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Compassion & Peace

Michael Allen Fox advocates the seeking of peace through compassion.

Peace is a vital preoccupation of our time, and indeed of every time in recorded human history. But for a great many people past and present, peace has been and remains not only elusive, but an unknown, or at any rate an ‘unfamiliar’ or lesser-known compared to conflict, violence and war. We can question whether peace, in the fullest sense of the word, exists in more than a very few scattered places on the planet even today. For these reasons we need to dig beneath the surface if we wish to realize the human potential for peaceful behaviour and celebrate the most worthy kinds of humanity residing within us. One path leading in this direction is to investigate compassion. I’ll begin by saying what compassion is and what distinguishes it from anything else to which it might be compared. Then I’ll discuss the relationship between compassion and peace, and evaluate the role compassion must play in realizing a peaceful and nonviolent world order.

Compassion, to most people, is a highly admirable human trait (perhaps it belongs to nonhuman animals as well). Compassionate people are universally recognized as kind, generous, helpful, understanding and accepting. Furthermore, they give of themselves not out of weakness, but from a position of inner strength. Thus compassion may be thought of as a virtue in the Aristotelian sense, which means two things: that it is a disposition we ought to have; and that in order to have it, we need to act compassionately on a regular basis. In other words, compassionate behaviour is a habit we’re taught, and which we must practice in order to reinforce it in ourselves.

Yet however valuable compassion may be, surely it plays only a very small part even in peaceful life? As I shall try to show, this is a shortsighted view. It is unfortunate that relatively few studies of peace single out compassion for special attention, although arguably many illustrate compassionate attitudes and conduct on the part of peacemakers and ordinary individuals, both in times of crisis and as they quietly go about their everyday lives. The moral of the story is that when we seek to understand compassion, we need to think beyond the confines which cause us to dwell too much on rare, iconic figures such as Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not that these examples are unimportant, but we need to look for what lies closer at hand, innately, within each of us.

Compassion and Action

Etymologically, compassion means ‘suffering-with’. This signifies something more than sympathy, empathy or pity, and something less than taking on another’s burden as one’s own. Sympathy is the ability to be affected by, and resonate with, another’s feelings. Empathy involves a more complex understanding which embraces another’s situation, feelings and motives. Pity is a more intransitive form of sympathy which includes sorrow or regret over another’s misfortune. However, none of these other states necessarily implies any action on our part. Compassion is different though, being well defined as: “Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it” (American Heritage Dictionary). I have in mind that, rather than just being infected and weighed down by another’s feelings or plight, and rather than merely understanding and being weakened by sorrow or regret, compassion entails on the contrary, a resoluteness and an active will to change things, to make a difference. According to the Dalai Lama, as quoted by Scott A. Hunt in The Future of Peace (2004), “When that feeling arises, no matter if your own situation is difficult or easy, your mental attitude is, ‘I’m okay’.” The Dalai Lama observes that the change of focus from self to other gives one mental peace and freedom from anxiety, fear, anger and insecurity, which feed off self-absorption. The compassionate individual, then, does not own the other’s suffering, but identifies with the sufferer while maintaining a pragmatic distance from his or her suffering. This enables the consideration: “What can I do to help?”

Compassion is the source of acts of kindness or benevolence – those behaviours that surpass the limits of ego and begin to relate us to the world as an arena of serious concern. This is because the compassionate mind-state opens us to appreciating the other as a person with needs, desires and interests. I think it follows that the sort of non-egocentricity that characterizes compassion isn’t to be equated with self-sacrifice. The compassionate individual may well engage in self-sacrificing acts; but these should not be confused with deeds that show disregard of, or neglect for, one’s own safety or personal welfare, nor with lack of self-love, or considering others only and never oneself. Compassionate behaviour may sometimes require putting some of one’s own needs, desires and interests on hold; and there are of course models of compassionate conduct who do this nearly all the time, such as the exemplary individuals mentioned. But in the more interesting sense, compassion signifies being able to stand in someone else’s shoes, see the world from his or her perspective, understand how others feel and why, regard the good of others as of the same value and importance as one’s own, plus having the drive to help realize this good, even in the face of adversity.

As we see, to speak of compassion presupposes a relationship between two or more sentient beings. This rules out the idea of ‘compassion toward oneself’ which some authors favour. What they are trying to get at is better framed as taking an attitude of acceptance, patience or kindness in regard to oneself.

