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A Critical Analysis of Immanuel Kant’s View on Compassion and its Role in Our Moral Duty

Updated on December 13, 2011

There is a major flaw in Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy. His view of compassion and its role in our moral duty is something that must be reevaluated and properly assessed. To prove that this flaw does indeed exist we must first examine Kant’s ethical theory and the role compassion plays in it; we must then pose the question “what is compassion?” in an effort to figure out if compassion does have a place in our moral duty.

To start, Immanuel Kant is known for his work in the philosophical field of ethics. He was famous for his idea of “ethical duty” which is the argument that our moral actions should be in complete accordance with duty. He also believed that we could discover this duty through reason. Kant asserts throughout his famous book, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns,that an action should be done out of duty, which is a desire to follow an intrinsic moral law[1].

Kant provides a multitude of reasons as to why we should accept his theory. However, it is also affirmed that an act is not moral if it is done out of sympathy or compassion[2]. This is unfortunately a major flaw in his otherwise highly feasible ethical theory. Another notable point is that his view of compassion is mentioned with great significance (and is more-or-less introduced) in his explanation of how the categorical imperative is possible[3]. Kant automatically states that an action should not be considered moral if the choice is influenced by compassion and/or sympathy.

“The characterization of Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy as containing an overly rigoristic ethic of cold, impersonal duty and dry, detached reason because he denies any moral significance to kindhearted and benevolent emotion is an interpretation of Kant that a number of commentators raise to expose [his work] as inadequate.… one can deduce legitimate complaints concerning the type of moral significance he assigns to emotions such as love, sympathy, compassion, and gratitude.[4].”

It is evident that Kant dismisses the emotions outlined above from an all too human equation and deems them negative when making an ethical choice. Kant assumes that compassion does not hold a place in our moral actions. Let us analyze what compassion is to see if it is in fact a negative thing.

Compassion is a connection between two people. How then can you associate it with a negative thing? It is a feeling that many will agree is closely related to our values, and in turn our morals. Dismissing compassion as a weak, negative thing is completely absurd. Furthermore, subtracting the role compassion plays in our everyday moral choices is like attempting to create a utopia, for example. In order to have any type of utopia one must subtract a vast human element from the equation to make perfection a reality. This is much like the idea of perfect morality; in order to have such a thing one must withdraw many human elements. One may argue compassion is one of them, but if compassion is one of these human elements so then is love, hate, sorrow, bliss, fear, cheerfulness, contentment, pride, and every other conceivable emotion. Thus one may claim certain emotions as inconsequential, or one can develop a logical system of morality that accepts these emotions as an inexorable part of being human.

Even those that side with Kant agree that this holds true, Lea Burchett, a student at Saint John’s University who, like Kant, felt that just because a person “does something out of compassion it does not make the action morally right”[5]. She also feels “that compassion is subjective and thus making it incompatible with objective morality.[6]

The point of Kant’s life was to determine whether or not it is possible to have objective morality. Using the same logic, why then can we not use equivalent arguments for objective morality to prove that all human beings are capable of feeling compassion and therefore admitting that compassion is an objective feeling? It is possible to analyze the human psyche and draw a logical observation that compassion is something that all sentient beings have, yet it is an attribute that affects us all differently.

Now, assuming you do not believe in objective morality, then we may use the logic that we create our own values with the influence of our society and thus all have different values with the same underlying basics. Verily, it is fair to admit that even though subjectively we all have different scenarios of when we deem it ok to be compassionate. Say, for example, that I observe an elderly woman attempting to cross the street; I offer my assistance to her and guide her safely to the other side. Now, did I do this action because I had to fulfill a moral obligation as Kant claims I should have? Or did I help her as an extension of good will and compassion? The answer is the latter of the two by far. It is an undeniable truth that compassion it is an inescapable part of being human.

