In my previous post I described how people can experience compassionate emotions when they focus on others’ unwelcome misfortune. Compassionate emotions express people’s yearning for things to be better for those they are compassionate toward. In this post I will explore the relationship between compassion and attempted helping.
Compassionate emotions towards misfortunate others can evoke willingness or desire to help them. This is Daniel Batson’s so-called “empathy-altruism hypothesis”. For clarity and convenience, I am going to call this the compassion-altruism hypothesis. It can be noted however that Batson’s version of this hypothesis is relatively narrow, restricted to altruism stemming from visceral compassionate emotions evoked by others’ distress. Other potential motivators of altruism will be considered in later posts.
The compassion-altruism hypothesis suggests that people who would like improvements in others’ welfare sometimes try to improve others’ welfare. This seems relatively non-contentious, merely being one manifestation of a broader claim that people sometimes try to obtain things they want.
Compassionate people wanting others’ welfare to improve does not mean that they will always be willing or want to try to help.
If the compassionate believe that attempts to help might be futile or even counter-productive, they may decide that it would be better to do nothing.
If others’ welfare looks set to improve without their intervention, the compassionate might choose not to get involved. They may see no benefit in personally helping if what they want will come to pass anyway. They may also actively prefer not to get involved if, for example, they want others – perhaps those in need - to get credit for any improvements that occur.
The compassionate want others’ welfare to improve. Sometimes others’ welfare is best served by resisting temptations to help. Compassionate but effective parents sometimes allow their children to receive painful medical procedures. Compassionate but committed educationalists sometimes allow students to experience mental anguish while trying to work things out for themselves. In such cases, others’ long-term welfare can be best served by resisting compassionate urges to help in the short-term.
Compassionate people want others’ welfare to improve but this is rarely the only thing they want. Others’ misfortune can for example evoke personal distress as well as compassionate emotions. People are often keen to alleviate their own distress. Sometimes personal distress can be reduced by helping others (giving people prudent reasons as well or instead of altruistic reasons for helping) and sometimes personal distress can be reduced by doing something other than helping. When compassionate people prioritise accompanying non-compassionate desires in ways that preclude altruism, altruistic helping will not occur. People upset by social conditions sometimes focus exclusively on attacking those they blame and make no attempt to directly help those in need.
Goals change. This is particularly true when goals stem from transient emotions but even long-term commitments wax and wane, shuffling up and down people’s lists of immediate priorities. Compassion can sometimes be replaced by other dominant concerns before resulting in any altruistic help-giving.
In some situations, compassionate feelings can act as a signal to activate learned routines designed to suppress compassion and altruism. Occasional compassionate pangs often do not prevent soldiers killing, lawyers cross-examining, bankers foreclosing, or capitalists profiteering.
Compassion reflects people’s desires for others’ welfare to improve. People experiencing compassion do not always recognise this fact or keep it focal. It can be easy to confuse a desire for others’ welfare to improve with a desire to do something that might be helpful. If a desire to ‘be helpful’ takes precedence over a desire for others’ welfare to improve, resulting behaviours are likely to be more prudent than they are altruistic. Compassionate but confused people can sometimes seek self-satisfaction from acting in allegedly helpful ways (Ps ↑ Sw) more than they seek satisfaction from others’ welfare improving (↑ Ow). (See earlier post if you don’t understand the stuff in brackets in the previous sentence.) At times, sincere but misguided compassionate people may continue busily ‘helping’ even when their actions do not help.
Compassion can but does not always motivate altruistic behaviour.
Compassion is likely to motivate altruistic helping attempts when altruism is a person’s dominant goal and helping seems likely to be necessary to and effective for improving the welfare of those for whom people are compassionate.
Compassionate attempted helping does not always result in others’ welfare improving.
Behaviour that is helpful need not be motivated by compassion.
Sibicky, M. E., Schroeder, D. A., & Dovidio, J. F. (1995). Empathy and helping: Considering the consequences of intervention. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 16, 435-453. Link to abstract
Jonas, M. E. (2010). When teachers must let education hurt: Rousseau and Nietzsche on compassion and the educational value of suffering. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44 (1), 45-60. Link to abstract
How to cite this blog post using APA Style
T. Farsides. (2013, January 11). When compassion promotes altruism. Retrieved from http://tomfarsides.blogspot.com/2014/01/when-compassion-promotes-altruism.html