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Thill makes an important point in response to my recent post on virtue and pleasure (as well as to a commenter named Bob). The post articulated the view, attributed to Aristotle via Julia Annas and Lorraine Besser-Jones, that the fully virtuous person will take pleasure in virtuous action. Against this position, Thill claims: “Even if you want to kill a dog or a horse in order to put it out of misery and you do it skillfully, it would still be a gross distortion to describe this act as one which gives pleasure to the agent.”

Thill is, I think, getting at an important philosophical debate here: over the value of compassion. Most of us, were we to be faced with the necessity of euthanizing a horse, would feel a painful emotion occasioned by its suffering – that is, compassion. The same would happen if we needed to discipline a child – even if, in either case, we had all the best reasons to believe that this action was the best action to take. But there is still a question: is this feeling a good thing?

Or to put the question more strongly: does a disposition to that feeling make a virtue? Compassion figures strongly on many lists of human virtues, from the Pali brahmavihāras to André Comte-Sponville. But not every such list. Nietzsche, for one, sees compassion as a form of weakness, a pitiful way of exacerbating suffering by adding additional suffering to it. Before him, the Roman Stoic orator Seneca said that compassion

is the sorrow of the mind brought about by the sight of the distress of others, or sadness caused by the ills of others which it believes come undeservedly. But no sorrow befalls the wise man; his mind is serene, and nothing can happen to becloud it. Nothing, too, so much befits a man as superiority of mind; but the mind cannot at the same time be superior and sad. Sorrow blunts its powers, dissipates and hampers them; this will not happen to a wise man even in the case of personal calamity, but he will beat back all the rage of fortune and crush it first; he will maintain always the same calm, unshaken appearance, and he could not do this if he were accessible to sadness.

And if Aristotle does really believes the idea I’ve attributed to him above – that the fully virtuous person takes pleasure in that virtue – then it seems that he, too, must oppose compassion. For compassion, whatever else it is, is painful by definition. The etymology of English com-passion, like German Mitleid, is suffering-with, shared suffering: the suffering, the painful feeling, is what compassion is. It is a feeling characteristic of Christianity – Jesus on the cross, physically suffering for others, seems to exemplify it. And if compassion (or a disposition to it) is a virtue, then that virtue is itself a form of suffering. For compassion to be pleasurable would be a form of masochism. And masochism certainly sounds like an accusation that Nietzsche would level at Christianity; but it doesn’t sound anything like the Aristotle I know.

Martha Nussbaum defends compassion at some length in Upheavals of Thought, and she claims that Aristotle defends compassion. I’m not so sure about this. Nussbaum describes Aristotle’s account of compassion or pity (eleos) in The Fragility of Goodness at some length, and his definition of it does sound a good deal like her own. But there’s a crucial difference: it is nowhere clear from Nussbaum’s account, or from anything I have read in Aristotle, that he considers compassion to be a good thing overall. His long account of it is in the Rhetoric, which gives a descriptive account of the emotions we do in fact feel, not a normative account of what we should feel. It may be that Aristotle agrees with the Stoics in being suspicious of compassion.

But leave aside how we interpret Aristotle for the moment. Turn instead to the constructive question: does the best kind of person, the most virtuous agent, actually feel compassion? It seems to me that the truly ideal person, the perfect person, would not feel compassion; she would do what is best and take pleasure in it because it is best. Other things being equal, pleasure is a good thing; to always do the right thing with pleasure is better than to always do the right thing and sometimes suffer for it. In this I differ strongly from Śāntideva, whose ideal bodhisattva overflows with compassion.

That ideal, however, is only theoretical. In practice – disagreeing with Śāntideva in a very different way – I don’t think there are ideal people. This point is tied to my rejection of the Third Noble Truth, and to my sympathy with chastened intellectualism. Not only are we not ideal now, we’re not ever going to be ideal in this life, and I don’t think we get any additional ones. And for people who aren’t ideal, compassion is very important. When we feel pained at others’ pain, it reminds us that others’ pain is a bad thing; it is a check on the bad actions that we are always all too likely to fall into. That’s why I would generally agree with Thill that the virtuous person is likely to feel pain when putting a dog out of its misery. Not that compassion is necessarily a virtue in itself, but that it supports our other virtues.

Mencius, however, may be taking the opposite approach from what I’ve just said. In section 1A7, he reacts to the story of a compassionate king who could not bear the suffering of an ox that was to be slaughtered for meat, and ordered that the ox be spared (and a sheep put in its place). Mencius praises the king’s compassionate reaction: “Gentlemen cannot bear to see animals die if they have seen them living. If they hear their cries of suffering, they cannot bear to eat their flesh.” But this compassion seems to be a virtue only in itself; it is not a virtue because it helps cultivate other beneficial qualities, let alone because it leads to good results for others. For Mencius’s conclusion is: “Hence, gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen.” Be compassionate – but let the less compassionate do the dirty work.