Compassion as a Means to Freedom

By Friedland, Julian | The Humanist, July 1999 | Go to article overview
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Compassion as a Means to Freedom


Friedland, Julian, The Humanist


In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, compassion considered the root of all aspects of enlightenment. It begins in its simplest form as sympathy and later grows into higher levels of concentration required to achieve the greatest wisdom. Compassion is an emotive tool of governance that, when used appropriately, guides us along the path of experiential knowledge. It allows us to learn from the conditions of others by remaining open to their own perspectives without being distracted by our personal biases of desirous attachments. Hence the exercise of compassion is twofold in that it has a perceptive role while also freeing us from the frustrations that can stem from the attachments of desire.

The Mahayana tradition, as well as that of humanism, views compassion as the primary motivating force behind all ethical decision-making. It is the root of all our other-regarding concerns. As such, compassion is the foundation of philosophy in its original meaning as the love of wisdom. If the love of wisdom meant the ultimate desire for personal gain, wisdom would lose its independent epistemic value of benefiting all beings. Compassion continually directs our attention toward wholesome activities which have inherent value for everyone. In this way, compassion leads us toward wisdom.

Compassion is an affective attitude that can be considered moralistic insofar as it is by nature altruistic. That is to say, it represents one's consideration for the welfare of others. To have developed a compassionate disposition means to have acquired a particular trait of character that most of us would ideally like to share. A compassionate person perceives interests external to his or her own and integrates them into personal motivations. Though almost everyone does this at least to some extent, it always involves a concern that is to some degree other-regarding. Because of this, compassion is sometimes thought of as the foundation of moral value.

Regardless of its proper place in a hierarchical account of the virtues, compassion is cultivated as are all virtuous dispositions. However, because of its altruistic status, our motivations toward encouraging it within ourselves may not measure up to those we have for more obviously self-regarding virtues such as patience, temperance, and courage. While it is apparent that the latter function to our own personal benefit, compassion may seem to work only for the good of others. To pursue the cultivation of a compassionate disposition is seen from this perspective as an external demand that constrains one's personal freedom. Some might think of it as a necessary burden for the benefit of society, while others may exercise it only in the most convenient occasions. This most common view is gravely impoverished. Compassion is, in fact, a cognitive disposition with a certain historical life that actually frees us from our own perceptive constraints.

Compassion is traditionally regarded as a mental state in which one takes the suffering of another as her or his own. This is not to say that one actually feels the pain itself. To feel compassion is to have a sympathetic concern for the condition of another, while engaging in some degree of empathy. Compassion, as I see it, combines these two activities so that one person is able to gain a deeper insight into the inner life of another. It is an emotive feeling that looks into the totality of another's condition because it is motivated by a wholehearted concern for that person's welfare. Such a perception can be of a situation that is in the present, past, or impending future. It takes place whenever we are able to share in any of another's interests in both fortunate and unfortunate situations.

Compassion is deeply rooted in the mental state of affect and may thus be precipitated by any number of different empathic triggers, ranging from witnessing the effects of chronic persistent hunger to feeling the seriousness of a tune.

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