Morality, Ethics, and Love, Philosophy is for Everyone

The Ethics of Compassion

The ethics of compassion is one type of ethical code, and it’s important to act according to an ethical code.

In the absence of a such a code, we tend to act according to instinct, passion, impulse, tradition, egocentric interest, or peer pressure.

Most of these influences are not evil in themselves.

However, if they are not regulated by any higher principle, they easily encourage us to cater to our worst, most irrational and chaotic instincts.

But when we follow an ethical code, it helps us avoid these pitfalls and strive for a higher good both for ourselves and others.

If you are interested in learning more about ethical codes and why everyone needs one, you might like these posts I have written:

Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code
How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues

Also, How to Cultivate a Good Will
How to Maximize Happiness and Minimize Pain

In this post, I want to examine the ethics of compassion.

Such an ethic specifically addresses the issue of human suffering. Therefore, it is extremely helpful for the human condition, given that all of us face suffering at some point in our life.

Compassion ethics are best expressed in the teachings of Buddha who lived during the 5th century BC. Buddha was born into a wealthy family in what is now modern-day Nepal.

All drawings and paintings in this post are by Shelly P. Johnson (me).

He was, in fact, a prince. And when he was young, he lived a sheltered and luxurious life inside his family’s palace walls.

And then one day he went outside the palace walls and encountered profound suffering for the first time.

He saw it in the faces of the sick, aged, and impoverished people outside the palace gates.

This is a drawing is inspired by a number of different pictures of buildings in Nepal I looked at in the course of researching this post.

He realized for the first time that everyone must face suffering and learn how to deal with it wisely and effectively.

The experienced moved him so profoundly that he renounced his luxury. And he dedicated his life to, among other things, understanding how to deal with suffering and achieve peace.

I had the privilege of studying and teaching Asian philosophy in grad school. The Sayings of the Buddha, one of the books I taught from, was really helpful to me.

Here is a recent article I wrote for Tiny Buddha about it: How Mindfulness Helped Me Become My Own Best Friend

This was the beginning of the philosophy we know as Buddhism.

And I think it is helpful to understand that while some people practice Buddhism as a religion, Buddhism can just be practiced as a philosophy of life.

And in fact, many Buddhists do not hold strong beliefs about God or the afterlife. (See sources at the end of this post for more about this).

Instead, like the Buddha, they focus on how to deal with suffering effectively.

That is why many Christians, including the late Thomas Merton and bell hooks (as well as this theology professor) believe that Buddhism helps them better understand and live their own faith.

You can read more here about the difference between Buddhism as a philosophy and Buddhism as a religion. Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion?

The Heart of Buddhism

At the heart of the Buddha’s teachings is the Four Noble Truths, which pertain to how we handle suffering. (See sources at the end for reading more about key buddhist principles.)

The Buddha believed that when we deal with suffering ineffectively, we increase our own suffering and the suffering of those around us.

He also believed that if we want to work effectively with suffering, we needed to understand that the Four Noble Truths.

Here the Four Noble Truths:

One: The Nature of Suffering

The Buddha teaches that life is suffering. However, that doesn’t mean that life is horrible. Nor does it mean that we should take up a hopeless and fatalistic view towards life.

And in fact, some of the happiest, most joyful people I know in the world like the late Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are Buddhists.

(The Dalai Lama, in fact, refers to himself as a professional laugher!)

When the Buddha says that life is suffering, he means that no one in life can escape difficult and tragic experiences.

These are experiences like mistakes, failure, change, loss, sickness, and ageing.

In addition, most of us experience at least some instances when people treat us badly or judge us unfairly through no fault of our own.

Because of such injustice, at one point or another, most of us (at least temporarily) agree with Sartre: L’enfer, c’est les autres. (“Hell is other people.”)

Sartre says this in his play “No Exit”.

This saying refers to that aspect of the human condition in which we continually find ourselves beholden to people’s scrutiny and judgment.

All these experiences are a common part of human existence. And while we can certainly avoid some suffering through strategic choices, no human being can avoid all suffering.

The Buddha tells us we must face, acknowledge, and learn to accept this truth.

