Afternoon Inquisition 9/24

Today I’d like to try a philosophical question and see how it goes: 

Is compassion a virtue?

The answer might seem obvious at first, but a little reflection exposes some possible flaws.  Many philosophers have been skeptical about compassion, as evidenced by this article.

Some of the criticisms include:

  • Compassion is an emotion.  Can an emotion be a virtue?
  • Is it true that you only have compassion for those you understand, meaning that your compassion is directed at those most like yourself or in situations that could happen to you?  Maybe even situations that you personally fear?  If so, is that virtuous?
  • And what about compassion afforded to the undeserving?  How can compassion be good when resulting actions lead to the self-destruction of the giver, the enabling of the givee, or both?


Related Articles


  1. I think that it is. If something, such as compassion, causes a person to do a good thing then yes it is a virtue. I think of campassion as one of my motivations for giving blood regularly. My blood then helps people I have never met and will probably never meet. I am willing to grant all of the negative arguments against compassion being a virtue. But I still think it is a virtue. It may not be all encompassing or universal but how many things really are? At best most people have a tiny circle of influence. Most of us will never have a national or international prescence but we can do good in our small ways. I can give blood, donate to the food bank and buy raffle tickets from school kids. None of these things shape the world but they are with in my power and they do good and I do them from compassion.

  2. Ooo, good one.

    It is a virtue, IMHO. But if you take it too far, it (like pacifism) stops being a virtue.

    How you draw the “too far” line is where I struggle :) And it’s situational, I suppose.

  3. @Gabrielbrawley:

    My thoughts are similar to yours. When the question was posed to me, my response was – how could compassion not be a virtue? I think it depends on how you measure virtuosity. The philosophers in the article are measuring the extent to which compassion makes you a “good person”. You are measuring the extent to which the practical application of compassion does good in the world.

  4. That pretty much goes back the good old standby: “What is virtue?”

    It’s a complicated issue, and certainly not something everyone will agree on (if it were otherwise, we’d have a clear answer by now, yeah?). Compassion, I think, can be both a virtue and a flaw, even simultaneously. The capacity to feel for others and the desire to help is certainly laudable in most situations, but as you so clearly spelled out above, there are certain negatives that go along with it. (Although I completely believe an emotion can be virtuous, that’s just more of the debate over the definition of virtue.)

  5. NO, Compassion is not a Virtue. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals.

    The idea of compassion is part of the xian “slave morality” (and xianity really is a nihilistic religon for slaves), dreamed up by the weak to convince the strong not to do that which they would do if roles were reversed.

    Compare “virtue” in pre-xian and xian societies. In ancient pre-xian societies meekness, humility, compassion etc were all rightly dispised.

    The only reason we think Charity, compassion and so on as being “good” is because most people have been brought up in a “xianised” society.

    Think about it, what does charity really do? Weakens the giver and preserves (or is it prolongs the agony of?) that which is ripe for destruction. Why give to one begger or two or three when there will always be millions of beings ripe for destruction out there ready to swarm all over you and ruin you (without helping any of them)

  6. Nietzsche was an annoying whiner who failed to understand the basics of the human species. Terribly sorry if you can’t just beat people up and take what you want from them, but humans are social animals. Our success derives not from our strength, but from our cooperation. Sooner or later, the people you’re beating up will band together and smite the shit out of you. This is perfectly right and valid as a response, and if you don’t like it, you’re really going to hate how them not killing you in no way makes you stronger because of it.

    Followers of Neitzschean philosophy are just douches trying to justify their asshattery and whining that the rest of society recognizes that being a dickhead is not, in fact, anything like a virtue.

  7. @russellsugden:

    That all sounds very survival of the fittest. :)

    So, you don’t think compassion is warranted in any situation? Or that some situations exist in which the giver and the givee would both benefit in the long run?

  8. @dannyness: That’s not chickenshit. It’s a perfectly valid stance, and one with which many people would agree, I think. In fact, I touched on the idea myself in comment #5 above… so I guess my assessment really amounts to little more than “Yeah, I agree.”

  9. I could not resist.

    If we are assuming that “compassion” means the sympathetic consciousness of another’s suffering and a desire to relieve it, I would argue that compassion is a virtue. Why? I belief if we all were a bit more compassionate, the world WOULD be a better place on a net basis.

    That brings me to the “net basis.” I would argue measures of self-interest should not define what is virtuous. After all, many things we may agree are virtuous do not serve our best interests (e.g., loyalty, honesty, honor, etc.) … Well, maybe russellsugden would not agree, but I don’t want to live in (and choose not to) live in the world he describes in a whole lot of ways that have nothing to do with compassion anyway.

    @phlebas: Nor do I feel comfortable defining something as virtuous in any quantitative or measured terms. That is, rather than saying one can go “too far” in the pursuit of compassion in defining whether it is a virtue or not, perhaps what should be said is that certain virtues can only be served at the expense of others? For example, if temperance is also a virtue, then one may still be virtuous by not being so compassionate as to give all of his or her money away to charity. Nonetheless, I would argue that BOTH temperance and compassion are virtues. Virtues always bump up against each other (e.g., sometimes we cannot both be loyal and honest), but it doesn’t make those things any less of a virtue, does it?