Like most good things, it is highly advisable to act in moderation and caution when giving of yourself in such a way. While I take an Aristotelian standpoint on how compassionate one should be, I also believe that it is highly beneficial- and indeed very possible- to channel ones compassion into a morally right action.[7]

The American Heritage Dictionary definition of the word “compassion” is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering”[8]. So then I ask again, how is it possible to conclude that such a good human trait could not hold any value whatsoever?

By now we know what compassion is and that it should, in fact, be a major factor in our moral decision. A fair counter-argument brought up by those who feel compassion should not affect our moral choices is that it is not necessarily a good guiding force when making legal decisions. Suppose a person is on trial for murder. If you know the victim personally, you are more inclined to find the defendant guilty without first hearing their side of the story. That is why I propose justice as a fair, blind, advocate for the innocent and a punisher of the guilty. We must create a chasm between moral law and legal law in order to properly place compassion in the most effective way for maximum moral action.

We have analyzed what legal law is, but what defines moral law? Why should compassion play a role in it? Moral law, as defined by Kant, is “connected (completely a priori) with the concept of the will of a rational being.[9]” Kant’s moral law is also known as practical philosophy; if a person is not completing an action out of duty then the action cannot be considered moral[10]. If a person proceeds to do an action out of duty, and the person is compassionate towards the end goal and/or peer who assigned the duty are they not more inclined to complete an action with minuscule empathy and considerable aptitude?

A persons compassion reflects their values and, in turn, their ability to focus on-and complete-their moral duties. How does compassion reflect ones values? Compassion, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Since we are all products of our genetics and society, our interpretations of what to feel sorry for and when to feel sorry for something vary in leaps and bounds. So, it can then be deduced that compassion is subjective. Yet, if we all applied ourselves towards what truly worries us (which is the definition of compassion), we can then in turn make what truly worries us our moral duty. From there, we can then clearly define what our moral duty is and make it our priority to positively impact.

Say, for example, that I am compassionate towards the homeless. I then recognize that I want to help the homeless, which then becomes my moral duty. If I unite with others who share the same inclinations as me, it is very possible to make a great impact, and in turn complete our moral duty. Those who are able and willing to care for others should do so without the expectation of a reward; no other feeling enables one to do that best other then compassion, and no other moral action is better than that which is done just because it’s the right thing to do. There is indeed something beautiful about those types of actions.

If moral duty involves people who want to positively impact what they care about, we then should give credit to non-profit organizations and people who devote their entire existence to helping others or making a positive difference for certain causes. This is something that does not require much thought since society tells us that these people are “morally good”. If we live as these people do in the purest sense, we then bring our race closer to the ideal that it should have.

When I speak of this ideal I mean the complete opposite of the capitalistic, cutthroat mindset, which teaches, in theory that selfishness prompts the best economic activity. This way of life has proven countless times that it fails through recessions, and corruption. It is very fair to say that capitalism in its purest form eliminates compassion and sympathy. So if we wish to have the same type of objective morals as our capitalistic society, then we too should eliminate compassion from our code of ethics.

Our emotions are a very powerful thing. Through my research I have found a portion of students feel that actions done out of compassion can lead to a negative end. That is why we must address the staggering difference between passion and compassion. Crimes done out of passion are completely different from actions done out of compassion. One student noted that “passion is emotions that are so overwhelming one cannot control it.[11]

The reason why I bring this up is because of a counter-argument presented to me. One student claimed that Adolf Hitler’s actions were, in his eyes, done out of compassion for his people. In response to that argument let us clarify the differences between compassion and passion. Hitler’s actions were done for a variety of reason but I do not suspect that sympathy was in fact one of them. Hitler actually felt that what he was doing was right, his subjects rallied around him and they would follow him to the death; Hitler was charismatic and passionate about his doctrine, it could be said that his actions were the direct result of a warped ethical code preached to him by society. Verily, his actions could have also been the consequence of close-mindedness, which can poison not just a person’s ethical code but their entire character. Hitler may have thought he was right, but what right did he have to decide who should live and who should die? In the name of God he was playing God in the sense that the power he had was wielded irresponsibly and without thought of consequences. The German people felt that Hitler was a good leader because he manipulated them with his charisma and passion; however, history has shown us that he was in fact a tyrant as displayed through his actions. A tyrant is the worst kind of leader. So ultimately, it can be said that the worst leaders are ones who are close-minded, uncompassionate, and irresponsible, for these are tyrannical traits.

