The Moral Value of Compassion

Posted on May 23, 2018 by

It was an honour to contribute to Justin Caouette and Carolyn Price’s book The Moral Psychology of Compassion. They did an excellent job of putting together such an interesting collection and I’m really happy to have been a part of it. I have also enjoyed the interesting recent exchange on this blog between David Boutland and Olivia Scheyer on the question of whether compassion is morally valuable. I will be continuing this discussion here, though rather than directly responding to David and Olivia’s posts, I will discuss my contribution to the book, which addresses this same issue. For those who are interested, the penultimate version (complete with references to all of the authors I will discuss in this post) is available here.


I understand compassion to be the sharing of another person’s unpleasant feelings that is brought about by imagining their suffering. As David notes in his post, compassion is generally thought to be morally valuable. Perhaps not everyone would endorse Schopenhauer’s claim that compassion is at the foundation of morality, most I think would hold that has a useful role to play in our moral lives. It is generally thought that it is good to be a compassionate person and that people lacking in compassion are missing something important. The justification for this seems quite straightforward: compassion motivates us to help others. As Rousseau pointed out, compassion helps us to see beyond our own self-interest by directing our attention towards the suffering of others and motivating us to help them.


But as David pointed out, compassion is not without its pitfalls. I will not repeat the potential dangers he discussed. Rather, I will introduce some other problems for compassion. First, as Roger Crisp has argued, who we happen to feel compassion for seems to be greatly dependent on chance. Suppose I happen to switch on the television during a news report about a famine happening thousands of miles away. This may move me to help in whatever way I can, perhaps through donating money to a trustworthy aid agency. Now imagine that I had instead been watching a different news programme discussing the plight of those effected by neglected tropical diseases. In this case compassion may have moved me to donate my money to third world health organizations instead. It seems reasonable to think that our moral decisions should not be so dependent on chance.


Similarly, Crisp argues that compassion can lead us to make irrational and potentially morally objectionable decisions. As David Hume pointed out, people are more likely to feel compassion for people who resemble themselves. A number of psychological studies support this observation, with boys being found to have more compassionate responses to other boys, girls to other girls and Caucasians to other Caucasians. The compassion that privileged people feel could then result in them directing their help towards other privileged people, rather than those need it most.


Finally, we might worry that compassion can lead people to give people unfair special treatment. For example, a study conducted by C. Daniel Baston and colleagues asked participants to listen to an interview with a terminally child on a waiting list for help. Some participants were asked to try and take an objective perspective and some were asked to try and imagine how the child being interviewed felt about what was happening. Participants were then asked whether they would like to fill out a special request to move the child up the waiting list which would result in other children having to wait longer to receive care. Three quarters of those participants who had been asked to imagine the feelings of the child chose to move the child up the list compared to only a third of the other participants. Those prompted to experience compassion then, were more likely to give unfair special treatment to the child.


Given these problems, Crisp argues that a morally virtuous person should be motivated by rational concern for others, rather than a sharing in their suffering. I think this is wrong and that compassion does have a valuable role to play in our moral lives. I will not defend this claim by responding to these problems directly. Instead, I will explain why I think compassion has an important role to play in our moral lives that cannot be fully captured by rational concern for others.


The first advantage that compassion has over a rational concern for others is that it is capable of changing the reasons we have for acting in a way that rational concern cannot. For many people it is all too familiar to experience a conflict between what it would be morally good for us to do and what we would most like to do. We may recognise that it would be good to use our time or money to help other people but would prefer to spend it on the things we would enjoy. This creates a problem for moral motivation, as people often fail to act morally in cases where it is against their self-interest to do so. Compassion, unlike a rational concern for the well-being of others, can help here. Given that the compassion involves sharing in the pain of the person who is suffering, in alleviating the sufferer’s pain the compassionate person will also be alleviating her own pain. This means that the gap between morality and self-interest will be smaller for the compassionate person.


Compassion also has the advantage of focussing our attention towards the suffering of others in a way that is difficult to ignore. Bishop Butler argues for this claim by asking us first to consider what it would be like if we never experienced pain, hunger or thirst. If this were the case then Butler says we would neglect to take care of our own bodies. Simply knowing that we need to keep ourselves fed, watered and away from things that will damage our bodies, is not enough. We only need to look at people who have developed an indifference to pain to see the truth of Butler’s claim. Such people show little inclination to avoid painful experiences even though they are aware of the damage being done to their bodies. Just as we need to feel our own pain to ensure we act in line with our self-interest, Butler claims we need to experience the pain of others to ensure that we are motivated to act morally. It is all too easy to ignore our judgements about what would be morally best, just as it is all too easy to ignore our judgements about what would be best for our health. When we experience compassion though, this suffering is far harder to ignore. In Butler’s words, “compassion acts as an advocate within us,” forcefully pleading the case of the person who is suffering.


The final advantage that compassion has over a rational concern for others is that it can help to satisfy the sufferer’s desire for recognition. In Havi Carel’s book Illness she describes her feelings of loneliness and powerlessness in response to undergoing medical tests conducted by a health professional lacking in empathy or compassion. Carel argues that the experiences of those suffering from illness would are significantly improved, “if they feel that their loss and the ways in which their world has become limited have been acknowledged.” Compassion may reassure people that their suffering is recognised and acknowledged. This could happen in a number of ways. First, seeing that someone else shares in your pain may help reassure the sufferer that the seriousness of his or her suffering is being appreciated and taken seriously. It may also help to foster trust between the sufferer and the person experiencing compassion. In a series of studies, Brock Bastian and his colleagues examined the effects of shared pain on social groups. They found that the participants who had gone through painful experiences together were significantly more likely than the control group to report feelings of connection and solidarity with each other. Shared pain then seems to strengthen social bonds. This suggests that when a compassionate person shares in another’s suffering that this could strengthen the bonds between the two.


Given all that I have said, what role should compassion play in the life of a virtuous person? I do not pretend to have a full answer to this question. What is clear to me though, is that compassion does have a useful role to play in our moral lives and it would be a mistake to think that a virtuous person would not be compassionate.

You can find Alf on twitter at @AlfredArcher2