form of life. So, the ability to share a form of life is inherently human. To maintain the language learning analogy of this innate capability, please reference Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Nativist theory about language acquisition devices in humans.

While settling moral dilemmas is certainly an important aim of ethics, an equally important aim is telling us how moral rules or principles should be understood and applied in order to take appropriate moral action in the first place. And yet, coming to make effective decisions about the right or wrong actions in a given situation requires that one has a profound understanding of the needs, beliefs, and other background elements of all who the action in question will affect in order to reach a moral resolution.

So, one needs to share or come to share another’s form of life in order to decide how to properly act when a moral dilemma concerns them both because the process of understanding or coming to understand another’s form of life, as I have interpreted it, is necessary and sufficient for productive moral decision-making, action and thus resolution.

Reasoning in this way is crucial in making effective decisions about the right or wrong way to respond in the face of moral dilemmas, especially when different cultures are involved, because it is always available to us; we all share the human form of life so we have the means to take moral action in the face of any moral dilemma across any culture or community. 

Given how much tends to be at stake in the types of situations that evoke compassion, a challenge in the forms of life theory that may concern David and Trudy lies in the great amount of effort and imagination required to fully project ourselves onto the form of life of the person toward which we feel compassionate. But my interpretation of forms of life allows for that because we all, at the very least, share the human form of life; there is no reason to think that just because the emotional power of compassion may be hard to make sense of and act on (it can be hard enough to understand what someone means by their words, let alone the reason for one’s suffering) that determining the right moral action in light of compassion is somehow beyond reach. It is hard to imagine a moral dilemma capable of evoking the notion of compassion we have in mind where the person susceptible to compassion ought to disqualify it completely. After all, and I think David and Trudy would agree, compassion is all we have to go off in the face of many moral dilemmas because compassion is different from empathy, sympathy, and other emotions in its allowing us to comprehend suffering and moving us to act; if anything, compassion only further enables our understanding of other’s forms of life.

If compassion appears to have led someone to act in response to another’s non-trivial suffering, and that action is deemed irrational in retrospect, as in many of the examples David and Trudy use such as poverty porn, then it is not compassion that has limited someone; rather, they were limited because they did not sufficiently understand the other’s form of life, and so their compassion was misdirected. So even if compassion remains insufficient for determining the correct moral action, we need not worry about its potential limitations because both the virtues and pitfalls of compassion only inform our developing understanding of others’ forms of life for assigning contents and applications to an ethical rule or principle in the pursuit of moral action. 

Please comment any thoughts, questions or concerns that this post may raise for you. I’m excited and grateful to now be a part of this community, and I look forward to your feedback.

you can find Olivia on twitter at @Oliviascheyer