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
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.
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.”)
4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Compassion”
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.
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.