  10. I don’t know (and highly doubt it’s so simple as a mere “yes” or “no”). Goes again to the definition of virtue, a question that has plagued philosophers for as long as philosophers have existed.

  11. @Rystefn The banding together is what Nietzsche would expect to happen. There is nothing in his writings that advocates “smash and grab”. Nietzsche never said success was strength but rather excellence of character came from how we respond to the challenges of life (success in an endenvour being less important that actually trying) and try to improve ourselves. No one ever points out how radically (for his time) he was pro-women or his opposition to drugs of all kinds (drugs dull the pain, you need the pain to spur you on to self-actualisation)

    @Stacey. Of course, its possible if you try hard enough to dream up some situation where both parties benifit, but in reality the giver is giving in the hope (a false hope) that some sort of cosmic justice will ensure that should the fate that has befallen the person they are giving to befall them, then somebody will show them charity also.

    Truth is, there is no cosmic justice, only comsic indifference. A better thing to do, rather than give to charity would be to save any “spare money” (how can spare money exsist) you have for a rainy day.

    However, I do believe in generous state welfare, everybody pays in, when you need it you get help and pay it back in taxes when you’re on your feet again (and more if you become rich). Welfare is not (regardless of what some people say) state enforced charity, but rather a state run friendly-society

  12. @russellsugden:

    Of course, its possible if you try hard enough to dream up some situation where both parties benifit, but in reality the giver is giving in the hope (a false hope) that some sort of cosmic justice will ensure that should the fate that has befallen the person they are giving to befall them, then somebody will show them charity also.

    I agree that can be the case, but is it the case every time or even most of the time? People need help sometimes and it doesn’t necessarily make them unfit. Isn’t the degree of the act that invokes the compassion a factor? Or should humans never help each other under any circumstances?

  13. @russellsugden: The problem with Nietzche is that we (humanity) do not live in a world of cosmic indifference – we live in a world that has irrational malevolence (some call it “evil”) – i.e., people will go out of their way, even with costs that are not justified, to hurt others … It is in THIS world that compassion, as irrational as it may seem, becomes a virtue … And we can save all we want for ourselves, but at some point, we all need somebody else’s help and there usually IS someone who can spare it – the choice is whether to act on that compassion.

    Now does anybody want to join hands for a round of Kumbaya?

  14. Neitzsche babbled a lot of nonsense about growing strong through adversity and being callous to everyone around you so that they might grow strong, too. It’s all a thinly veiled attempt to cover douchbaggery and justify being a dick. His followers generally see all that and act accordingly, in my experience. Pain doesn’t make you stronger, it just goddamned hurts. That’s all. If you’re masochist enough to want to just hurt instead of doing something to hurt less, more power to you, but there’s no virtue in it that I can see.

    Charity doesn’t make people believe in or expect some sort of “cosmic justice.” It makes them believe in and expect a little fucking sympathy from their fellow man, which is what actually makes humanity strong. Pretending you’re really helping people by walking away from their suffering is the height of self-delusion. You recognize this yourself when you advocate a “state-run friendly society.” How in the universe can you convince yourself that this is virtue while a voluntary friendly society is somehow merely aiding those segments of society “ripe for destruction”?

    I guess we can add hypocrisy to the flaws inherent in your philosophy.

  15. it’s always interesting when values and logic collide. i think this is essentially the same as the debate between science and religion. apples to oranges. logically, the strategy to life is to maximize your own individual success in any way possible. this sort of implies cooperation but only as using people as a means to an end. however, having values and living a compassionate life is something different entirely. it means more or less doing what is best for the entire group. which way is a better way to think or live? i think that can only be determined in the mind of the beholder. i think that it is biological as well as ideological, though, because we have individuals born with antisocial personality disorders. these individuals seem to lack the ability to experience compassion the way “norms” do. to them it is not so much a virtue that they can choose to utilize or not, but an impossible task that they are incapable of. well, at least in the way that we think of it (i.e. they might be told to do something compassionate and comply, but they don’t really understand why they are doing it).

  16. @Stacy

    I think I need some clarification on what you mean by “nonvirtuous.” If you mean “devoid of virtue,” I think we’re slipping into a false dichotomy by saying compassion is either virtuous or nonvirtuous. If you mean “not a virtue” then compassion could be classified as lots of stuff. Like what? I don’t know! That’s why it was the chickenshit answer.

    But in answer to your question, if by “nonvirtuous” you mean “not a virtue” then the CAPACITY for compassion would be a virtue in that it does drive one to do the morally right thing.

    Granted, it could also drive you to do the morally wrong thing, but let’s take a look at some common virtues- bravery, honesty, loyalty. I’m sure we can all think of situations where each of these can lead one to do the wrong thing.

    And by that rational, I can’t see a difference between those aforementioned virtues and Compassion so maybe I should just say that compassion itself IS a virtue.

