I mentioned the other day that one of my favorite things about this time of year is that people tend to think more charitably, more compassionately about each other. We apply this especially to friends and family; those that love us back. But this is also a time of year during which we expand our compassion to include some that we rarely think about. This is a good thing, so I appreciate it in spite of disliking much of the commercial co-opting of the seasonal celebration or the religious manipulation that is embedded in the modern mythology.
I also suggested in the last entry that the best thing we might take out of this season is a commitment to carry this greater awareness of the world around us, and our heightened sense of compassion, of empathy, towards everything around us that compromises our world. And so this quote from Arthur Schopenhauer jumped out at me today.
I make a semantic distinction in my own life between ethics and morality, mostly because our culture seems to make a distinction as well. Not that there is anything wrong intrinsically with the concept of ethics; it’s a fine concept when you take the word back to its etymologcal and philosophical roots. But our popular culture has co-opted the word to become something linked to the law, to a subjective approach to ‘right’ or just behavior, and that definition allows those who enjoy manipulating the law or codified ethical standards to their own ends in order to circumvent what is ‘right’. If it’s not illegal, they argue, then it must be okay.
This isn’t the fault of the word ‘ethic’ of course, and discussion of systems of ethics in the world of academic philosophy are still often very pure, but I don’t live in that world. Because I don’t, I prefer the term morality in that it has a different connotation. It refers to an over-arching sense of what is right and wrong in the absence of loopholes and with a more limited subjectivity. And that appeals to me.
Not that morality doesn’t have connotative quandaries of its own… When we think of morality, we often immediately make a connection to religion and, if you know me, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I believe in religion not at all. But I’m more willing to tackle that semantic paradox than I am to try to explain the etymology of the word ethics. And I like the way it ‘feels’ more too. It feels more organic to me, more easily internalized.
So, all of that babble behind us, we come to the quote itself; that the foundational cornerstone of morality is compassion. In other words, if we are capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong, if we are motivated to act according to what is ‘right’, it is because on some level we are compassionate. That is to say, we are willing to think of other humans, of other creatures, of our environment and biosphere, as beings or systems at least as worthy of our consideration as ourselves. Perhaps even more worthy in some instances. That is the essence of compassion: To understand that the ‘other’ is worthy of consideration in any calculation in addition to our own considerations.
That’s the power of compassion. It doesn’t over-rule self-consideration or even suppose that doing that would be appropriate – it just suggests that all of the agents in a given system are worthy of consideration when we are interacting with them. Compassion suggests that we think of others whenever we make choices that might affect them.
What we are generally not taught to think about in today’s competitive society is that compassion can be very profitable for all of the agents in a given system. Compassion tends to promote an atmosphere of cooperation, a desire to seek a win-win solution to any problem. American Nobel Laureate, mathematician and economist John Nash (see the movie A Beautiful Mind) won his Nobel for a mathematical theory and proofs that showed that a cooperative approach involving mutual compromise and cooperation was ultimately more profitable for all involved, including the agent that might have ‘won’ in a more competitive scenario. It just plain makes sense.
And if all of the logical reasons don’t do it for ya, just try it for a while and see how much better you feel about yourself. Use the ‘feel good’ excuse unashamedly. Acting out of a place of simple compassion feels damned good in spite of the minor sacrifices it might entail from time to time, and those sacrifices diminish quickly as you get into it. One of the things that most people enjoy about the Christmas process is giving gifts to others as opposed to getting them. Imagine being able to give consistently, in small and large ways, every day. This doesn’t mean making yourself broke doing it (although I highly recommend that if you want to be really daring), but it can be as easy as the concept of giving dignity to people by treating them with respect.
So please, consider making compassion the cornerstone of your moral, or ethical, system of behavior. Think of others when you have to make a decision; just be aware of how your actions might affect the world around you. Embrace compassion as a way to see the world and watch the world change within your eyes.