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Two Kinds of Compassion

Recent stories of those such as Miguel Pajares, who died from the Ebola virus after catching it from those for whom he was caring, seem to provide paradigmatic examples of compassion.

Consider someone who has two options: to join an institution of the kind Pajares was working for, or to begin a lucrative career in the City of London which will enable them to make huge donations to highly efficient charities throughout their working life.

I take it that either choice would be thought compassionate. But according to common-sense morality, the first choice is more admirable. This is partly, perhaps, because it involves greater risk to one’s own well-being. That could be said to be a matter of courage, not compassion. But this is not the full story. Most people would believe that the first choice is not only braver, but more compassionate.

This is mainly because the first choice involves directly helping people oneself. Is that more compassionate than creating opportunities for others to help? This question raises deep and difficult questions about the significance of agency (of what people do rather than merely allow or enable), which in recent years Bernard Williams has done more than anyone to make salient. There is no doubt that most, and probably all sane, people live their lives as if Williams were right to think that their own direct agency matters in a special way. Nor need the kind of agency be complex or intentional. Consider Williams’s case of the driver who kills a child through absolutely no fault of her own. The fact that it was she who was driving the car will matter hugely to her, and indeed to others, such as the child’s parents.

But these sorts of case could be taken to suggest that this concern with agency has its roots in a largely non-rational concern with certain causal relations between me and my body, on the one hand, and the world, on the other. We don’t know enough about that yet, but it could be that experimental psychology and other empirical disciplines will in future be able to explain what’s going on. Of course, this isn’t to say that such an explanation must debunk that non-rational concern. But it may. And this is something anyone thinking of putting themselves in harm’s way so as directly to help others, when they could in fact do more good indirectly, would be wise to ponder.

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12 Comment on this post

  1. Normally I’d agree with you, but in this case this charity work is being done with a huge caveat — that they’re working to spread their religion. This sort of catch-22, that you can be the recipient of our charitable works but have to be inundated with our dogma, makes the morality of the charitable side of their work dubious at best, tainted and worthless at worst. This is why, arguably, secular charities are the best, because they can do their charitable work and not be bogged down with auxiliary intentions.

  2. Fair point, Airin. I was thinking about cases of genuine compassion rather than religious zeal. But better a religious charity than no charity at all, I suppose.

  3. The odd thing is that risking ones well-being when it can be avoided is normally seen as virtuous, while it is reckless to take unnecessary risks. The City-donor is both helping more people *and* avoiding risk to themselves. It seems that adding risk to their life would not make their compassion look better: courage is separate from compassion.

    Maybe if stock markets were *always* in a state of violent shootouts we would regard working there for altruistic reasons a heroic activity: the risk to oneself must be unavoidably linked to the helping activity. But if there were a safer high-paying activity (say insurance) I think most would regard altruistic people going into stock markets reckless while the ones going to insurance prudent.

    My guess is that we mix several forms of compassion (and other virtues) in making these judgements. Self-sacrifice is seen as a powerful marker for real altruism, but we also judge how prudently and efficiently the help is given. This is perhaps a folk-ethical mix of deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics, where we judge the people more highly who score well in all three systems.

  4. @Airin. I think this is a big misunderstanding of most religious charity works, or at least, an old fashioned one. From my own experience religious charity is not done in order to spread a message (or at least it is not done like this anymore), but instead charity is done in virtue of a religious message that inspires people to do so. The religious message is not the final aim of their acts, but what inspires them.

    Interesting post by the way. I think that from the point of view of common-sense morality choosing to join the institution is considered a case of supererogation. I think that referring to the concept of supererogation (another appealing concept in common-sense morality) might explain why joining a charity institution in first-person looks more compassionate than living a safe life (even if a very altruistic one) in London. In the first case, I believe, we perceive the self-sacrifice more valuable than any amount of money one might eventually donate.

  5. In my country we have a notion of “intellectual friendship” i.e. something which develops when two minds are close to each other, enjoy elaborated discussions etc, they don’t have to be friends in popular sense, they may – in contemporary times – even not ever met in reality, just do it over Internet. I am wondering if calling this second action described by you as “intellectual compassion” wouldn’t help to both distinguish it from the first one better, as well as see its full light.

  6. Anthony Drinkwater

    Interesting questions on the concept of agency, Roger, but we musn’t forget that even if there were hundreds of philanthropic city careerists, someone actually has to treat Ebola victims face to face….. Besides, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to indulge in a sort of ethical talent competition on the lines of “I’m more compassionate than you are”.
    But perhaps I’m out of touch and some TV executive is already planning a “Britain’s got compassion” show for the new year.

  7. Interesting post indeed. I agree with your point, also raised by Anders Sandberg, that courage makes no moral contribution to compassion (i.e. compassion without courage is not morally worse than compassion with courage). However, it might still be the case that, when facing situations where people show compassion, we are prone to assess their compassion against their potential motivational effects. So if someone’s compassion motivates one to become courageous, we tend either to attribute it more ‘magnitude’ (i.e. the compassion’s intensity is greater) in virtue of its motivational power.

    Now the tough question is of course: do motivational effects actually manifest compassion’s intensity (so that the intensity of the compassion can be read off from its effects on people’s behaviour) OR do motivational effects simply create an ‘evaluative contrast’ in that it allows us to discern compassion more clearly, in light of its motivational effects?

  8. Thanks, all. A few quick responses.

    Anders: Quite agree with you on courage. There is also the issue of whether risking one’s life inappropriately counts as courageous, even if one thinks the risk is appropriate. That issue arises in my original case, I think.

    Simone: Yes, supererogation is certainly relevant here. But again there is the question of exactly what the duty in question is that one is meant to be going beyond.

    Respondent three: Yes, there is indeed a stronger intellectual (rational?) element in my second kind of compassion, and the lack of strong sentiment actually downgrades it some people (think for example of Charles Dickens’ anti-utilitarian depiction of Mr Gradgrind).

    Anthony: Agree on both points. But if I can do more by funding other people, perhaps that is what is required? I was thinking primarily of first-person cases, in which someone is concerned to help others and is wondering how to go about it.

    Andrews: I suspect you are right about motivation. And the motivation in question is of course judged against risk to well-being. Perhaps the person working in the city wouldn’t in fact risk their life to continue with their project, and in that sense their compassion is less ‘intense’. But does that mean it can’t still be more admirable?

  9. Roger wrote: “I take it that either choice would be thought compassionate. But according to common-sense morality, the first choice is more admirable.”

    To me there’s a huge difference between “compassion” and being “admirable”. Surely the latter is some function of lots of qualities, not just one traditional virtue? Personally, if I were to rank the virtues as things to be admired, I’d put several of them way ahead of charity (courage, patience, diligence…). I’d put charity ahead of chastity for most of us (though for some folks afflicted by various paraphilias chastity might rank far higher – as Rebecca Roache pointed out the other week). But I think one of the mistakes that the conspicuous philanthropy crowd have is that they mistake benevolence/charity for something more rounded and generally indicative of goodness/other admirable qualities than it really is.

  10. Thx Dave. I was speaking loosely — I meant that, qua compassionate, the first choice wld be thought more admirable.

    I think it’s hard to rank virtues without reference to context (including, as you point out, who we have in mind as possessors). But in the world as it is, in the case of most people I’d rank compassion (or perhaps benevolence) as clearly primary.

  11. Someone just sent me a link to the debate in Boston Review started by Paul Bloom on August 26. It is called “Against Empathy”. Might interest some of you.

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