Sunday, December 24, 2017


Compassion is an interesting virtue.  Many religions cite it as among the most important, being an ability to extend oneself beyond oneself, and therefore to escape the hell of selfishness.

But what if compassion were not so straightforward?  What if compassion itself, that great among greats, was subject to some of the same complications that beset other virtues: the same hypocrisies, the same logical conundrums, the same self-defeating questions?

One challenge facing the concept of compassion, is what we might call a question of numbers.  It is familiar to philosophers, and probably most famous in the form of some of the ideas within utilitarianism - the avowed aim that as many people as possible be rendered happy.  So, in simple form, if we temporarily define help as assisting a person to happiness, then to help a hundred people would be considered better than helping one.

But compassion is often defined as the feeling of wishing to help alleviate others' suffering.  As a feeling, it will not necessarily be numbers-savvy.  So we would not usually describe someone as less compassionate if they focus their assistance on just one person.  Nor more compassionate if they focus their assistance on a thousand.  In fact, in literature and film, it can often go the other way, and we can find ourselves preferring the compassion that is closer to home, or small enough to be seen and understood easily.

Compassion, in other words, is not easily wedged into a philosophy of numbers.  Someone who helps many other to be happy might do so by virtue of mechanical skill, rather than by the exercise of more compassion.  There is not, in mathematical terms, a proportionate relationship between compassion and total happiness.

The above problem highlights that compassion is usually defined as a kind of intention, rather than as a consequence.  Someone with great compassion would be thought of as having a great wish or intention to help all beings.  Irrespective of immediate consequence, the compassionate person is seen as always ready to exercise concern for others.

But even the restriction of compassion to an intention puts it up against some difficult questions.

Imagine two compassionate people.  One lends their compassion to a human; the other to a dog.  Is the first more compassionate?  Many would answer no, and are happy with the idea that compassion is either there or not, and it does not matter too much to what or whom it is applied.  But let's change the game.  One person lends their compassion to a human; the other to a rock.  Now most people find themselves instinctively relegating the second person to a mad person.  Who would wish to look after a rock?

The latter example shows that we often apply degrees of difference, or at least definitions, to the act of deciding what compassion, to be compassion, should treat as its object.  We are often happy with people showing compassion to animals, but much less so with people showing compassion to inanimate objects.  An interesting exception, by the way, is dolls and toys, which perhaps we consider worthy objects of a child's compassion, because they act as practice objects of compassion, and will in future, as a kind of transitional object, allow a growing person to be more compassionate.  An adult showing compassion to inanimate objects... we tend to be less forgiving here.  Nevertheless, the film industry is founded, in part, on a social belief that practice compassion can be exercised as adults; we all understand that the acting 'is not real', and yet we value compassion evoked in the audience.

To sum up this section: we seem to have limits as to what we think of as a suitable object of compassion.  Generally, we seem to consider compassion virtuous if it is applied to animate objects.  I would say living beings, except that plant life is considered somewhat geeky, in itself, as an object of compassion.  We stop on the theoretical edge of animal life, even though animal life itself is not well defined, and has blurry edges.  Compassion for algae and fungi?  I'll let you decide.

So where are we so far?  We have described compassion as an intention rather than a consequence; as not therefore a question of numbers; but as an intention that has reasonable limits to its application (i.e. should be applied to the animal kingdom).

Just here, I would like to stop and consider where compassion sits in an evolutionary understanding of human behaviour.  Fortunately, evolutionary science is moving beyond the idea of selfishness as a dominating force.  There is enough evidence of compassion-like behaviour in other animals for scientists to spend several decades mulling the place of this virtue in all sorts of animals' lives.

Probably, we will come to the conclusion that compassion and empathy are linked, and we will focus on animals that, as we would define it, seem motivated to act to alleviate the suffering of other animals, whether of their own species or not.  Empathy would be linked, because we like to think of compassion as involving fellow-feeling, conceiving of the self and the other as part of a shared system, whether that is a system of feeling or of identity.  

So, our test of compassion in animals, might be something like: 1. Does this being show evidence of an intention to relieve the suffering of another? 2. Does this being seem to do this even when their own interests may be seriously compromised? 3. Does this being show evidence of an ability to imagine themselves into a common feeling of identity with the other?

We will probably discover that some social beings with the ability to do this have developed complex ecosystems involving the objects of their compassion - that their ecological worlds have grown greater and more fertile, because of the ability of individuals to sacrifice their personal and immediate interests in favour of an appreciated other.