  17. @Rystefn

    you are definitely the angel on my right shoulder scolding the logic demon on my right shoulder (ugh a religious reference, must take scalding hot shower RIGHT NOW). i hear russellsugden’s voice coming from one part of my brain (the same part that does math) and then i hear your voice coming from another part (the part that likes getting drunk and playing my guitar). i think there must be some kind of balance to keep you from running homeless people over and giving them your life savings because you feel bad for them.

  18. @ Stacey: I would say never in any circumstances where the helper themselves would also be at risk. Down a mine, up a mountain, under water, as far as I’m concerned if you get in trouble you’d be on your own.

    Compassion is about pity, and trying to eleviate anothers suffering. As achievement can only come through suffering, by stopping another’s suffering you are removing them from the path to their self-realisation i.e. every true achievement comes through struggle, take away the struggle take away the eventual achievement

  19. Why do you claim that compassion is an emotion? Compassion is an understanding of the emotional state of another being combined with a desire to alleviate the suffering of those in pain. I can see how empathy could be an emotion but compassion can be a logical choice.

    A virtue is simply a trait that is valued as good or desirable.

    In those who are suffering the compassion of others should certainly be considered a virtue as they may benefit from said compassion. That said a person in a state of terrible suffering may, by virtue of their suffering, incite a compassion in someone to such an extent that they seek to end the suffering by ending the life of the other. This may not be desirable. For example a leper may have lost limbs and physical features that evoke an empathic response. Thus inspired to relieve the suffering of the leper a doctor may opt to euthanize a sufferer rather than treat the symptoms. Perhaps against the wishes of the leper.

    I don’t have anything against lepers or doctors, I’m just using them as an example. An extreme example though. In most cases compassion will be a desirable trait to exhibit. Helping others is valuable to someone in need of help and rewarding to those offering help either through increased status in the peer group or through an emotional response.

    Overall compassion is a virtue with the caveat that in extreme cases it can be harmful.

  20. @hotphysicsboy: Me? An angel? Now I’ve really heard everything…

    Though drinking and music are virtues almost without compare in my worldview, so that’s relatively accurate.

    That said, I have quite literally given away all of my money, down to the very last penny in my life. I’m not going to recommend it to everyone or anything like that, but I will say that it’s an experience you cannot fathom if you’ve never done it. Beats the Hell out of running over homeless people, I would imagine… especially with all the legal ramifications inherent in the act.

  21. Spoken truly like someone who’s never been run over by a bicyclist… If they do it right, you won’t be chasing anyone down any time soon.

  22. We have no control and there is no free will or self determination. Ya, I hold to a material, physical, corporeal existence…, only.

    So if it makes you feel good to be compassionate then have at it. If a virtue is a philosophical construct then construct away and be happy. If you have a genetic predisposition toward excessive compassion then revel in your social ascendance. Empathy and acting out on that emotion seems to have helped the species get this far.

  23. @hoverFrog:

    Why do you claim that compassion is an emotion?

    Good question. Maybe it’s not. I defined it as an emotion because that was in the premise of the article. But I agree that’s worth questioning/defining.

  24. @Rystefn:

    There is a massive difference between charity and insurance. Giving poor people enough money to live on is less helpfully to them than to give them the means to get out of their situation. It is the difference between and handout and a hand up. Besides, the money taken in taxes by the government which pays for the welfare state is effectively the same as the individual paying into an insurance policy to pay out in the event of unemployment (like any other insurance there is a chance that any individual wont actaully ever get a payout and that some individuals may make a claim several times)

    As for Nietzsche on pain, well as he might have said “no pain, no gain”. Anything worth doing is hard. What gives greater satisfaction, beating a child at chess or an adult of roughly equal ability to your own? Is it better to achieve something mediocre with ease or struggle to achieve something substantial?

  25. If by “a virtue” you mean “a good thing,” I would say that compassion is a virtue. Compassion is a good thing.

    Oxygen, too, is a good thing. However, too much of it can be almost as troublesome as too little of it. The same goes for compassion.


  26. @James Fox:

    We have no control and there is no free will or self determination. Ya, I hold to a material, physical, corporeal existence…, only.

    I was kind of hoping someone would bring this up. Free will is one of my favorite topics, and also one I struggle with personally (evidence vs. intuition). It’s easier to answer the question “does free will exist”, than to consider the consequences of its existence (or non-existence) in the context of your beliefs about another question, such as this.

  27. I would define virtue as a quality, attitude or action that is (perceived to be) statistically correlated with positive outcomes. The concept is used as a label, mental shorthand.

    By that definition, yes, compassion is a virtue. Doesn’t really matter what it is exactly or how it arises because its “virtuosness” hinges on (aggregate) outcome. Instances of negative outcome are in the minority–if you mean to help someone, chances are you will–and in those cases we tend to clarify/reframe the compassionate act as “enabling” or “being an idiot.”

