Tuesday, July 18, 2006


On Compassion:

“Questions about human needs are questions about human obligations. To ask what our needs are is to ask not just which of our desires are strongest and most urgent, but which of our desires give us an entitlement to the resources of others. This natural pairing of the idea of need with the idea of duty and obligation is what distinguishes need from desire. Need is bounded by the idea of the necessary or the essential. Desire is unbounded even by the idea of utility. It is possible to specify the duties, which follow from an obligation to meet someone’s needs. But the duty would be boundless, and therefore meaningless if it extended to a person’s desire.

Need is vernacular of justification, specifying claims of necessity that those who lack may rightfully address to those who have. Without the language of need, and the language of right that derives from it, the human world would scarcely be human: between powerful and powerless only the law of hammer and anvil, master and slave would rule. The pathos of need, like the pathos of all purely verbal claims to the justice and mercy of another, is that need is powerless to enforce its right. It justifies an entitlement only if the powerful understand themselves to be obliged by it.”

(The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on the Philosophy of Human Needs, by M. Ignatieff)

It is taken for granted that compassion flows from those who have to those who have not, from those who are imbued with a sense of power to those who are perceived to be powerless. Ignatieff’s essay takes this popular interpretation of compassion and turns it around a bit, to illuminate the equation from the other end, that of need. While compassion is understood to be a voluntary surge of human feeling towards another, less fortunate being, need is described as a hard lack of subsistence or well-being. There is nothing voluntary about need. Want is undeniable. And it’s this very undeniability of the deficiency or scarcity of some essential commodity that gives need its ethical claim on other people’s resources.

So we have juxtaposition between compassion and need, wherefore the one, a relatively full vessel abounds towards a relatively empty vessel. But of course, compassion is not at all as simple as that, nor is need just a lack of something. Taking down this duality a notch, it can easily lurch into pity and entitlement.

How is compassion related to obligation? How can we keep our sense of obligations towards other from deteriorating into pity? How can we demarcate the line between the need and the sense of entitlement?

The ancient Chinese sage Mencius (4th century BC), much admired by Voltaire, once wrote:

This is why I say that all men have a sense of commiseration: here is a man who suddenly notices a child about to fall into a well. Invariably he will feel a sense of alarm and compassion. And this is not for the purpose of gaining the favour of the child's parents or of seeking the approbation of his neighbours and friends, or for fear of blame should he fail to rescue it. Thus we see that no man is without a sense of compassion or a sense of shame or a sense of courtesy or a sense of right and wrong. The sense of compassion is the beginning of humanity, the sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness, and sense of courtesy is the beginning of decorum, the sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Every man has within himself these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs. Since everyone has these four beginnings within him, the man who considers himself incapable of exercising them is destroying himself.


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