Is compassion a virtue?

Here is an interesting essay. An excerpt:

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.


3 thoughts on “Is compassion a virtue?

  1. Kleiner

    I just briefly skimmed the article, but I think the writer has a wrong-headed view of classical virtue ethics (particularly Aristotle). For Aristotle in particular, reason and passion are not somehow in ‘competition’ with each other, in the sense that you one ‘triumphs’ at the expense/forfeit of the other. Aristotle, unlike Plato, does not think emotions/passions are ‘bad’ while reason is ‘good’. Instead, the emotions/passions are neutral, they can be good or bad depending on their habituation.
    Since both reason and feeling determine human action, moral feeling is very important for Aristotle. A morally good person will have the disposed feeling to respond to particular situations in the right way. Granted, Aristotle thinks our moral feelings need to be ‘trained’, and they should be led by right reason (in that sense reason ‘triumphs’). But that does not mean that the well trained emotional disposition is any less emotional. For Aristotle, virtuous action does not consist in overcoming or somehow mitigating emotional reactions. It consists in making our emotional reactions excellent (virtuous), of having the right kinds of emotional reactions at the right times.
    I’d have to look up Aristotle so see where he discusses compassion in particular. But compassion certainly seems to me to be the kind of a thing that could admit of a mean. We’d need to sort out the relationship between compassion and pity (the writer seems to conflate these when he argues that there is no room for compassion in classical virtue ethics).

    I also disagree that the ‘keynote of virtue’ is ‘naturalness in the sense of spontaneity’, if what the author means by that is something like: compassion arises and is perfected spontaneously out of our natures. I think compassion is natural a human emotional response, but – like all moral feeling – it must be formed/habituated in order to become perfected (be made a virtue, where it is habitual, understood, …). This takes training and imitation, and in that sense is not ‘spontaneous’. The spontaneity talk seems like his Rousseau sneaking into his interpretation of classic virtue theory.


  2. Huenemann Post author

    I’m not sure the author is making such a strong reason vs. the passions claim. (Or if he does, he needn’t.) He’s only trying to argue that for Plato and Aristotle, compassion wasn’t a virtue. Indeed, he makes it sound like it wasn’t a virtue for anyone prior to Montesquieu and Smith. But it makes me wonder whether we’re all on the same page regarding what compassion is. Is it different from pity? Literally, it means “feeling with.” That could cover anything from wincing and curling my toes when I watch someone get stitches, to crying at the theater, to feeling moved to give money to a beggar — which all seem like distinct emotions to me. The first feeling is something to get over, the second seems harmless, and the third might be one to cultivate (with reason).


  3. Kleiner

    Maybe I over-read some of his remarks on reason and passion. Also, though I have not done a historical study, I am skeptical that compassion was “invented” by Montesquieu or others. Isn’t the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke a story of compassion?

    Anyway, you are quite right that we need to get clear on compassion first. The author does seem to conflate pity and compassion, I think this is a mistake.
    Pity: This word, despite occasional usage, is not a simple synonym for compassion. To my mind, it is instead an “oh isn’t that too bad” response to suffering, something that often smacks of condescension (one pities the neighbor who loses his job, but his pity implies that he is superior to that situation and that he does not expect it to befall him). If that is too strong, it at least has the air of distance – we pity from afar, as it were.

    Compassion: As you say, it is literally “feeling with”. It is the capacity to identify with another person. We don’t have compassion in a distant way, rather compassion is felt at the core of our being (we put ourselves in the sufferer’s shoes and undergo his experience/passion). As such, compassion requires more than mere feeling. It also requires imagination, especially if those that you trying to identify with or their sufferings are alien to you, It also requires choice, for in feeling compassion you are choosing to experience the pain of others (rather than pitying it and experiencing it from afar).

    Another difference: It seems to me that compassion always precedes action (that is, compassion moves us to act), while pity does not always precede action (and does not, in itself, move us to action. In fact, usually we just “move on”). Again, the Good Samaritan is a good stock example of this. (Basically I think your 3rd example above is what we usually mean by ‘compassion’.)

    Why think compassion, as I have described it, might be a virtue? Well, it involves feeling, but a feeling that must be trained, cultivated, and habituated. Also, since compassion (like all virtues) is oriented toward practical action, it requires more than mere moral feeling. It also requires that the compassionate person have a family of intellectual virtues, chiefly practical wisdom. That is, the ability to organize a series of intellectual abilities (imagination , the analytical ability to ‘size up the situation’, the ability to move from a general notion of the good to a discernment about the particular situation, etc).



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