  28. @hotphysicsboy:

    lol, it gets worse, I agree with Nietzsche regarding alcohol. Getting drunk won’t help you overcome any difficulties you have in life, it’ll just numb the pain for a short while. How many drunks complain about never having had a break? Just think what they might have achieved if they’d seized life by the throat rather than whollowing in self-pity and booze (and complaining about how comsic charity didnt deliver achievement straight into their lap)

  29. @russellsugden: I couldn’t disagree more with the whole “no pain, no gain” idea. I do not suffering as a virtue, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that most of the people who have truly known suffering will fall on my side of this.

    …but hey, I’ll tell you what, let’s just agree to treat people in the vein of their own preference of philosophy on this. If you’re driving through the desert, and you see me passed out and half-dead of dehydration and heatstroke on the side of the road, you pick me up and give me some water, and if I see you in the desert, I’ll put some water away just in case something bad happens to me later, and vote for a government agency to help provide water in case people get stuck out in the desert somehow, like a government insurance policy. How’s that sound? To hell with my suffering and personal growth, I want to live.

  30. @russellsugden: You stereotype. What about drunks who do seize life by the throat, don’t drink to numb any pain, and look for nothing more at the bottom of the bottle than a fun evening?

    Moreover, what’s so bad about numbing pain? Ever had a tooth pulled? I’ll praise the virtues of numbness to the highest in certain cases.

  31. @Rystefn:

    I couldn’t disagree more with the whole “no pain, no gain” idea. I do not suffering as a virtue, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that most of the people who have truly known suffering will fall on my side of this.

    This topic was briefly discussed among the skepchicks last week behind the scenes. I agree with you. I do think that sometimes a sense of achievement and/or personal growth can come out of hardship. But sometimes hardship (and especially too much hardship) can at best just be hardship, and at worst damage a person.

  32. I do think that sometimes a sense of achievement and/or personal growth can come out of hardship.

    Most assuredly it can… but who am I to try to tell someone else that their suffering builds character? I’ve seen people broken by suffering and hardship, and I would not wish that on any human being I’ve met or heard of so far in life.

  33. The discussion so far intimidates me, so I’m just going to lob my grenade and strafe around the corner.

    Yes, compassion is a virtue.

    My assumption is that, like all virtues, it can be misapplied.

    Here is a list of virtues, deduced by one branch of science. I’ll just take the first of each category as an example:

    Curiosity: killed the cat.
    Valor: killed the Scotsman.
    Kindness: always loses at Monopoly.
    Citizenship: died in a manufactured war.
    Self-control: Missed out on all of the great sex in college.
    Appreciation of beauty and excellence: beat up by the cool kids in grade school.

    …Okay, joking aside, I hope you see my point: not all virtues are all good all the time. What makes life fun, for me, is watching the intersection of disparate sets of virtues at play.

  34. @Rystefn:

    I agree with you 100%. I have no sympathy for people who go into dangerous environments not properly prepared. If you’re up a mountain, in the desert, under water and get in trouble, as far as I’m concerned, you’re not getting any help from me.

    Of course if I saw you on the road (and new it was you) I would probably stop and pick you up, so I could argue with you all the way to civilisation. Nietzsche is very clear about the need to preserve (rather than destroy, the xian way) our “enemies”, the struggle against them is improving for both parties. We need our adversaries, they make us stronger

    However, if anyone is daft enough to go round weakening themselves just to help me, I’m not going to stop them. If you feel the urge to be charitable I can give you make bank details if you wish.

  35. I thought I had this all figured out until someone decided to take the word virtue and turn it into virtuous. If you mean, can it be a benefit, well sure it can – sometimes. If you mean is it something to aspire to as a human, as a part of some social construct we have and think of as *being human* then again, maybe, but for totally different reasons.
    Phrase it differently: imagine a compassionless society. Would it be any less successful, in terms of scientific progress, likelihood to continue surviving, and so forth? Impossible to say, but I suspect it would do better than we do at the moment because people would be forced to not spend their time dicking around being compassionate. And we’d end up culling the weak.
    As far as that being desirable, that’s a personal issue, and I think I’ll keep my opinion between me and Cyberdyne.

  36. I also agree that you can grow through suffering. People do often learn from their mistakes. But I disagree with russellsugden saying that achievement can ONLY come through suffering.

    For example (not the only example, mind you), one can also grow through other people’s suffering. How does one do this? Through compassion, perhaps?

  37. @russellsugden:

    However, if anyone is daft enough to go round weakening themselves just to help me, I’m not going to stop them. If you feel the urge to be charitable I can give you make bank details if you wish.

    You are operating under the assumption that charity weakens the giver. In the case of loaning money, yes the giver has less money, but do they have a stronger sense of self as someone with both the capability and desire to help another human? And is the givee really strengthened by receiving the money, or are they weakened by the realization that they are unable to provide for themselves without the help of another more capable person?

    Just throwing it out there…

  38. @russellsugden: All the preparation in the world can’t save you from bad luck. Sometimes the dice fall against you, and nothing you do or don’t do can change that. Recognition of the fact that a great deal of hardship and suffering in this world in not remotely self-inflicted is the essence of compassion, and the part you seem to miss.

