This post examines the virtue of compassion. It is meant mostly to explore what others have learned about this virtue, rather than to give my own opinions about it, though I’ve selected what I found interesting or credible according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about compassion and how to improve in the practice of it.
What is compassion?
If you browse the literature about compassion you’ll see a lot of hair-splitting about what it is: whether it is an emotion or a feeling or an affect or an attitude or a response, for instance. Trying not to get too lost in the weeds, and acknowledging that there are differences of perspective that may be very important in some contexts, here is my stab at it:
Compassion concerns our feelings and actions towards people who are suffering or unfortunate. It has three linked components:
- Take notice of another person’s suffering.
- Become motivated thereby to relieve that suffering.
- Take action with the intent of relieving that suffering.
The first step requires that you become aware of the suffering, which may be a matter of luck (you happen upon someone who is obviously suffering) or one of skill (you discern through subtle signs in someone’s manner that they’re suffering, or you take pains to learn about obscure suffering taking place out of sight). This implicates the further virtues of curiosity, imagination, sensitivity, and sympathy as well as some complex cognitive skills involved in understanding another person’s needs, motives, and emotional states.
The second step distinguishes compassion from mere care-giving (of the sort a person might do professionally or out of duty, without necessarily doing it compassionately). In this step, learning about suffering triggers concern and an urge to relieve the suffering. In some people this happens quickly and subconsciously and seems almost automatic, the way smelling baked bread might make you hungry, or hearing James Brown might make you want to get up offa that thing. People who feel this way may say that they themselves suffer sympathetically with the original sufferer, and this may be part of the motivation for wanting to relieve them. If you feel upset at the suffering you see but are not motivated to relieve it, you may be experiencing “alarm” or “distress” but not the sort of concern that is likely to motivate you to a compassionate response.
The third step involves translating that intention to relieve suffering into action. Compassionate people do this more or less skillfully, but this skill, unless artlessness rises to actual negligence, is usually seen as its own virtue, distinct from compassion which is satisfied by compassionate intent. If in step three you turn away from rather than toward the sufferer, as in an attempt to remove yourself from the suffering and stop being menaced by it, you are probably experiencing something more like “disgust” or “horror” or “contempt” than compassion.
There are a couple of directions that step three can go in. You might comfort the sufferer, for one. This typically involves a characteristic facial expression, vocal tone, and variety of physical touch that suggests and effects comfort, along with reassuring vocal content and maybe efforts to increase the sufferer’s immediate safety and security and their distance from whatever is distressing. The other direction bypasses comfort for problem-solving: you devote your own resources to removing the threat, serving the needs, or otherwise addressing the external cause of the suffering. You might for this reason consider compassion itself to consist of steps #1 and #2, but for compassion to be successfully consummated that it then transition into something like comfort or problem-solving as a distinct but connected activity.
If you want to get an overview of the science around compassion, I found helpful “Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review” Psychological Bulletin 2010 May; 136(3): 351–374 doi:10.1037/a0018807.
There are several other virtues that are closely related to compassion. These are some:
- Care has two meanings that are each components of compassion. First, the sense of “care” in phrases like “I don’t care” — as indicating whether one takes notice of something or is willing to attend to it. Second, in the sense of “to provide care for” which may have connotations of nurturing, protectiveness, provision, and such (but which may be done for motives other than those that activate compassion).
- Concern (and sometimes “worry”) means to take interest in something’s well-being, but may stop short of the action part of compassion.
- If you exercise muditā, you delight in another person’s good fortune, and are pained by their misfortune. You might think of it as the opposite of both envy and schadenfreude.
- Consolation (“comfort”, “solace”, “succor”) is offering comfort to someone who is suffering so as to lessen that suffering, and is one sort of action compassion might prompt. Suffering caused by grief and loss is the specialty of consolation.
- Kindness is less specific than compassion. It is not necessarily motivated by suffering or misfortune, but might be motivated by needs or wants of any sort, or by nothing in particular (“random acts of kindness”).
