MAX SCHELER ON COMPASSION
(Rodrigo Peñaloza, May 2013)
There are two distinct traditions regarding the nature of compassion. One sees it as a positive feature of the moral life. Its exponents are Aristotle, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Schopenhauer and others. What summarizes the thought of these thinkers is precisely the idea that compassion is a manifestation of a kind of sympathy generated by the pain of others, and this sympathy is an inherent property of the soul. The other traditional view is defended basically by the Stoics, among the ancients, and by Nietzsche, among the moderns, and it says that compassion has a negative character and in itself is something bad and useless. Compassion would provoke in the commiserans the very same pain of the commiserate, being this pain a depressive instinct that undermines other instincts and decreases the value of life, so reminds us Abbagnano. Well, the misconception of this thought, as Max Scheler points out, lies in the confusion between emotional involvement and emotional contagion.
Sympathy in general and compassion in particular do not presuppose, as emotional contagion does, emotional identity, that is, the suffering of the same pain. They are rather the recognition of the reciprocal otherness of people. Thus, when person A commiserates with person B’s suffering, this suffering remains, under the emotional perspective of A, only B’s suffering. However, the individual A, due to the relation of compassion, recognizes B as another individual to whom A is equivalent. This apparent detachment of the commiserans from the commiserate’s suffering does not mean a detachment from the person of the commiserate. Quite the contrary, it actually means the recognition of reciprocal otherness, which, if pushed to its limit, corresponds to Love. The brute torturer who hurts another person, contrary to what many might believe, is not immune to the victim’s pain, since that pain causes him contentment, so there is actually an emotive reaction, though towards an opposite direction. From the torturer’s perspective, there is a detachment from the victim’s person, not to the victim’s pain. Therefore, the concept of sympathy in general and compassion in particular are moral categories that unite people by means of the recognition that the other is someone equal.
Compassion is directed to the commiserate as a feeling, it is not just a connection in terms of a judgment or the substantiation of another’s pain. However, for the commiserans, by an act of understanding (by the recognition of the reciprocal otherness), the sufferer’s pain first presents itself as the commiserate’s, and only the commiserate’s, pain, not the commiserans’s, and only then the act of compassion towards the sufferer is born in the commiserans. The affliction of the commiserate and the affliction of the commiserans are distinct phenomenological facts.
I give now my own thoughts about it. Scheler’s idea on compassion highlights the important fact that absence of compassion relates essentially to the neglect of others. It does not require from the non-compassionate person that he or she refrains from pursing his or her own egotistical interests. Indeed, every person pursues her own interests. In particular, thinking otherwise is the most common mistake many criticizers of the liberal construct of homo oeconomicus fall into. They argue that market economy is intrinsically wrong because egoism is bad per se. They don’t understand that cooperative behavior only makes sense if people attach priority to their own selves. What differentiates the compassionate person from the non-compassionate one is the consideration of others. This of course is, on its turn, essentially related to rationality. Reciprocal otherness embodies epistemic interaction in that the compassionate person considers the other as equal to herself and capable of thinking likewise. It doesn’t matter if the other doesn’t think likewise in practice. What matters is that the compassionate person acts as if the other were very much like herself.
A rational person must evaluate her action according not only to short-run, but also — I would say mainly—to long-run consequences. Being cooperative is a rational decision in the long-run and a simple evolutionary argument is enough to give it firm ground. Cooperation requires punishment mechanisms to be implemented as a sub-game perfect Nash equilibrium. That means that punishment should be a rational reaction, in the sense of Nash equilibrium, to deviation from cooperation. Scheler’s position about the rationality of compassion as based on the recognition of reciprocal otherness, alteritas, goes pari passu with rational cooperation as devised by the concept of Nash equilibrium in standard game theory.
Thus compassion is not only a moral virtue, it is essentially an expression of rationality.