    Although I find it interesting that you seem to think helping me is strengthening yourself, but me helping you would be weakening myself…

    That said – the major flaw in your philosophy is still that you look to the individual, as did moopet after you. Our strength is not, and never will be, in personal accomplishment. Our species survives and thrives by virtue of cooperation. When cultures clash, it’s the one that helps and supports one another the most that wins. It is in this way that the whole becomes so much more than the sum of its weak little parts.

  39. If compassion is defined as ‘Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. ‘, which I believe it is, and virtue is defined as ‘the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong ‘, (and neatly side-stepping the definitions of right and wrong), then the answer is ‘No’ inasmuch that ‘virtue’ is a by-product of action or ‘doing’, whereas Compassion is merely the ‘wish to relieve’ distress.

  40. Suffering may make you stronger, but isn’t the point of being stronger to alleviate suffering? Head hurts…

  41. @dannyness: The only way I could imagine growing through another person’s suffering is by seeing them suffer through doing something (probably something incredibly stupid) and learning from their mistake by proxy. The suffering is still taking place, just externally to the person who benifits

    I see nothing compassionate about seeing a junky and thinking “hmm, I dont want to end up like that, I’d better stay off the ole’ crack pipe if it’s offered”. Thats just being able to learn from someone else’s mistakes.

    Of course suffering comes in many forms, usually in the form of discomfort. Everything humans have achieved has been the overcomming of suffering in some form, e.g we evented fire to overcome the discomforts of the cold and raw meat. We invented sewers to overcome the discomfort of disease, polluted drinking water and having shit hanging around the house. We invented the raincoat to avoid the discomfort of getting wet. We invented farming to avoid the discomfort of having to forage for every meal

    I lost 30lb to overcome the discomfort of being a fatty. The list goes on and on

    Nothing has ever come about without suffering. Without the grain of sand there can be no pearl

  42. @Stacey:


    That may be the most brilliant thing you’ve ever posted (that I’ve read).

    As Nietzsche would say: he needed his adversary to overcome and improve himself. Without a foil he wouldn’t be able to make such great (if incorrect) posts

  43. @russellsugden: No, no… I would be just as awesome without you here. All I need adversaries for is to help me show other people how great I am. Which I appreciate, because Stacey is super-sexy and smart and well worth impressing, so I guess I owe you one.

  44. @russellsugden:

    Russell – I want you to know I’m not picking on you. Your posts are a big part of what’s made this discussion take off and be so interesting.

    Rystefn touched on the topic of my AI from two weeks ago (which came first: religion or morality), in which I claimed morality came first because of our need to cooperate (treat each other decently) in order to survive. I liked seeing that concept tied into another thread.

    Integrating all of one’s beliefs is a difficult task.

  45. @russellsugden: Actually, foraging is a pretty cushy lifestyle. We invented agriculture to overcome the difficulties of providing food to all in a society with swiftly increasing population density.

    That said, the virtue in all of that achievement is basically nil beyond the fact tat it actually did relieve suffering.

  46. @Stacey:

    I resist that definition :-)

    I think Empathy is one more remove from compassion in that you can be empathetic merely be recognizing someone’s emotional state. It doesn’t require or imply desire to help or ‘right’ action on the other side of the empathetic feeling.

    Here is a bon mot I stumbled over while looking into empathy:

    Pity is, “Things are bad for you, you seem as though you need help.”
    Sympathy is, “I’m sorry for your sadness, I wish to help.”
    Emotional Contagion is, “You feel sad and now I feel sad.”
    Empathy is, “I recognize how you feel.”
    Apathy is, “I don’t care how you feel. ”
    Telepathy is, “I read your sadness without you expressing it to me in any normal way.”
    Schadenfreude is “Things are bad for you and I feel good about that.”

  47. @Stacey:

    LOL. I can take it.

    I agree with Rystefn on cooperation and its importance to the functioning of society, it’s in the best interests of the individual to pool some of their personal sovereignty to the greater whole (like Rystefn, I have also read Rousseau) in order for society to “work”.

    Though it is equally important that the individual does not become completely subsumed into society (e.g. a borg-like collective of non-individual sub-units) and retains the greater part of their personal sovereignty i.e. society should not impeed the liberty of the individual and the individual should not impeed the liberty of the member of society. But thats going off topic.

    I agree with you the morality came before religion

  48. @wytworm:

    I think Empathy is one more remove from compassion in that you can be empathetic merely be recognizing someone’s emotional state. It doesn’t require or imply desire to help or ‘right’ action on the other side of the empathetic feeling.

    So compassion is not just an emotion, it requires action or at least the desire for action.

  49. @russellsugden: Actually, I’m a pretty angry individualist who rails at authority and most form of imposed order. Interestingly – I think that any functioning society needs people like me, though. Much as I would prefer otherwise, I’m just a different kind of cog in the machine. Any culture needs someone standing on the outskirts bucking traditions and socially accepted ideals.

