Why do human beings have a predisposition to compassion? It seems fairly unique and doesn’t manifest in the animal world. People do pick out instances that have been caught on camera where one animal seems to be helping another, but in the main the world of animals has been described as a carnival of carnage, and there seems to be no compassion displayed by the vast majority of creatures as they consume another while it is still alive.
I think we all understand what is meant by compassion. When one human being empathizes with the suffering of another and possibly makes efforts to reduce the suffering of the other, we would probably consider that to be an act of compassion. And of course compassion often extends to sentient creatures other than human beings.
I’ve come across two explanations of compassion that seem to make some sense. One is cold and analytical, and the other calls us to accept that compassion is a quality of character. The analytical approach is taken by Spinoza, and while I have often found it difficult to accept the aloofness of his analysis I actually think he is correct. The other is that of Schopenhauer, who sees compassion as a quality that depends on the character of the individual. I’ll concentrate on Spinoza’s analysis.
For Spinoza the body is where our powers reside. Even what we consider to be “thought” is a feature of the body. By thought he means language and images. The images we form in our mind affect the body and are part of the body. And so when we imagine something life threatening our body responds accordingly – some level of fear and apprehension maybe. This notion of “images” is very important to Spinoza, since an image is part of the body and affects the body. So when we see a creature in distress our brain forms an image that affects our body. The image is life diminishing and as such affects our own emotional state. This is compassion – an emotional state brought about by the image of another creature suffering that makes us feel diminished. As such, all compassion is an attempt to rectify our own pain.
Most people do not become distraught if they accidentally step on an ant. However if ants resembled tiny human beings the response might be quite different. For compassion to arise the creature that is suffering must have some resemblance to us, otherwise the image the mind forms would not make us feel diminished in some way. Animals with big, brown, round eyes evoke a compassionate response because they remind us of ourselves. The eye of a snake doesn’t really do it.
I have to admit that I have resisted Spinoza’s analysis, but I cannot deny the logic of it. All compassion is an attempt to reduce the suffering of a creature that reminds us of ourselves, and as such is an attempt to reduce our own pain.