Bioethics Blogs

Two Kinds of Compassion

Recent stories of those such as Miguel Pajares, who died from the Ebola virus after catching it from those for whom he was caring, seem to provide paradigmatic examples of compassion.

Consider someone who has two options: to join an institution of the kind Pajares was working for, or to begin a lucrative career in the City of London which will enable them to make huge donations to highly efficient charities throughout their working life.

I take it that either choice would be thought compassionate. But according to common-sense morality, the first choice is more admirable. This is partly, perhaps, because it involves greater risk to one’s own well-being. That could be said to be a matter of courage, not compassion. But this is not the full story. Most people would believe that the first choice is not only braver, but more compassionate.

This is mainly because the first choice involves directly helping people oneself. Is that more compassionate than creating opportunities for others to help? This question raises deep and difficult questions about the significance of agency (of what people do rather than merely allow or enable), which in recent years Bernard Williams has done more than anyone to make salient. There is no doubt that most, and probably all sane, people live their lives as if Williams were right to think that their own direct agency matters in a special way. Nor need the kind of agency be complex or intentional. Consider Williams’s case of the driver who kills a child through absolutely no fault of her own.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.