  50. @Stacey:

    Yeah. I think it stops at having the desire, as in, I can feel compassion for someone hit by a car, have the desire to help and still walk by and not help in a non-virtuous manner. You don’t become virtuous until action is taken.

    In my book…

  51. By the by, if you’re interested in morality, you should totally watch the video on TED by Jonathan Haidt.

    It’s got some politics mixed in, but it’s still relevant to the discussion. I think compassion falls under Haidt’s “harm” data… though that might be a stretch.

    He mentions Libertarianism briefly, but never goes on to explain where they fit on the scale. I’d wager a couple of our posters here today are libs, so I’m curious which morals influence them most…

  52. @JRice: It was an interesting talk, and he makes some good points – especially about the way people almost universally think they’re right and trying to do the right thing. Once again, goes all the way back to the definition of virtue. “To know the good is to do the good,” after all, right? We’re all just trying to do the best we can as we see it…

    …even if some of us are douches about it. :P

  53. Yes, compassion is a virtue. It is THE quintessential moral virtue from which (almost) all others flow. Compassion, by which I mean the identity of one’s self with others, recognizing their inherent *self-hood*, provides the context, one may say the *reason*, in which there is such a thing as moral virtues after all. Morality is founded upon the notion that the concerns of others are as valid as the concerns of the self. Compassion is the bridge which allows us to vault the gap of understanding which lies between people. Without it, morality is only so much mental masturbation.

    Of course, compassion has its shortcomings, which is why it must be tempered and expanded with the judicious use of reason. Reason allows us to compare the sentiment of compassion with the ideal of compassion, and thus perfect our own intuitions in regards to others. The sentiment, in this case, is feelings of sympathy for other humans or creatures, and the ideal is the notion of *identity* with said creature. It is the responsibility of every compassionate creature to, with reason, recognize all agents with which we can identify and which can return that identification, expanding the reach of our sympathies to all of those who warrant it.

  54. ansuzmannaz said

    Morality is founded upon the notion that the concerns of others are as valid as the concerns of the self.

    Is it? Do the concerns of others as equals really play a part in moral behaviour? Can’t I think of myself as superior to others and yet still behave in a way that takes into account the needs and desires of my community? Perhaps it is only by the virtue of my superiority in some way (intellect, social awareness, wealth, health, disco, whatever) that I can recognise the needs of others and apply the compassion that they so desperately need. Alternatively perhaps my lack of ability evokes a need to place the needs of others above my own. Why does compassion require equality to be a virtue?

    Can I not feel compassion towards an animal that lacks my intelligence but has a need? Children are weaker and stupider than me (most of the time) and their needs are often easier to cater for. Are they less valid needs because they are simpler and I am more complex?

    My compassion only measured in my own ability to recognise and utilize it and is independent of the target of that compassion.

  55. Compassion involves pity and, therefore, is not justice, but possibly magnanimity. Magnanimity, a virtue, is the golden mean of the trait “the happiness of flourishing.”

    Magnanimity is a balance of sportsmanship and bravery that results in tolerance and forgiveness and generosity. In terms of “deriving happiness from human flourishing”, is the mean between vanity (happy you are developing) and timidity (happy others are developing), but closer to vanity.

    If it were to be an emotion, it would be in the realm of fear or anger in their appraisal stage (not the discharge stage) and would most resemble apprehension.

    If it were part of the process of an entire culture, it would be an altruistic view of the norms that results in either acculturation (inclusion) or modest, primordial justice (feeling bad but walking away for safety).

    If it were an intellectual pursuit, it would be an evaluation of already judged information that results in a proposal. I’m sure there is a better name for that.

  56. Compassion is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue?

    Yes, but only if tempered by rational scrutiny. Emotions are great because they bring potentially important issues to the attention of the intellect. Virtuous actions come by acting only on those emotional issues that successfully pass through the cold and calculating filter of the intellect.

  57. There is a massive difference between charity and insurance. Giving poor people enough money to live on is less helpfully to them than to give them the means to get out of their situation. It is the difference between and handout and a hand up.

    Sorry if you already covered this and I missed it: What makes a check from the welfare department a hand up, and a check of the same amount from an individual a handout? If we happen to not be living in a welfare state, is a charitable “hand up” donation a bad thing if it is was motivated by compassion? Why is the “hand up” better if it’s extracted from us at the point of a gun? (Oh god, I just used a Libertarian trope, kill me now.)

    Also, what motivated us to set up a society with a welfare department in the first place? Assuming that it’s not compassion, but some practical reason: wouldn’t our society be stronger if it culled those who found themselves unemployed for long enough to starve?

  58. @flib: Although one can have an overly intellectual or vegetative ethics to be virtuous, that is different from needing intellect or emotion to have a virtuous self. Indeed, it could be argued that virtue could develop in a life form devoid of either emotion or intellect.

    Plants have no discernible sense of emotion or intellect. However, they have clearly developed an irrational sense of morality. Habituated morals don’t require intellect – only the ability to retain information. Handily, genes do just that.

    Habituated morals could include reciprocity, expectations, venality, fairness, guidance, obedience, and moderation. Oh, and tasty fruit…or is that guidance? But guidance to what?!