- Mettā (“maitrī”, “loving-kindnesss”) includes compassion but is broader and also includes things like benevolence, amity, and goodwill.
- Consideration (“thoughtfulness”) is a sort of preemptive compassion in which you imagine possible future suffering of others, with an eye toward avoiding or alleviating that suffering. For example, if you notice someone with bad knees is suffering from standing a long while at some event, compassion might prompt you to go get them a chair. If you know someone who will be attending the event has bad knees, thoughtfulness might prompt you to make sure a chair is on hand for them beforehand.
- Sympathy is understanding the feelings and perspectives of another person, and empathy takes that a step further by attempting to actually feel those feelings and perspectives as the other person feels them.
- Love is a word with many definitions, but in some of its uses it also encompasses compassion.
- Pity is a feeling of regret for another person’s misfortune, sometimes with a connotation of condescension towards the sufferer. (Nietzsche distrusted pity, thinking of it as a sort of contagion by which other people’s suffering infects those around them. He also suspected the motives of people who act from pity, suggesting that they demean and objectify those they pity.)
- Nying je is compassion decidedly without pity or condescension, and with as much of a cognitive as an emotional prompting, though it itself is an emotion. It is an emotional conclusion of a combination of empathy and reason.
- Mercy (“clemency”, “indulgence”, “leniency”) is compassion exercised towards those who are in our power and towards whom we are justified in being (or otherwise inclined to be) punitive or harshly just.
What is compassion good for?
“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” ―George Eliot
Compassion, or one of the virtues that includes or is included in compassion, is part of many virtue traditions from many times and cultures. It is also important in many religious traditions. For example: An interpretation of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus is that it was undertaken from a compassionate desire to feel the suffering of and effect the salvation of mankind; this was also a compassionate sacrifice by God of his own son (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…”). Jesus instructed his followers to be compassionate, even to outsiders (e.g. the Good Samaritan parable). Christians were instructed: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The four noble truths of Buddhism concern awareness of suffering and how to relieve it. The Bodhisattva Vow begins (in one version): “Suffering beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all.” “The compassionate, the merciful” are among the titles of Allah.
Compassion is almost always depicted and described as an admirable trait. Our words for describing compassionate people typically have a positive connotation, and even when describing someone who is compassionate unwisely or to excess (e.g. a “softie” or “pushover”) are not very harsh. In contrast, people without compassion are described by terms like “unfeeling,” “indifferent,” “cold-hearted,” “unkind” that are not neutral but terms of disparagement. So if nothing else, practicing compassion is a ticket to esteem.
Compassion, whatever its instrumental value, is also valued in itself as being one component of a flourishing human life. In this view, to human well is to human compassionately.
Compassion is also presumably good for the target of the compassion: the person or persons whose suffering the compassionate person aims to relieve. (Though this is conditional on the skill of the compassionate person, and can be complicated by things like codependency in which compassionate-like behavior can be harmful.) Sometimes compassion is described as being (or as best being) purely altruistic.
On the other hand, some people are skeptical of altruistic virtues, or suspect that traits like compassion emerged from a “slave morality” that stunts people who identify with it. One variety of this criticism of altruistic compassion is this: if we place too much value in helping the least fortunate people tread water, we will fail to devote ourselves to grander pursuits and so will waste our potentials.
People who practice compassion do not always describe it as being altruistic in the sense of being self-denying or self-sacrificing. One interpretation of compassion is that the compassionate person starts at baseline, feels sympathetic suffering, then tries to relieve that suffering so they can return to baseline. If you interpret compassion as what happens before you act (stopping at step #2: the sympathetic feeling toward another person’s suffering), compassion seems like it should be unpleasant. But compassionate people often report that when they behave compassionately this brings them above baseline. Perhaps a better way of conceptualizing this would be to say that as a compassionate person helps someone rise from a sorrowful position to a better one, the compassionate person can ride on their coattails and improve their own state as well. If so, compassion has benefits both for the relieved sufferer and for the person providing the relief: the practice of compassion is inherently rewarding.
