Monday, 30 April 2018

Is There a Rational Basis For Human Compassion?

By Thomas Scarborough
Søren Kierkegaard wrote that Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy was ‘utterly without grace’. It was a fierce condemnation of Kant.
Kant  favoured autonomy—which is defined as the capacity of an agent to act in accordance with objective morality rather than under the influence of desires. Today this is a view which, by and large, drives all of our ethical thinking. The problem, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, was that it lacked compassion. This is true. We place great emphasis on civil rights, the rule of law, social norms, and so on, while compassion is not comfortably accommodated in the scheme. How may it be possible to bridge the gap—rationally? This is the subject of this post.

Ethics is a very human thing. Regardless of the intellectual debate, or the final framing of our ethics private or public, it always originates in the human person. It is, above all, a person's formation of a certain outlook on the world. Aristotle thought of ethics as ‘the golden mean’—the balanced life—where the ‘mean’ is defined as a quality or action which is equally removed from two opposite extremes. Thus ethics represents the achievement of a balance in the human person—between economic and social goals, individual and communal goals, unity and diversity, novelty and tradition, thought and feeling, and so much more. This is our starting point in this post—that it is about balance—of which further discussion would unfortunately deny us room to develop the theme in the available space.

In order to develop the ‘golden mean’, then, it stands to reason that we should weigh a great number of opposites in our minds, not to speak of variations, one against the other. The scope of this is important here: as we do so, we typically have as our goal to balance the world around us, no more and no less. I should say, I have as my goal to balance the world around me—in my own individual mind—so as to develop (I should hope) a balanced outlook on my world. This is true—but it is simplistic. It is a more nuanced view of the process which should help us to open up our ethical thinking to human compassion.

I live in a world of others—tens, thousands, millions, in fact billions of others. As soon as I take these others into account, not merely as numbers, entities, or abstractions, I open up some important considerations. Each of these others carries in their own mind an evaluation of the world—without which my own evaluation of the world cannot be complete. It matters a great deal, not merely that others exist in my world, but that they each arrange the world in their own particular way. Therefore in a sense. we now have uncountable worlds within a world. It is easy to overlook this. These others perceive things, assess things, plan things, and act upon things which are of critical importance to that ‘golden mean’ which Aristotle spoke about. Perhaps this much goes without saying.

However this now introduces a quantum leap of complexity to my task of arranging my world, since now I must combine their world with mine—tens, thousands, even millions of worlds in other people’s minds. Then, too, this all has to do with semiotic codes, which are the means through which others reveal their own arrangement of the world—codes that are all too often all but inscrutable. A smile, a jig, a nod of the head—candles on the table, or a hush in the hallway—President Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, the Bomb under Mururoa, the public appearances or Her Majesty the Queen, and a host of so-called ‘interpretative devices’. In order to have some command of such things, I need to have an intimate ‘feel’ for others.

The existence of others in my world—further, the existence of their worlds within my world, and the ways in which they communicate their worlds with me—means that ethics may often come down to something all too human. I now need to be sensitive to the expressions, gestures, and postures of others, and a great variety of semiotic codes besides—not to speak of the sufferings, desires, and hopes which lie behind them. I need to understand—to borrow a term from the polymath Thomas Browne—‘the motto of our souls’. This represents a rapport which rests to a very large extent on a careful, sensitive reading of the many others involved in my world, whether this involvement is direct or indirectl. Thus we incorporate personal rapport in a rational ethics—which is human compassion.

3 comments:

Martin Cohen said...

Thankk you Thomas, for another thoughtful post. And may I ask you who did your picture?

As usual, I don't really agree with yur position, though. first of all, it is too limited - why do you say "Ethics is a very human thing" - why is ethics not super-human, takinginto consideration, for example, the whole biosphere of all thinking, feeling and suffering beings?

Then I wonder (perhaps perversely) why should humans all count equally? There may be some hose wish is, for example, to make easy money and to do so by driving other people off their lands, or even killing them. It's an age-old tradition, after all. Why should such wishes be counted as important? Yet they are often held as genuine commitments.

Kant, and thanks for that interesting starting quote! would have said that the desire to grab someone else's land is self-contradictory - as you would not want the same policy applied to yourself. Yet even there, the policy is possible to hold, if you say, let the 'strongest' person have what they can take.

Keith said...

Don’t tell Aristotle I said this, but I’ve always tended to think that the ‘golden mean’ is often more a ‘bronze mean’. The reason is that there’s a lot of fertile ground — beneficial thinking — existing even at the extremes. I would suggest that pursuit of the ‘mean’, for the sake of idealised (even fetishised) balance, not uncommonly risks losing out on that rich fertility. The edges might well contain sizable nuggets that themselves suffice in meeting humankind’s purposes — without having to homogenize a little from column A with a little from column B, in the name of the mean. I wonder, instead, if at times an extreme might indeed better serve, than does some arbitrary bronze mean, humanity’s search for truth and a higher good. As for the title’s interesting question — is there a rationale basis for human compassion? — my proposed answer would be humanism. That is, to venerate and work toward humankind’s wellbeing, for its own intrinsic sake, as the highest good — however that may be determined on a case-by-case basis — placing humankind’s wellbeing at the pinnacle of incentives and moral behaviour. Perhaps the latter, in turn, sufficiently feeds into the broader definition of what’s encapsulated here by the expression ‘human compassion’.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Martin and Keith.

If I were to fully answer your questions, Martin, I think I might have solved all outstanding problems of philosophy. What I read here is 'On what basis should my rational basis for compassion be accepted?' The answer to that is: on the basis of balance. And yet more balance. Which means taking all things into consideration, which very much includes sentient humans. And now, implicitly, we have rejected foundationalism. What then justifies balance? On what is it founded? The answer: the inherent relatedness of all things.

I suspect that Keith's suggestion that we 'venerate and work toward humankind’s wellbeing' opens up the same problem. What is humankind's wellbeing? On what is it founded? To press the point, was Lenin seeking humankind's wellbeing? Or Bin Laden?

Now looking at my replies to both Martin and Keith, shall we choose the relatedness of all things, or shall we choose humankind's wellbeing, as our basis for forging a compassionate ethics?

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