  59. Although one can have an overly intellectual or vegetative ethics to be virtuous, that is different from needing intellect or emotion to have a virtuous self. Indeed, it could be argued that virtue could develop in a life form devoid of either emotion or intellect.

    Perhaps, though I wouldn’t call it morality as you did, as morality implies intention. But that doesn’t really address the original question of whether emotions can be considered virtues.

  60. So four months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve had surgery and may have another. I’ve been poked and prodded with needles and have had multiple scans and ingested a radioactive isotope and will ingest a whole lot more in the near future as a form of radiation therapy. So as for suffering having some form of virtue…, hmmmmmmm well shit, fuck damn and hell no. My wife and I have become a more patient with each other and we hug more often aside from that no virtues having a pain in the ass (neck) cancer. I will say that the virtues of my medical providers are appreciated and without their sacrifices and desire to profit from their industry I would have a much shorter life.

    So I’ve had shit fuck luck and am incredibly lucky to have a compassionate caring wife. However despite my notion that I and everyone else lack self determination I also gthink the decisions I made, to invest in my marriage relationship, have resulted in current dividends.

    And Nietzsche can get fucked because I’d be much happier, more elevated and empowered had I not developed a cancer. I appreciate the care and compassion of my friends and despise and reject the disingenuous assurances of well meaning sycophants. So if you think you’re being a condescending ass toward someone in need then you probably are and your compassion is more about your need than the other persons. Then again most people are much more willing to discuss the principles of compassion as opposed to actually engaging in acts of compassion.

    Quite a good inquisition Stacey.

  61. Stacey, needs aren’t equal though. Oh we have the same essential requirements of food, shelter, warmth and companionship but beyond that we have wildly different needs. A diabetic needs a different diet and might need insulin injections, James Fox (above) needs medical care to treat his illness, amenics need iron supplements, etc.

    We have individual needs as well as individual abilities. I maintain that compassion is independent of the target and comes largely from the individual.

  62. that doesn’t really address the original question of whether emotions can be considered virtues.

    Emotions can result in virtuous actions, but are not virtuous. For example, aggression is an emotional bravery. Aggression is not a virtue. Nor would be lesser forms of aggression, like apprehension.

    When trying to understand emotions vs. virtue ask if the process is about meeting immediate or your long term needs. Virtue is long term.

    Because emotions can effect the way you relate to your groups, it can have effects on your view of reality (is who you are more important than what you are?), which has an effect on virtue. Affect.

  63. @ansuzmannaz: I disagree that compassion is the chief virtue; I agree with C. S. Lewis (which happens rarely) that the chief virtue is courage.
    That is to say, without courage, no matter how much we may believe that others need and deserve our help, we will not give it to them because we fear for our own well-being, which causes us to place our own needs above those of others, regardless of how irrational our fears may be.

  64. @ZachTP: That’s not entirely true. General disregard for your own personal well-being will do just as well.

    Courage to act is the same trait that allows people to ignore the fear of retribution to steal, rape, murder, torture, and myriad other atrocities beyond counting. It’s a rare day compassion will inspire an act you could call an atrocity without some redefining of words.

  65. @slxpluvs:

    But aggression is regarded as a virtue, at least in certain contexts, like business or sports. In other contexts, like relationships, it’s not.

    If emotions are likely to result in virtuous actions, we regard them as virtuous. It’s all part of the mental connect-the-dots.

    Compare these two sentences: “That person acted with compassion.” “That person was compassionate.” Semantically they mean two different things, but really they’re expressing the same idea.

  66. @Rystefn: Well, those points are both true. But to the first one, such extreme disregard for one’s own well-being usually comes with crippling depression, at least among the cases I’ve seen (I confess to anecdotal evidence here, but I’ve never heard of any relevant studies), which in turn means that it doesn’t help much because the person in question is too busy crying, moping, being ridiculously angry over nothing, etc. I

    As for the second, well, just because something can be abused, does not in any way diminish its value. While courage as a trait is certainly the most likely virtue to be abused, the only way to avoid that possibility entirely is to refuse to act at all, i.e., to exhibit cowardice. More reasonably, I should say that courage is the greatest virtue, but only when used in conjunction with other virtues.

    And although compassion rarely, if ever, directly causes atrocities, it can nonetheless be misapplied with results ranging from inconvenient to fatal. (Examples available on request.)

  67. On the first point, I forgot to say that in many cases, appropriate disregard for one’s own well-being is a textbook example of courage.

  68. I notice that with a few of these threads it seems to take a relatively long time to thrash out what the original question actually means. The answers here depend on the definition of compassion, virtue, the perceived target whether individual or group
    (@Rystefn, mainly) – I wasn’t *trying* to miss the point.

    The linked article says “That compassion is natural to human beings there is no question” and the obvious thought I have is about the group of kids growing up on a desert island. How far would their compassion extend – is it really something that comes naturally to us or is it a bud of compassion where the common social definition is learned during childhood?