Compassion also seems to be a crucial ingredient in other things people value, such as friendship, romantic relationships, and parenting. Also: If we live in a culture in which we expect that people behave compassionately, this is a sort of social safety net, which can make us feel more secure in taking risks, or feel less insecure about old age and debility.
The mechanism of reciprocal altruism in humans suggests that by offering compassion you are more likely to receive the benefits of compassion from others if you are in need, so it is also potentially valuable to the compassionate person in this way.
How did compassion happen?
In 1759, philosopher Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he argued that the human moral feelings that prompt us to actions are not the results of applying abstract ethical rules, but that our ethical rules are post-hoc heuristics approximating preexisting moral emotional reactions. Smith thought these moral emotions were implanted in us, and were calibrated to be they way they are, in order to help us survive, thrive, reproduce, and raise children effectively. Smith didn’t know it, but he had written a book of evolutionary psychology.
Darwin’s Origin of Species came a century later (followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals), and helped to fill in some of the blanks about how these moral emotions came to be implanted and calibrated.
Compassionate-seeming behavior is found in many other species as well. In animals that are born unable to fend for themselves, for example, the pattern of the child crying out in need or distress, which causes the parent to attend and try to relieve the distress, is common and unremarkable. Less prominent but also observable (and often adorable) in other animals is compassionate-seeming behavior directed towards non-offspring (even occasionally non-relatives and members of other species).
Speculation and “just-so stories” abound concerning how compassion in humans and other animals may have evolved. Mechanisms like “kin selection” and “reciprocal altruism” have been suggested as ways in which such altruistic-seeming behavior could emerge through natural selection. Darwin himself considered a “group selection” explanation.
Human children are helpless, and then immaturely inept, for twice as long as any other primates. From what we know of other extinct hominids, this is the result of a process of increasingly delayed maturity (Australopithecus afarensis matured earlier than Homo habilis who matured earlier than Homo erectus, who matured earlier than Homo sapiens). This could have necessitated a dramatic expansion in the capacity for and an increased prioritization of compassion in human parents and other kin. This in turn may help to explain why human compassion is so important to us and why it seems to have expanded to extremes that seem hard to justify by evolutionary pathways (humans may feel compassion for people on the other side of the world, for fictional characters, for the souls of the dead, for members of other species, etc.) Perhaps in humans it was more evolutionarily important that we become more compassionate quickly than that we do so in a precisely-targeted way.
Because for human children to survive and thrive they have to have compassion shown toward them often and for a long period of time, the amount of compassionate behavior we see modeled for us is greater than it would be otherwise. To the extent that our behavior is based on mimicry of what we observe, therefore, this could also have caused a more general expansion of compassion: amplifying any less-dramatic effects of genetic evolution. Human children apparently begin to show behavior characteristic of compassion (e.g. soothing others in distress) as early as age two.
Displaying compassionate behavior might be a good way of advertising to potential mates that you have what it takes to care for children competently (it also advertises that you have enough surplus resources that you can afford to behave altruistically), so sexual selection may have also been a factor both in expanding compassion and in increasing the esteem people feel for the compassionate.
Human susceptibility to compassion has not gone unnoticed by other species: Housecats seem to have learned to make sounds, specific to their interactions with humans, that mimic the sounds of needy babies and prompt us to exhibit compassionate behavior towards them.
Here are a few resources on the evolution of compassion:
- Frans de Waal: “The Evolution of Empathy” Greater Good Magazine (his book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved goes into this in more depth).
- Dacher Keltner: brief TEDx video and longer talk on the evolution of compassion.
- Robert Wright: The evolution of compassion (TEDSalon video).
Compassion in its natural form in humans is not impartial. We tend to be more or less likely to exhibit compassion towards people and to be willing to exert more or less effort on their behalf based on a variety of factors. These factors have started to come under scientific investigation, and results so far suggest that we have some peculiar heuristics baked in. For instance:
- As the number of people we learn are suffering increases, our willingness to help them seems to decrease. For example, people seem to be more willing to donate more money to save the life of one child than to save the lives of two children.
