Thursday, June 26, 2008

Psychology: Compassion is an emotion, not a virtue unless disciplined, prof says

In "How an Emotion Became a Virtue – it took some help from Rousseau and Montesquieu" in In Character, University of Toronto political science prof Clifford Orwin makes the critical - and often misunderstood - point that compassion is an emotion, and not necessarily a virtue:

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.
As an emotion, compassion is easily preferred to simple ingrown selfishness. But - and this is part of Orwin's point in tracing the history of attitudes to compassion,

Of all peoples the Americans could most be counted on to come to the assistance of their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (II.iii.4).

The qualification is significant. Not democracy but aristocracy is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. Democrats are good-hearted, but they’re also people in a hurry, necessarily preoccupied with their own business.
Surely, Orwin has a good point here. Just feeling "badly" for people can lead to quick fixes that do more harm than good. As he also notes, suffering is not necessarily the worst thing in the world - a sense of meaninglessness is probably worse for most people, to judge from what it leads to.

That was why the classical philosophers taught that compassion must be balanced and disciplined by other virtues. For example, the people who can really help this poor woman (with uncontrollable itching) will need to master mere terror and pity, and get down to the business of the neuroscience and neurosurgery that can help her. Late nights and boring hours, yes - but there is no other solution to difficult neurological problems.