    Saying compassion is selfish altruism seems the simple evolutionary answer. Saying virtue is the good of the many seems the star trek answer, and I don’t see that they are incompatible.

  69. @slxpluvs:

    You are freely exchanging the definitions and terms ‘morality’ and ‘virtue’, which is unfortunate as they are not synonyms.

    What do you mean by virtue? What do you mean by morality? I ask, as within the contxt of your post it seems you are using a definition of either that is unfamiliar to me. –Thanks!

  70. @James Fox: Nicely said James. It is difficult to imagine a better example of bringing the discussion from theory to reality. It does make a substantive difference! Good luck to you!

  71. @Rystefn:

    Again, this requires you to cite your source for the definition of courage. Everywhere I look, courage is associated with not only acting in a situation where fear is compelling one not to, it is linked to the action being ‘right’ or ‘heroic’. Unless we can somehow redefine courage away from this standard, we cannot count rape, torture etc. as courageous.

    As we are debating abstracts in the thread, is there not a burden to define the terms used so that all are proceeding from the same footing?

  72. @IanJN:

    If they are expressing the same idea, just using different sentence structure to do so, doesn’t it follow that semantically they are the same?

  73. @IanJN: Aggression might be a culturally beneficial, but I have never seen it as a virtue. If anything, it is a vice; it is not a balance of two traits, but an extreme emotional trait just short of stubbornness.

    Compare these two sentences: “That person acted with compassion.” “That person was compassionate.”

    In the former the person is acting. That means that it is likely a parody of true compassion, or compassion for only specific issues (e.g. compassion of AIDS victims but not hurricane victims).


    What do you mean by virtue? What do you mean by morality?

    Morality to be the durational, rational qualities of an individual. Virtue is the mean of two vices.

    @ZachTP: Magnanimity (compassion in the context of ansuzmannaz‘s post) is the crowning virtue. There is little argument on that. As I posted before, magnanimity is the combination of courage and sportsmanship.
    As far as C.S. Lewis is concerned, I believe that, just as he simplified Universal Morality to Deep Magic for Narnia, he simplified magnanimity to courage instead of compassion. That’s fine because Lewis always seemed to talk about courage as if it were regal, sportsman-like, and magnanimous.

  74. @wytworm: Definition of courage? I’ll refer you to Mirriam-Webster.

    Main Entry:
    cour·age Listen to the pronunciation of courage
    \ˈkər-ij, ˈkə-rij\
    Middle English corage, from Anglo-French curage, from quer, coer heart, from Latin cor — more at heart
    14th century

    : mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty


    courage , mettle , spirit , resolution , tenacity mean mental or moral strength to resist opposition, danger, or hardship. courage implies firmness of mind and will in the face of danger or extreme difficulty

    It takes as much courage to be a villain as to be a hero. Often more.

  75. @ZachTP: Who is to say what is appropriate disregard for one’s own well-being? Regardless, if you refer to the definition of the word above, courage doesn’t apply to disregard for the self, but to the inner strength to carry on despite danger and/or difficulty. It requires no strength to carry on in the face of danger when you do not care about it. One can be courageous while disregarding one’s own well-being, but only when you willfully chose that disregard. If you honestly don’t care, there is no courage involved.

    I’ll concede that complete disregard for the self is often associated with severe depression, but it need not be the only cause, and even if it were, not all severe depression is associated with inaction.

  76. Wow, that’s a lot of comments since my last post. Might as well start at the beginning.


    Yes, the concern for others as equals does play a significant part in moral behavior. Or, at least, it should. I think this is the sort of question that is best answered through a psychological study. (Given a significant part of the brain is given over to feeling what others feel, it would be ridiculous to propose it doesn’t play a significant part. I’d be willing to hunt down that research, if you would like.)

    But, on a philosophical level… firstly, concern obviously plays into the situation. If you aren’t concerned about someone, why would you act as if you did? Furthermore, in order for that concern to arise, you need to recognize the “target” of compassion, as you put it, as an equal. Not in all respects, but in terms of their suffering. You’ve been there, or could imagine being there, so you can see eye-to-eye and respect that feeling. If you didn’t see one’s pain or development as being equal to your past, present, or potential capacity, you’d just say “Oh, shake it off, for god’s sake!” Callous rejection is not a moral action.


    It’s an interesting point you make. Courage is definitely a requirement to act upon compassion. Yet, I would argue that moral courage stems from, or at least depends upon, compassion. Without compassion, one would not have the motivation to sacrifice one’s own well-being for that of others. You could argue that one could act in a self-sacrificial manner for a different reason, such as low self-esteem or pressure from peers, desire for glory, etc. But without compassion these are not moral motivations or actions: they stem from fear or greed instead.

    I’m starting to wonder if this “courage/compassion” debate is really another form of the chicken-and-egg paradox. To me, it seems you can’t have one without the other.

  77. @wytworm: I was unaware of any other definition, to be honest – at least none significantly different in scope or meaning. While courage is a trait often attributed to people we consider heroes, that does not make the trait itself heroic.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button