- People are more apt to feel distress about and to help a particular identified individual victim than an anonymous one, and more also than one particular victim if that victim is identified as being part of a larger group of victims.
- We are more apt to offer help to a certain number of needy people if that number is closer to the whole number of people in need. In other words, if you can help five of eight starving refugees you are more likely to do so than if you can give just as useful help to five of eighty.
- How much we feel compassionate towards members of another species correlates to how recently our species and theirs had a common ancestor.
In general, our willingness to behave compassionately to others seems to fall off as they become more distant from us in terms of family-relation, geographic proximity, cultural background, appearance, language, and so forth.
People who see this as a flaw in our moral reasoning say that we should try to flatten this curve such that we would exhibit as much compassion for people who are more different and distant from us — that we should give compassion “to each according to their need” rather than according to accidents of proximity or similarity. This is sometimes termed “expanding the circle of moral concern” and the influential ethical philosopher Peter Singer has done excellent philosophical and rhetorical work in that area.
People may also withhold compassion from an expectation that someone else will step in to do so in their place. The bystander effect takes hold when multiple people are able to offer assistance but each of them waits for someone else to take the initiative, and as a result the assistance never takes place. People sometimes also fail to respond compassionately out of a vague sense that “the government” must have some department that is responsible for doing it instead of them.
Being worthy of compassion
Another way we sometimes ration our compassion is by withholding it from people whose suffering seems self-inflicted or deserved. The suffering of people who seem to have earned it or brought it upon themselves can even lead to responses that seem to be the opposite of compassion: rather than feeling sympathetically sad, we feel joyful schadenfreude; rather than offering soft words of reassurance, we laugh. We may even feel the urge to inflict suffering on people we think have earned it.
(Similarly, Aristotle paired compassion with indignation and thought they were both worthy feelings. Compassion is taking pain in another person’s unearned misfortune; indignation is taking pain in another’s unearned good fortune. Both situations are an unhappy awareness of an unjust imbalance.)
We also may resent showing compassion to people who do not reciprocate by showing us gratitude, or who demonstrate a lack of compassion themselves.
One reason why we might temper our compassion in these ways is that it discourages people from manipulating compassion in order to be parasitic.
Whether our sense of compassion ought to be tempered by our sense of justice in these ways is controversial. Some who have considered the subject think that compassion ought to be blind to questions of desert or justice, or at any rate should operate independently from such questions:
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” ―Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The “effective altruism” movement takes for granted that our compassion ought to be impartial and altruistic in the way it relieves suffering, and tries to make it more efficiently so.
The efforts to “expand the circle of moral concern” that I mentioned earlier are part of the effective altruism project. It also tries to promote more compassionate behavior: suggesting that there is so much tractable suffering in the world that anyone with excess resources can and ought to do the most good by devoting the bulk of those resources to addressing the suffering. Finally, the effective altruism movement diligently pursues the question of how to reduce the most suffering per amount of effort, so that if you follow their advice you will get the most bang for your buck.
There are similarities and differences between effective altruism and compassion. Effective altruists try to become aware of suffering; once aware their concern prompts them to help; and then they try to offer genuine help to alleviate the suffering. That seems like it checks all the boxes. And yet in many ways it does not resemble human compassion as it is usually encountered and practiced. It is relatively unemotional and affectless, almost never involves physical touch or soothing, and only rarely evokes the sort of cathartic relief of having immediately helped someone that face-to-face compassion offers. If you throw out that much bathwater, it’s best to double-check for the baby. Depending on how you look at it, effective altruism might be a peculiarly rational and generous form of compassion, or it might be something different: perhaps a particularly rational and compassionate form of generosity.
