Compassion as a moral duty


Gerard Aynsley

In his extensive study, 'A Theology of Compassion', Oliver Davies describes compassion as "the voluntary sharing of the fate of others in order to be present with them in the time of trial"1 and as involving the "interweaving of self and other"2. Also, drawing on the work of Martha Nussbaum, he points out the three-fold nature of compassion as a combination of the cognitive (seeing another's distress), the affective (being moved by it) and the volitional (doing something about it)3. These descriptions help place compassion within the realm of ethics – as a response and quality that ought to be exercised and displayed. Placing 'compassion' within an ethical framework is required if compassion is to be regarded as an important and necessary force in our lives. The alternative is to regard compassion as simply a psychological disposition, or, worse, entirely subject to circumstance and chance and, as such, excuse ourselves from responding with the proper kindness to another person's suffering.

In recent years there have been numerous studies that show up the fickleness of human behaviour; proposing, for example, that being in a hurry or not, or having a little bit of good luck will have more bearing on behaviour than ethical principles4. Similarly, Auckland-based psychologist, Nathan Consedine, takes the rather pessimistic view that compassion is "part of our evolved psychological make-up" and that "caring for people who don't deserve it is inefficient from an evolutionary perspective" (North & South, September 2015, p.61). It may well be that human beings are fickle, but to excuse the requirement for compassion on the grounds of temperament or circumstance seems to diminish something important about our humanity. Human beings are moral beings and, as such, have the capacity to rise up to what ought to be done. This is what ethics teaches us.

The idea that compassion is an ethical characteristic has, traditionally, been rejected. It was seen as too closely aligned to our emotions, and so too irrational. Plato considered feelings of pity to be undesirable and the Stoics saw pity as "a weakness of the mind"5. Kant insisted that acting from sentiment – even if it leads one to do a good deed – has no moral worth, and Nietzsche takes things a step further, regarding compassion as a vice, believing that "suffering is spread through compassion"6. Nevertheless, that we have a duty of care for others is supported by most ethical traditions and with some rethinking it is possible to construct an understanding of compassion – incorporating the cognitive, affective and volitional dimensions – as an important ethical category.

First, as noted by Davies, there needs to be a place for affectivity. There have been some important recent works that develop this theme. Justin Oakley, for example, in "Morality and the Emotions"7explains how the affective dimension does have a place in moral decision-making and because of the relationship between our affective and cognitive capacities we can exercise some control over our emotions.

Secondly, there needs to be a rethinking of the self; a "radical de-centring of the self"8and a letting go of a notion of the moral agent who is traditionally "presented as though they were continuously rational, healthy and untroubled"9. This includes abandoning the notion of the 'sovereign' self who sees him/herself as the source of all knowledge and the source of the moral law and action. From this 'superior' stance the other person is too easily seen as a mere 'object' of my pity. Compassion, on the other hand, requires of me to begin with the other person in his or her uniqueness and to enter into their vulnerability; all the while recognizing that it is their suffering and not my own. As Alasdair McIntyre points out, human vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with our dependence on each other and this is the moral landscape in which compassion is experienced10. This shift in thinking about the self and the other is required if compassion is to be a legitimate ethical standpoint.

To take the other person in their vulnerability as the starting point is to take an imaginative step and so, as David Hume puts it, "to feel a sympathetic motion in my breast, conformable to whatever I imagine in theirs"11. The imagination enables us to grasp what is before us and to also 'see' more than what is materially present – e.g., we may first see a person drop a pile of papers, but the imagination enables us to also 'see' the person's distress and so 'see' the situation as one that requires a compassionate response.

Finally, ethics involves the conscious decision to transcend inclination and to do what is right. To be moral is to rise up and do what is right regardless of whether or not we like the person who requires our help, or we are in a hurry, or whether or not we happen to be having a good day. Unless compassion is something we aspire to as a matter of moral obligation we will never be capable of responding with the kindness and care that is so often needed.

Rev Dr Gerard Aynsley is a parish priest in the diocese of Dunedin. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Monash University in Australia.


[1] Oliver Davies, A Theology of Compassion (London, SCM Press, 2001),12

[2] ibid. xix

[3] ibid. 18

[4] Google, for example, “The Good Samaritan study” or “The dime in the phone booth study”.

[5] cited in Oliver Davies, 235

[6] cited in Oliver Davies, 239

[7] Justin Oakley, Morality and the Emotions (London, Routledge, 1992)

[8] Oliver Davies,17

[9] Alasdair McIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago, Carus Publishing Company, 1999),2.

[10] Alasdair McIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals

[11] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 386.