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Compassion and moral guidance

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Recent years have seen a swell of new popular publications in English on the subject of “compassion”,  by some impressive names such as Dr. James Doty, neurosurgeon and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford; psychologist Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and best-selling authors like Kristin Neff (University of Texas Austin) and Brene Brown (University of Houston). Then there is the political rhetoric of compassion, which has come center stage as Europe struggles to find a just and ethical humanitarian solution to the recent wave of refugee and asylum seekers. Compassion is even invoked by climate activists, both as an ethic of stewardship that allows future generations to prosper and as an attitude towards nature itself. Academics may be skeptical of this trend, or at least unwilling to take a leap and fully embrace it as a concept that has both a complex philosophical history and a somewhat less complicated sounding everyday use. Scholars of Asian religion and philosophy may find the popular use particularly troubling; yet another term that has left behind its rich philosophical roots and re-entered the mainstream western culture, just like yoga or mindfulness.
How then can we preserve and expand on Asian conceptualizations of compassion in ways that can enhance current discussions rather than dismiss them as imprecise? How can we do this without falling into a trap of orientalist romanticization? What does western Continental philosophy have to add to such a discussion? Can compassion serve as a moral guide?
It is in the context of questions like this that Steve Bein has given us his unique and timely contribution to comparative philosophy. Compassion and Moral Guidance is not an exhaustive account of the history of philosophical and religious thought on compassion, but rather a tightly argued, broad reaching effort to pin down a precise understanding of the word that can then serve as a practical guide for moral reasoning. Bein makes a strong case for the potential to be found in expanding ethical understanding of compassion by drawing on alternative understandings found in Buddhism, Daoism and Confucian writings. He does not dismiss western philosophy entirely in favor of these alternate traditions, nor is he merely cherry-picking the best philosophies of compassion in order to arrive at a completely synthetic, universal, and superior ethics of compassion. Rather, Bein demonstrates ways that Asian models of ethics can be used to defend the notion of compassion as a moral guide against the critiques that have been made of western philosophers. In this innovative move, Bein contends that he has arrived at an ethic of compassion that is synthetic, practical, and even essential to living in the world today. 
The book begins by exploring the premise that compassion has not played a major role in western philosophical thought, even though it is clearly not entirely absent either. Rather, compassion often took a more supporting role for other traits, such as pity, sympathy, or love. In order to support this premise, Bein strives to first address Continental philosophy independent of eastern thought. Beginning with Max Scheler’s taxonomic dissection of sympathy, Bein then roams across Aristotle and Hume, Augustine, Nietzsche, and Rousseau. The range and nuance each of these thinkers brought to the idea of compassion is laid out briefly but elegantly. However, relatively little space is given to those philosophers who were more directly influenced by eastern traditions, such as Schopenhauer, who wrote extensively on compassion (Mitleid), and believed it could arise from removing the barrier between self and the other. Husserl and phenomenologists who were interested in Asian philosophy are similarly left out of the discussion here. Indeed, such bridging philosophers have already been written about elsewhere at length, and so perhaps there is little more that can be gained by treading this path again, but Bein’s choice does at times cast east and west in a stark, and perhaps overly polarized contrast.
What rises to the surface of Bein’s analysis of each philosopher’s writing on compassion is the fundamental role of conceptions of self, suffering, and wellbeing. At each turn, Bein tests the strengths and weaknesses of the different configurations of these concepts and their implications for developing an ethics compassion, arriving finally at a set of eight conditions for a robust account of compassion. He returns to these again later on in the book, but first, he takes the reader on a journey through Buddhism (primarily Japanese Sōtō Zen), Daoism, and Confucianism. For this exercise, each of these is dealt with on a purely conceptual basis, lifted out of their political and historical context and uncoupled from on the ground practical application. Bein acknowledges how this would complicate his argument and sets it aside. He is interested in what each of these traditions can tell us about the nature of suffering, the self, and the path to well-being through moral action. For those well acquainted with each of these traditions, much of Bein’s description may seem overly basic. He is not delivering a fresh exegesis on these philosophical traditions, and relies primarily on works in English translation. Again, Bein writes in a way that is accessible to the non-expert, but also chooses to present a small sample of traditions that focuses on compassion as he intends to approach it (Jainism and Tibetan Buddhism, for example, are not discussed), and while this method is effective in lining up the terms of his argument, it is not to be mistaken for an exhaustive concordance.
Asia scholars will appreciate his use of several important non-English terms for compassion, such as mettā, karunā, jihi, shu, and the University of Hawai’i Press has kindly included the Japanese and Chinese characters in the text. What these terms and the philosophies that envelop them do is offer a dense and radically different sense of self, one that is fundamentally relational, originating in and through the experience of the other in a dynamic and not nihilistic way. This empty self becomes the ground for the cultivation of wise compassion, and it is here, Bein contends, that we find compassion with the capacity to extend to all life and to provide moral guidance. 
Bein does make distinctions between these various traditions, often with skillful nuance and precision. It is interesting to see how both Zen Buddhist selflessness and Confucian self-in-community, though different, could both support the kind of compassion that meets the eightfold criteria Bein devised. Even the ethics of care, which I think comes closest to the ethics of compassion, is too limited for the complete impartial and transcendent care that Bein is trying to achieve.
In the final chapter, Bein considers compassion in cases like euthanasia, showing how even without “taking sides” in the issue, an ethic of compassion can enhance relationships and moral responsibility that leads to wellbeing, whatever the final decision. By the end of the book, compassion stands up as a more worthy topic than ever for serious consideration, and this book moves us closer to understanding its magnitude in an interconnected world. 

Jason Danely, Oxford Brookes University (

Citation: Danely, J. 2016. Review of Bein, S. 2013. Compassion and Moral Guidance, published on 29 April 2016:

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