One thing effective altruism highlights is that unless we apply rational scrutiny to our generously compassionate impulses, we may not actually be very helpful. This can certainly happen when we donate money to wasteful or grossly suboptimal charities, or donate our time in some something-a-thon that produces few practical results for all of the feel-good hoopla. Well-meaning compassionate interventions can backfire if they are not critically scrutinized (for example, a food relief program that undercuts and thereby retards the growth of markets that can supply food more reliably). But we can also be ineffective or counterproductive in our more personal compassionate endeavors. A parent who rushes in to rescue a child from every mishap and scrape may be “overprotective” in an ultimately unhelpful way. It is good to help a person who suffers, but also good for a person to develop the skills to handle suffering on their own. Compassion is much more helpful if it is served with a healthy dose of discernment and wisdom. Otherwise, well, at least your heart is in the right place, for what that’s worth.
“Self-compassion” is a term that describes a way of processing one’s own suffering in a way that is analogous to how one might show compassion for someone else. This would be in contrast to wallowing in the suffering, suppressing/denying it, or amplifying it, and it is supposed to be a healthier way to go about it.
How to become more compassionate
“This is no easy task… there is no blessing or initiation — which, if only we could receive it — or any mysterious or magical formula or mantra or ritual — if only we could discover it — that can enable us to achieve transformation instantly. It comes little by little, just as a building is constructed brick by brick or, as the Tibetan expression has it, an ocean is formed drop by drop.… Nor should the reader suppose that what we are talking about here is the mere acquisition of knowledge. It is not even a question of developing the conviction that may come from such knowledge. What we are talking about is gaining an experience of virtue through constant practice and familiarization so that it becomes spontaneous. What we find is that the more we develop concern for others’ well-being, the easier it becomes to act in others’ interests. As we become habituated to the effort required, so the struggle to sustain it lessens. Eventually, it will become second nature. But there are no shortcuts.” ―Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama)
Because compassion is a complex, compound process, there are many ways it can fail. For example: You might not become aware of suffering (e.g. via difficulty in reading others, narcissism, inattentiveness), you might not be moved by the suffering of others (indifference, pitilessness, egocentrism), or you might not be moved to act effectively (neglect, lack of confidence, histrionics). If you struggle with developing compassion, therefore, it may be helpful for you to examine yourself closely to try to determine if one of these steps in particular is your weak link or if you typically fall short in a particular way.
If you have difficulty becoming aware of suffering, for example, you might try techniques like active listening or you might try change how you greet people: with a “how are you doing?” that sounds (and appears, and is) more genuinely inquisitive. You could also volunteer for a hospice or homeless shelter or in some other way put yourself into a situation in which human suffering is likely to become apparent to you if you are attentive. There are some tools out there designed to help people become better at reading the emotions of others in their facial expressions and body language, and these may help you to become more aware of suffering if this is something that does not come to you naturally.
Even if you do not feel as though you struggle to become aware of suffering, it can be useful to work on this area, as you sometimes have to be very astute to see suffering in some people (some people hide their suffering well; some symptoms of suffering masquerade as other things).
Some people deliberately avoid becoming aware of suffering because they find it upsetting or frightening. This habit makes it more difficult to practice compassion.
“Shun not the scenes of human misery, nor flee from the abode of distress and poverty; for if we desire to be capable of having compassion for the sufferings of an unfortunate brother, we must be acquainted with the various scenes of misery which this world exhibits.” ―Baron Knigge
If you do not find the suffering of others to be upsetting — if it does not prompt you to deviate from your routine — the typical advice for fixing this failure mode involves using your imagination: “Put yourself in their shoes.” Take some time to imagine that you are suffering what they suffer, as evocatively as you are able. If you deliberately kick-start your empathy in this way when you notice suffering, eventually it may come to life on its own without such deliberate attention.
There are varieties of meditation, such as karuṇā meditation, mettā meditation, or the “exchanging self and others” variety of meditation, that use imagination to evoke and strengthen compassion in the meditator.
You may be afraid of being compassionate: afraid of being contaminated by another person’s suffering; afraid that if you step forward to help someone you will be taking on more of an obligation than you are prepared to meet; afraid of initiating what amounts to an intimate relationship with an unknown quantity; afraid of getting trapped in a pity-party; afraid of being taken advantage of; afraid that if you try to help you will bungle things.