Compassion and Morality

It won’t be any surprise to hear that compassion is sometimes regarded as the foundation of morality. Great thinkers who’ve espoused this idea include the Buddha and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The Buddha taught that compassion is not only present within each of us, but is also the appropriate response to the suffering we encounter in the world, in sentient beings generally, of whatever species. According to Schopenhauer, the only behaviour possessing genuine moral worth and which is morally praiseworthy is that which springs from compassion. For him, compassion is what kindles fellow-feeling and gives rise to sympathy, mercy, forgiveness, altruism and loving-kindness (see On the Basis of Morality (1840), § 13, 14, 16).

Harking back to the original meaning of compassion, in The Search for a Nonviolent Future (2004), Michael Nagler suggests that “when we suffer with others we grow, and when we close our hearts against them we die within.” In Peace by Peaceful Means (1996) Johan Galtung proposes that compassion assists one “to assess better the consequences of one’s own action… [and] foster a sense of responsibility, for oneself, and for others.”

The creed of compassion, I would suggest, embraces two guidelines: “Do no harm” (known as the principle of nonmaleficence), and “Whenever possible, do good” (the principle of benevolence or beneficence). Naturally, what at first seems so simple gets complicated when we start to analyze it more closely. We can ask, for example, what is harmful and what good, and how far these notions are relative to time, place and individual situations; whether we can conceivably avoid causing harm altogether, or only seek to minimize doing so; whether there are degrees of compassion, and if so, when each is appropriately shown; and whether all obligations can be explained by appeal to compassion and its derivative principles. We can no doubt refine our concepts to address such issues (see, for example, Richard Reilly’s Ethics of Compassion, 2008). However, there remains the daunting and more important question of how to produce compassionate individuals. Perhaps ‘produce’ is not the right word, for the idea of compassion as the source of morality is predicated on the assumption that everyone has the capacity to show compassion and, given the right circumstances, to lead a compassionate existence. So what we’d really need to produce are the conditions that maximize this potential, especially in children. However, this issue of how to make compassion shine forth in the human personality is best left to psychologists, educators and social theorists.

Compassion and Peace

What remains in this brief exploration is to consider the role of compassion in the quest for peace. I’ve argued that compassion is what compels us to extend moral concern and engagement beyond ourselves, but also that it does not imply self-denial or total immersion in the life of the other. Instead, compassion hinges on the realization that we’re all in the same boat. We all share a common existential situation to the extent that humans (and nonhumans) are vulnerable and, at a very basic level, quest after security and an environment in which to flourish biologically and to pursue some form of fulfilment. We are therefore as much in need of compassionate treatment from others as they are from us.

This is not the place to go into a detailed examination of what peace is, but it’s clear that peace requires an absence of ongoing violent hostilities and conflicts (negative peace), and entails some state of equilibrium which enables each to attain the goals of flourishing and fulfilment (positive peace). In Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (2008), David Cortright observes that “Compassion for the stranger is the litmus test of ethical conduct in all great religions. So is the capacity to forgive, to repent and overcome past transgressions. The key to conflict prevention is extending the moral boundaries of one’s community and expressing compassion toward others.” And, as quoted in The Future of Peace, the Dalai Lama says, “Peace is actually, I believe, an expression of compassion, a sense of caring.” Compassion helps us to become fully engaged in trying to solve human problems “without adding any harm to the situation.” Thus, compassion nurtures inner strength and a spirit of generosity and openness (and if necessary, forgiveness) toward others. It stands against the image of humans as naturally and predominantly aggressive, violent, cruel, selfish, greedy, competitive and exploitative. And it helps us envision and create a society that is caring, less conflict-ridden, and more accepting of others in their otherness. Compassion, then, is one of the key components of a peaceful mind-set that enables us to place ourselves within a larger picture of human life and concerns, and to actively involve ourselves in trying to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

I’ll end with a brief anecdote. While working on this article, I stopped in a copy shop and began chatting with the woman who worked there. I told her I was on my way to a conference where I would be speaking on the relationship between compassion and peace. She immediately replied, “They sound like the same thing to me.” I couldn’t help thinking that maybe she got to the heart of the matter and stated the truth in a remarkably succinct fashion.

© Prof. Michael Allen Fox 2010

Michael Allen Fox is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Queen’s University, Canada, and Adjunct Professor, School of Humanities, University of New England, Australia. He specializes in animal and environmental ethics and nineteenth-century European philosophy, and is the author of Deep Vegetarianism, The Accessible Hegel and The Remarkable Existentialists.

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