So, I think, compassion will find its place in the encyclopaedia of animal behaviour, and evolutionary bases will be found for its existence and continuation.

The above evolutionary discussion shows how we might choose to apply a kind of de minimis complexity to compassion.  We might decide that a rock's version of 'live and let live' is mere stupidity, rather than compassion; but that a human's idea of 'live and let live' is complex, sophisticated, and worthy of recognition as a virtue.

Whilst I can see all the above arguments as sensible and reasonable, I wish to question them in their entirety as unnecessarily human-centred, system-biased, and narrow minded.

From the discussion above, we end up with a view of compassion as an intention, borne of a sense of shared feeling or identity, to alleviate the suffering of other animal beings.

I would like to argue that it is only our narrow-mindedness that limits compassion in this way.  We could just as well extend it, for instance, to the plant kingdom, and beyond to the world of inanimate objects.  A key objection by 'animalists' would be that we would lose the required sense of shared feeling; psychologists, for instance, tend to cite 'theory of mind' (the ability to put yourself into the mind of another) as important.  But a counter-argument is that we really must learn to get outside our animal-centred view of the universe; we must lose our sense that things only have value if they are subjected to animal-style understanding.  A person can extend themselves so far, I would argue, that they can move into an appreciation of how trees are; how rock is; how planets are.  Furthermore, I would argue that it does not need a person to do this.  That rock understands rock; that tree understands tree.  That tree, even, comprehends much of rock.

For those of you who think I have gone quite barmy, let me try to clarify.  I think our current definition of compassion includes three unnecessary things: 1. Intention; 2. Shared feeling; 3. The alleviation of suffering.

For those of you who still think I have gone barmy, let me try to clarify that.

We are quite familiar with moving beyond intention in the world of love.  Many memes express the idea that a loving person should be known by their acts and not by their intentions.  Pour half of one glass of water into another half-full glass.  I would argue that you are seeing an example of compassion in action.  The new water 'appreciates' the old, and they meld together just as compassionate groups of people would.  Water does not need to show a wish in order to show compassion.

Using the example above, the merged water did not need one bit of water to empathise with the other in our limited human sense.  It just moves with the other bit of water, and it was done.  In the same way, compassion does not need some kind of sophisticated understanding to exist.

Also using the example above, neither part of water was motivated by the desire to end the suffering of the other.  The first glass did no need to post a crowdfunding campaign on social media in order to effect the merging.  It just happened.

Overall, what I am suggesting is that our philosophy of compassion needs to move beyond the human-centric idea that we need to intend, to imagine, and to alleviate one particular piece of suffering.  We have designed our current society around very narrow definitions of compassion.  Whilst they have some success in reducing some suffering, they are strangely over-targeted as fashion dictates.  Thus, we only make social progress in compassion in certain areas.  We fail to see that compassion is deeper, more mysterious, and less complex, than we make it.

I guess this article came to be because I have been troubled by the very narrow concepts of compassion exercised in many of the things I read and see.  It seems that, for every prejudice we reduce, another prejudice rises.  In fighting against sexism, we alienate sexists.  In fighting for animal welfare, we forget plants, or rocks, and we alienate animal-eaters.  I think a wider view of compassion would mean that we were more tolerant of difference, and more in harmony with our surroundings, at one and the same time.

One problem that arises from a wider definition of compassion, is the appearance of a problem of inaction.  There really seems to be very little we can do to effect this kind of compassion.  This is true.  It is more, perhaps, a matter of unlearning.  Compassion ceases to be a virtue born of sharp definition, and becomes a virtue born of losing all the prejudices that we have developed, and which get in the way of seeing how things really are.

It may be that the truly compassionate person is able to sit, with or without doing anything.  It may even be that suffering takes on another definition entirely; that what we think of as suffering is simply the inevitable consequence of existing.  Unless we are compassionate enough to see that suffering as it is, and live with it.

It may be that you are thinking 'what the hell is he talking about?'.  I wouldn't blame you.

Compassion, as we currently think of it, seems quite narrow-minded, in that it is often thought of as one animal's intent, by an act of imagination, to alleviate particular kinds of suffering in fellow animals.  Perhaps a future definition of compassion might involve a wider circle; it might involve unlearning prejudice, and going so far that there need be nothing we can do.

In the meantime, at the very least, there will be some interesting work done finding out how animals show old-style compassion to each other.  But it will probably be done in quite a human-centric way.