We have analyzed the characteristics of dismal leaders; this leads us into our next topic, worthy leaders. For this section let us use a logical syllogism. Compassionate people care for that with which they are compassionate about, a leader’s job is to care for his subjects, a leader who is compassionate for his subjects cares about them to the highest degree, and therefore a compassionate leader is the best kind of leader.

Now assuming, like Plato, that our moral code should be directly comparable to our political code we can then follow the logic that if the best kind of political figure is a compassionate one, then the best kind of individual is a compassionate one.[12]

We have proven that compassion is not only an important factor to have in our moral lives, but it can quite possibly allow us to reach our full potential as human beings. There are many viable arguments for both sides, however it seems to me that compassion is in fact a very important factor in our moral choices and one who acts out of compassion should be considered morally accountable and, if applicable, morally correct.

[1]Kant, Immanuel; translated by: Ellington W. James. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: on a supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, Inc, 1993.

[2] Kant, Immanuel; translated by: Ellington W. James. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: on a supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. (Indianapolis: Hackett Company, Inc, 1993.) 455.

[3] I bid 454: “Third Section- How Is a Categorical Imperative Possible?” This is arguably the most important chapter of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals; the “categorical imperative” is the entire foundation of Kant’s ethics.

[4]Cartwright, David. The Journal of Value Inquiry. Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987. Cartwright is a well-known Kantian Scholar who directly dismisses Kant’s ethics as displayed above.

[5]Gonzalez, Gabriella, Lea Burchett, and Imani Sutton. "Student Group Discussion- What is Compassion and it’s Role in Our Ethical Duty." Personal, Scholarly Interview. 26 Apr. 2009.

[6] I bid. Lea Burchett. Lea is a student who has had significant philosophical experience at a colligate level.

[7] An Aristotelian view is a reference to Aristotle’s ethics which preaches moderation in all moral aspects.

[8] “Compassion” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 27 Apr. 2009.

[9]Kant, Immanuel; translated by: Ellington W. James. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, Inc, 1993. 427.

[10] Ibid. 397-399. This statement is fortified by the following quotation: “I here omit all actions recognized as contrary to duty” (Kant 397). Kant goes on to argue that all actions that are not duty directly conflict with the completion of one’s duty.

[11]Gonzallez, Gabriella, Lea Burchett, and Imani Sutton. "Student Group Discussion- What is Compassion and It’s Role In Our Ethical Duty." Personal, Scholarly Interview. 26 Apr. 2009. Quote directly from Imani Sutton

[12] Plato. Republic. Trans. C.D.C Reeve. Boston: Hackett Company, 2004. Throughout book 4 and specifically in “Justice in Kallipolis” section Plato argues that our moral code and political code are synonymous with each other.

Work Cited

Cartrwight, David. The Journal of Value Inquiry. NetherLands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

“Compassion”The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 27 Apr. 2009.

Gonzallez, Gabriella, Lea Burchett, and Imani Sutton. "Student Group Discussion- What is Compassion and It’s Role In Our Ethical Duty." Personal, Scholarly Interview. 26 Apr. 2009.

Kant, Immanuel; translated by: Ellington W. James. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, Inc, 1993.

Plato. Republic. Trans. C.D.C Reeve. Boston: Hackett Company, 2004.


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    • gree0786 profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      intriguing! If you could-- I'd like to know the specifics regarding Kant's argument towards objective morality.


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