Compassion is the basis of morality


Ajit Kumar AJIT KUMARWISDOM IAS, New Delhi.

                                  Compassion is the basis of morality
                                                                            (Arthur Schopenhauer)
Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that the basis of ethics is compassion i.e. fellow-felling. Moral behavior consists of an intuitive recognition that we are all manifestations of the will to live. All the great religions, he claimed, were attempts to express this metaphysical reality, although they usually botched the job by fomenting doctrinal disputes of their own making: “The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? ... this ... reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”
Schopenhauer propounded the theory that the source and foundation of morals had nothing at all to do with knowledge, but rather in what he called “the great mystery of ethics” – compassion. Empirical investigation, he argues, shows that there are only three fundamental incentives that motivate human actions:
a) Egoism: the desire for one’s own well-being.
b) Malice: the desire for another’s woe.
c) Compassion: the desire for another’s well-being.
“Man’s three fundamental ethical incentives, egoism, malice, and compassion,” according to Schopenhauer, “are present in everyone in different and incredibly unequal proportions. In accordance with them, motives will operate on man and actions will ensue.”
What Schopenhauer wrote in 19th century the world needs most in 21st century. Morality consists in the right behaviour in dealings with other human beings. There cannot be absolute determinants of what is the right behaviour. For instance, taking the life of another person is a crime; killing an enemy in war is a brave and honourable deed. In both the cases a human life is lost, but the man involved in taking the life is viewed very differently by the society.
In fact, it is the intention behind the act or the value system of the society, which determines the goodness or badness of an act. Morality of an act is determined with reference to the society as also with reference to the motive of the actor.
Each society prescribes general standards of conduct in important life situations, not specific conduct in the myriad situations a man deals with in his life. Man has, therefore, to depend on some readily available yardsticks to determine whether his response to a situation is the right one or not.
Majority of people would like to take a course of action, which promotes their self-interest without antagonising the others, involved in the situation. Nobody would take it amiss if a man serves his interest without impinging on other people's shoes or harming others. But how is one to determine one's course of action when a situation involves a conflict of interest between various parties. Is it reasonable to expect a man to forgo his self-interest and allow the other party to take the advantage?
It is most likely that the people continue to be guided by self-interest in the course of their life. Morality is conventionally linked with religion. Most religions have some Commandments or some prescriptions for conduct in the form of Do's and Dont's. These religious prescriptions are backed by fear of punishment in this life or the life after death.
Thus the nightmares of torture in hell are impressed upon the individuals if they steal or blaspheme. Threat of punishment is also used to force people to do their duties. This type of morality, which speaks of rewards and punishment only, promotes the self-interest of the individual as his action is guided by the desire to avoid punishment or to seek approval for his behaviour from the society. When he finds it hard to fulfil many of his desires openly for fear of antagonizing the society, he indulges in satisfying his desires away from the prying eyes of the society.
A very large proportion of people freely violate the law or prescriptions of Morality if they are quite sure that their infractions of the social codes are not going to be detected.
The prescription of right and wrong are internalized by an individual, which become his conscience. But anything done by a person under duress applied either by other human beings or his own guilty conscience cannot be described either good or bad on moral grounds. Only those acts can be said to be good or bad which a person freely does of his own volition.
Normally, every living organism is engaged in self-preservation. Human beings are also endowed with this basic instinct for self-preservation; it lends predictability to human behaviour.
Most cooperative activities are made possible only if they serve interest of each and every individual involved. Modern marketing strategies accept this basic fact that nobody would buy a thing unless it serves his self-interest. No idea of morality is attached to an act of self-interest. We however call an act moral if one foregoes one's interest for the sake of another.
One is motivated to sacrifice his own interest for another only when he identifies with that other person. That is to say he feels compassionate toward the other human being. Not only a man of compassion works for another; very often he puts himself to considerable hardship to promote the interest of the other. This sort of compassion alone is the true basis of morality.
Compassion toward fellow human beings is a cardinal tenet of many world religions like Buddhism and Christianity. Buddha preached the need for compassion not only for human beings but also for animals. His doctrine of Ahimsa is embedded in the pervasive principle of compassion. Buddha prescribed compassion for both the householder as well as the ascetic. Jesus Christ developed followers among the fishermen of Galilee because of his unbounded compassion.
The people flocked to him with the sick and the diseased that Jesus cured and brought cheers to the suffering humanity. An unbroken line of Christian saints and ascetics have emulated the example set by Jesus to serve the suffering humanity in all parts of the globe.
Mother Teresa, the founder of Missionaries of Charity, has become synonymous with compassion in India. She looked after the people, who were abandoned by the society such as leprosy patients, widows and the infants abandoned by their parents. She was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her services to the suffering humanity.
The world has perhaps never been in such dire need of immense compassion as at present. The growing consumerism is making man more and more self centred. Love and compassion for the poor and the unfortunate are simply missing in the life of the majority of mankind today.



 

Friday, 24th Jan 2014, 08:28:34 PM

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