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Friday, July 14, 2017

The Moral Value of Compassion

Alfred Archer
Forthcoming in Justin Caouette and Carolyn Price (Eds.) The Moral Psychology of Compassion


Many people think that compassion has an important role to play in our moral lives. We might
even think, as Arthur Schopenhauer (2010 [1840]) did, that compassion is the basis of morality.
More modestly, we might think that compassion is one important source of moral motivation and
would play an important role in the life of a virtuous person. Recently, however philosophers such
as Roger Crisp (2008), and Jesse Prinz (2011) and psychologists such as Paul Bloom (2016) have
called into question the value of sharing in another’s suffering. All three argue that this should not
play a significant role in the life of the morally virtuous person. In its place, Crisp endorses rational
benevolence as the central form of moral motivation for virtuous people.

The issue of whether compassion is a superior form of motivation to rational benevolence is
important for at least two reasons. First, it is important for both ethics and political theory. Care
ethicists for example, seek to defend moral and political outlooks based on compassion. Carol
Gilligan, for instance, claims that care ethics is “tied to feelings of empathy and compassion” (1982,
69). Similarly, Elizabeth Porter (2006) argues in favour of basing politics on compassion. These
appeals are only plausible if we accept that compassion is a valuable part of morality. Second, the
issue of whether or not compassion plays a valuable role in morality is also important for moral
education. Whether or not we see compassion as having a valuable role here is likely to be largely
settled by the issue of whether compassion plays a useful role in our moral lives.

I will argue that despite the problems facing compassion, it has a distinctive role to play in moral
life that cannot be fully captured by rational benevolence. My discussion will proceed as follows. In
§1, I examine the nature of compassion and explain how I will be using the term in this paper. I
will then, in §2, explain the traditional account of the value of compassion as a source of moral
motivation. In §3, I will investigate a number of challenges to the value of compassionate moral
motivation. I will then, in §4, explain why, despite facing important problems, compassion has a
distinctive role to play in moral life.

The penultimate version is here.