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A Brief Sketch On Compassion

by Michael W. Austin

An Ongoing Series of Sketches from the Contributors of Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, co-edited by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). More info can be found at www.beinggoodnews.com.

Compassion is in. Celebrities champion compassionate causes. Bono, U2’s lead singer, has been instrumental in bringing attention and aid to those in Africa who suffer deeply due to grinding poverty, AIDS, and unfair trade policies. Other celebrities such as Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Tom Brady have joined in this fight through their involvement with the ONE campaign.

A Christian account of compassion will focus on the sick and the poor. our moral exemplar in this regard is of course Jesus Himself, who was moved with compassion at the suffering of those He encountered in His earthly ministry (Matthew 9:35-37; Mark 6:30-44). However, compassion will also be relevant to our relationships with family, friends, and others who are perhaps suffering in other ways.

Many of us tend to think of compassionate actions as good things to do, but not in the sense that we are morally required to do them. We often think of compassionate acts, especially as they relate to the poor, as supererogatory acts of charity.[1] My claim is that exemplifying the virtue of compassion in our everyday lives is a matter of justice, rather than an optional matter of charity. The basic reason that compassion is an obligatory matter of justice, apart from the biblical injunctions, is that human beings have great value as image-bearers of God. Genesis 1:27 states that humans are created “in the image of God”, but what does this mean? A variety of answers have been given to this question, but for our purposes, it is enough to point out that being made in God’s image means that we are God’s representatives, and that we are representational of who God is.[2] We are free, relational, morally responsible, self-conscious beings. We reflect and represent who God is as human persons made in His image. God is the locus of ultimate value, and we, as human beings created in His image and to reflect His character, share in that value. This has important implications for ethics generally, and the virtue of compassion specifically. Given that all human beings are made in the image of God, all human beings possess a basic dignity, a fundamental value such that they have a conditional right to have their basic needs met.[3] Hence, in some contexts, especially when a person’s basic needs are at stake, showing compassion is an obligatory matter of justice rather than an optional matter of charity. Or so I believe.

Interestingly, the term “compassionate” has a verb form. Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) was an influential British pastor, theologian, and philosopher, and his writings still receive the attention of philosophers today. In a sermon on compassion, Butler observes that when we

rejoice in the prosperity of others, and compassionate their distresses, we, as it were, substitute them for ourselves, their interest for our own; and have the same kind of pleasure in their prosperity and sorrow in their distress, as we have…upon our own.[4] 

This quotation from Butler is pregnant with meaning and insight, but note how he speaks of compassion. We are to compassionate the distresses of others. True compassion includes assisting others who are in distress.[5] For Butler, as for Christ, compassion necessarily involves action.

As an action that we engage in, compassion often involves sacrifice. Perhaps it requires that we give up some of our comfort, our time, or our talent. As Butler pointed out, it involves taking the distress of others to be as significant as our own distress. As such, it involves a turning away from what philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) called “the dear self”.[6] We often find self-love at the bottom of much of our actions that otherwise appear to be morally right. This can also be true regarding acts of compassion. However, even if this is descriptively true of human beings and our motives, this does not count against the claim that we ought to act out of a genuine and unselfish concern for others. Nor does it entail that we shouldn’t seek to take the flourishing of others to be as or more important than our own. This is demanding, to be sure, but it remains within our reach, not only as we seek to alleviate the distresses of the poor and the sick, but also those closest to us.

Further Work: Questions:

  • The claim that compassion is in some sense a duty, or that others have a right to our compassion at least sometimes, is controversial. What arguments for and against such a claim are there, expanding on the suggestion above that human dignity as bearers of the image of God justifies such a claim?
  • How do we engage in self-deception which undermines compassion? What sorts of practices at the individual and community level foster the development of compassion?
  • In what ways is compassion relevant to the parent-child relationship? Marriage? Friendship? Employer-employee? Teacher-student? Believer in Christ-non-believer?

Michael W. Austin

Eastern Kentucky University

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