Compassion

Virtues and vices are supposed to be universal, which means that they apply at all times and in all circumstances. That is what Kant meant when he spoke of honesty. You are supposed to tell the truth even if a policeman is at the door asking you for the whereabouts of a friend. You never know but that the inquiry is harmless. I guess Kant never met a Nazi stormtrooper but the point that Kant was trying to make was that a virtue applies even in hard cases. The same is true of what the Catholics call the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is bad even if everybody has to eat to keep alive because gluttony refers to an obsession with eating and so would apply to present day people who let themselves go as well as to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had a weight problem. In similar fashion, lust is and always was a vice in that it doesn’t refer to appetites fulfilled within marriage so long as the conjugal relation is clothed in modesty and darkness; it applies, rather, to people who have no respect for custom and are insatiable, whether that is cloaked by marriage or not. As a sociologist, however, I am uncomfortable with such categorical assertions. I look to make comparisons of situations in which a virtue or a vice seems to be that as opposed to situations in which a virtue or a vice appears to be the opposite of what it is usually taken to be. I want to consider the virtue of compassion in that light. What are the circumstances under which it makes sense to feel compassion and what are the circumstances under which compassion changes from being a virtue into being a vice? A lot of morality, as well as the central question of Christian theology, which is the status of Jesus, hangs on what compassion is.

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