If fears like these are obstacles to your practice of compassion, you may want to work on courage more generally. Becoming skillfully assertive in setting personal boundaries can also remove some of these threats.
To learn how to strengthen compassion in yourself and others, it might be worth paying attention to the ways in which institutions intentionally try to degrade compassion. For example, compassion can interfere with the pursuit of certain military goals. If you feel compassion for people, you may be reluctant to kill them, maim them, torture them, orphan their children, destroy their property, or participate in other such important aspects of national policy. Much deliberate erosion of compassion of this sort exploits the biases described earlier: it highlights and exaggerates how different people of the enemy nation are from you, and how deserving they are of whatever suffering you are meant to inflict on them.
A (stereotypically masculine) failure mode in acting compassionately is to reflexively try to fix the problem that is causing the suffering rather than trying to comfort the person suffering. This is not always the wrong thing to do, but there are a couple of reasons why over-reliance on this sort of response is a problem: First off, usually the suffering person is much more aware of their situation and of the pros and cons of their possible responses to it than the responder is. When the responder compassionately makes obvious suggestions for (or attempts at) fixing the problem, this can be seen as condescending and insulting (“if it were that easy, I wouldn’t be in this fix”). Secondly, there are many situations of suffering that cannot be fixed, but must simply be endured. These too call for a compassionate response, but if the only sort of response you know how to offer is a “let’s fix it” response, you’ll be caught flat-footed.
A more subtle mistake is to try to help the suffering person the way you would want to be helped if you were in their situation. While such a response is probably a good first approximation for how you can best help, everybody is a little different, and you should recognize that what would be helpful for you might not be for everyone. It is more effective to be flexible and be willing to adjust your methods of assistance depending on how they are received.
“Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” ―George Bernard Shaw
While I was researching this post I also came across compassion it which says it has “Stanford-trained compassion facilitators” who lead seminars on boosting compassion. I don’t know any more about it than that.
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872), in the words of the character Dorothea Brooke
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
See, for example, P. Condon & L. Feldman Barrett “Conceptualizing and experiencing compassion” Emotion (2013)
Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871)
See, for example, David Grimm, “Cat Purrs Evoke Baby Cries”, Science (13 July 2009)
D. Västfjäll, P. Slovic, M. Mayorga, & E. Peters, “Compassion Fade: Affect and Charity Are Greatest for a Single Child in Need” PLoS ONE (2014)
Tehila Kogut, & Ilana Ritov, “The ‘Identified Victim’ Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual?” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (July 2005)
D. Fetherstonhaugh, P. Slovic, S. Johnson, et al. “Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (1997)
A. Miralles, M. Raymond, & G. Lecointre, “Empathy and compassion toward other species decrease with evolutionary divergence time” Scientific Reports (2019)
For example Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save (2009).
Aristotle, Rhetoric, book Ⅱ, chapter 9
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years” Letters and Papers from Prison (1942)
See Susan David, “How to be kinder to yourself” ideas.TED.com (21 February 2020) for a brief introduction to the idea.
K.D. Neff “Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself” Self and Identity (2003)
K.D. Neff & C.K. Gerner “A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program” Journal of Clinical Psychology (2013)
Tenzin Gyatzo, Ethics for the New Millennium (1999)
Adolf Freiherr von Knigge, Practical Philosophy of Social Life (1788), chapter ⅩⅣ
S. Salzberg Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995)
B.L. Fredrickson, et al. “Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2008)
(note: I don't consider myself to be part of EA, though I do often make altruistic choices and I do believe that my perception/expectation of others' satisfaction is part of my utility function).
Thanks for this - it's a useful summary of one view of compassion. I'm not sure it encapsulates my view. I think the premise
Is far too limited. Compassion includes noticing statistical and future-person suffering, not just another extant person's. And I think it also should have a wider view of "suffering" than many assume - it includes failure to accomplish goals and missed opportunity for joy as much as direct experience of frustration or pain.
We're all in the same game, just different levels. Dealing with the same hell, just different devils.