MWP 1.4.e Compassion

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In Middle Way Philosophy, compassion can be seen as an aspect of objectivity which overlaps both with factual and moral aspects. Compassion (or love, of a non-possessive sort – agape or metta) is the ability to identify with ourselves or others beyond our own immediate interests. However, in 1.j it was argued that given that we do not experience a self but an ego, and our ego-identifications are not necessarily focused on ourselves as individuals, “selfishness” and “selflessness” are not relevant to our moral integration. Instead, I want to argue that compassion consists in the extension of identifications from our current limited identifications to both our own at other times, and those of others that we do not already identify with. When this extension of identifications occurs our feelings are channelled with greater experiential adequacy. We feel more with both ourselves and others when our feelings are bigger.

Nobody is ever without the basis of compassion, because we are never without desires that identify with certain objects or persons (usually including ourselves). Our problem is not that we lack the energies to put into compassion, but that those energies are channelled only through limited identification. In some cases we may only be concerned with our own short-term fulfilments, according to unexamined beliefs about what will bring us fulfilment (e.g. drinking too much alcohol). In some other cases (more likely, on average, for women) our limited identification may not just be with ourselves but with other people whom we identify with intensely, such as children, lovers, or heroes. Compassion, then, effectively means extending our identifications both towards our own changing desires and long-term interests, and towards others with whom we do not yet identify.

Compassion is a form of objectivity, in which the integration of our desires is linked to a similar extension of meanings and beliefs in relation to people. One major barrier to my compassion towards more distant people is that they are not very meaningful to me – they may just be fodder for statistics, or at the most names and photos. To extend my compassion, the extension of meaning is important – for example, through reading in-depth journalism or travel writing about foreign countries, through forms of distant communication using mail, the internet, or phone, or by recalling distant people to one’s imagination. The Christian practice of praying for others, and the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation may both help with this by getting the imagination to work on the meaningfulness of others. If I think about an elderly relative’s suffering in a hospital bed, or imagine my tyrannical boss playing frisbee with his children on the beach, the range of experience summoned up for me when their name is mentioned is that much richer, and compassion for them becomes that much easier. At the same time, my view of them has become more objective.

The examining of our beliefs about people also has a role in compassion. A prejudice is a metaphysical view about a person’s nature, which attaches a negative (or unrealistically positive) value to them that is resistant to being changed by experience. To overcome, say, racial prejudice, deliberate reflection or argument about that person to test one’s views for coherence should soon reveal such prejudices, because the idea that someone is ‘bad’ because of their race is entirely inconsistent with all of the ways they will appear ‘good’ in other respects that can be experienced. If rational reflection cannot change our prejudices, sometimes experience itself can. Kathryn Schulz tells the moving story of a C.P. Ellis, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who gradually extends his identification towards a black woman campaigner for racial justice, when he is obliged to actually experience her and get to know her by working with her on a committee for the racial integration of schools[1]

Compassion, then, comes from fallibility – recognising the limitations of my own views, imaginings and identifications, as well as increasingly recognising and accepting those of others. It works outwardly from wherever we start. In comparison to this, the traditional ‘top down’ view of compassion or love which is often communicated in Christianity and Buddhism is a non-starter. If I am just told that I ought to love everybody in the world because God does, or that is what enlightened people do, even if I identify strongly with that idea, the most that is likely to happen practically is a vague wish to love everybody. Since we are situated beings with limited identifications, not actually capable of loving everybody, our love will not in practice progress any further than our objectivity. We need to be able to experience others without interfering prejudices or contrary impulses if we are to love them to any meaningful degree.

Some are likely to find compassion easier to develop than others, because of varying levels of empathy as a starting condition. Empathy should not be confused with compassion (even though the boundary is vague) because (at least in the sense I am going to stipulate here) empathy is a result of past conditions, whereas compassion involves development towards objectivity from our starting point. Just as some people are born blind, which makes it harder for them to engage with conditions through vision, so others are born with lower levels of empathy than others, which makes it harder for them to imagine the perspective of others and thus to extend their identifications in that way. Autistic people are particularly limited in this way, but this does not mean that they cannot extend identifications or develop a degree of compassion. This creates a likely asymmetry in their integration, but may be compensated for in other areas of integration. For example, to some extent we can compensate for difficulties in easily imagining others’ perspectives by developing our cognitive understanding of them, and extending our identifications by that means instead. Baron-Cohen presents evidence of autistics (as opposed to psychopaths or other empathy-deficient types) being highly moral in their social interactions, substituting rule-governance to compensate for their lack of intuitive understanding of others[2]. I would argue that such autistics are (perhaps slowly and painfully) extending their compassion by the means available to them, despite their disabilities.

The topic of compassion is sometimes tackled in an over-narrow way by confusing it with empathy. Empathy is a psychologically observable quality dependent on functions in the right hemisphere of the brain[3], but this does not justify the effective reduction of ethics to empathy and the exclusion of the left hemisphere from moral relevance[4], or even excluding the left hemisphere from compassion. The right hemisphere has a crucial role in integrating the motives of the left and making them effective through empathy as well as other kinds of contextual objectivity. However, without the left hemisphere’s identification there would be no drive towards compassionate activity. Empathy without directed energy is impotent, even though narrowly directed energy without much empathy may fail to address conditions in important ways because of a lack of compassionate objectivity. There is also no essential discontinuity between a ‘selfish’ desire for one’s own interests and an empathically directed concern for others (or for oneself at other times), just a different degree of integration and contextualisation of the same energies: empathy is necessary for their greater integration, but far from sufficient.

Compassion is an important and immediate aspect of objectivity in everyday life, but its field of application is small, whatever our fantasies about loving everyone. Other aspects of objectivity, whether factual or moral, focused more on integration of belief, often have a larger scope and potential. One can see this in the example of a highly loving mother, whose endowment of empathy has been extended by compassion, and who makes a huge difference to her family and immediate community because of this. However, such love can also sometimes be combined with parochial values and a lack of identification with wider spiritual, intellectual, or practical enterprises that may address conditions far more profoundly. The mother’s objectivity could also be applied to these things as far as her capacities allow, but she is not accustomed to doing so. If the dam bursts, the loving mother and her family and entire community may be swept away: it takes the expertise and heroism of the hydraulic engineer to stop it bursting.


[1] Schulz (2010) pp.273-9

[2] Baron-Cohen (2011)

[3] McGilchrist (2009) p.57

[4] As McGilchrist does in (2009) p.86. Baron-Cohen (2011) also characterises a lack of empathy as ‘evil’.

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