And this can be hard because acknowledging the inevitability of suffering makes us feel vulnerable. And feeling vulnerable is scary.

You can read more about vulnerability here:

How Embracing Vulnerability Changed My Life

Here’s a post that explains why it is sometimes difficult to be compassionate to ourselves: The Importance of Compassion

Two: The Cause of Suffering

Although some suffering is unavoidable, the Buddha distinguishes between two kinds of suffering.

There is the suffering natural to human existence, and then there is suffering that we cause by how we, in turn, respond to our pain.

In other words, the way we respond to our suffering can help us deal with it effectively. Or it can make things much worse.

For example, when we refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of suffering, we can become perfectionists. Or we can become obsessed with controlling our lives.

In doing so, we make ourselves and others anxious, angry, and depressed. Such attitudes can also contribute to self-loathing.

On the other hand, other people are very aware of their suffering. But don’t know how to deal with it effectively.

Therefore, they descend into addiction, despair, and other harmful behaviors.

This is a result of folks getting lost in their own suffering. (And by the way, many of us engage in such behavior at one point or another.)

So, when we understand that dealing with suffering unskillfully brings more suffering into our life, we start to understand the cause of suffering.

You can read more about related topics here:

Dealing with Our Dark Side

Three: The Cessation of Suffering

The Third Noble Truth follows intuitively from the second one. If we can increase or decrease our own suffering by tending to it effectively, then a question arises.

“How can we learn to decrease our own suffering and the suffering of others by tending to it effectively?”

The Buddha teaches us that when we learn to work effectively with the normal suffering in the world, this increases our peace and joy.

And this leads us to the Fourth Noble Truth.

Four: The Path to End Suffering

There is a path out of unnecessary suffering (the suffering we cause ourselves). Compassion is essential this path.

Our word compassion comes from two Latin words, cum and patior, which literally mean suffering with.

When we have compassion, it helps us understand that everyone suffers.

Furthermore, it helps us understand that most of us have not learned good techniques for dealing with suffering.

Understanding all this encourages us to have compassion towards ourselves in our our own suffering so we don’t unnecessarily increase our own suffering and the suffering in the world.

And furthermore, we can learn to have compassion on others, even when they behave badly.

We can do this because we realize that bad behavior is often an ignorant response to suffering in the world.

And by the way, understanding bad behavior doesn’t excuse bad behavior. Bad behavior still requires reprimand.

But understanding always makes the world a kinder more creative place.

I’ll write more about compassion soon.


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You can read more about the Buddha’s ideas in his own words in this book:

The Sayings of the Buddha

You can find teachings about the Four Noble Truths in the chapter titled “The Buddha’s Final Nibbana”.

And you can read more about the Buddha’s teachings on the afterlife in the chapter titled, “The Fruits of the Ascetic Life.”

I have also found these books and video by modern buddhist writers or writers influenced by Buddhism very helpful.

Thich Nhat Hanh, You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

Also, Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding

Thich Nhat Hanh, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart

Cheri Huber, There is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate

Also, Cheri Huber, The Key: And the Name of the Key is Willingness

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

PBS Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason, Pema Chodron (2006)

10 thoughts on “The Ethics of Compassion”

  1. Hi Shelly. When I stumbled across the Four Noble Truths a little over a decade ago it all seemed to make sense, not as a religion (I don’t do “gods”) but as a philosophy for living. Thich Nhat Hahn was an enormously impressive man, as is the current Dalai Lama (incidentally, I love his self-identification as a “professional laugher”!) and reading a little of what they wrote and said about suffering and impermanence (anicca) affected me deeply. I shall enjoy exploring what else you have written on these subjects.

    1. I really like the Four Noble Truths,too, Platypus Man. (So sorry for my late reply.) When I was younger, I had an unconscious belief that suffering meant I was doing something wrong. And i did a lot of unhelpful things to avoid it–like engaging in perfectionism and trying to control people. It helped me so much to realize that the Buddha was pointing out that suffering is an inescapable part of life. So now I try to work with my suffering more effectively.

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