About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Schopenhauer, the compassionate curmudgeon

Interesting article by Tim Madigan in the latest Philosophy Now, about the compassionate morality of the philosopher Schopenhauer -- the most endearing curmudgeon in philosophical history.

Schopenhauer was conscious of the fact that his private life didn't necessarily hold up to his own moral theories, but (wisely, I think) attributed this to the normal range of human failings. Just because one is imperfect it doesn't follow that the same person cannot attempt to set moral standards for himself and for others. Indeed, as Schopy himself says: “It is just as little necessary for the saint to be a philosopher as for the philosopher to be a saint; just as it is not necessary for a perfectly beautiful person to be a great sculptor, or for a great sculptor to be himself a beautiful person. In general, it is a strange demand on a moralist that he should commend no other virtue than that which he himself possesses.”

Schopy was influenced by his (and my!) philosophical hero, David Hume, which brought the German philosopher to emphasize compassion as the basis of morality. According to Madigan's nice summary, Schopenhauer wrote in On the Basis of Morality that neither theistic commandments nor categorical imperatives (as in Kant's rational morality) will bring human beings to behave morally. The key, instead, is to cultivate our natural tendency for compassion.

Schopy realized that we have other tendencies as well (egoism, when we care for our own well-being first; and malice, when we positively wish to hurt other people), so that compassion would constantly struggle against the other two. To be moral, then, means to work toward emphasizing compassion over egoism and malice. As Madigan points out, this approach reminds one of Plato's three-part soul (desires, will and reason), which is in turn quite similar to Freud's three-part theory of the human mind (the ID, irrational and emotional; the EGO, rational; and the SUPEREGO, moral). I guess great thinkers really do think alike (or they do read each other...).


  1. Hume is (obviously) a hero of mine, too.

    I just got done reading Political Ideals by Bertrand Rusell, and in that he lays out what sort of society will cultivate compassion over malice. In his view, it is competition over material resources that cause the possesive impulses in men to dominate rather than creative impulses.

    "Few men can succeed in being creative rather than possessive in a world which is wholly built on competition, where the great majority would fall into utter destitution if they became careless as to the acquisition of material goods, where honor and power and respect are given to wealth rather than to wisdom, where the law embodies and consecrates the injustice of those who have toward those who have not. In such an environment even those whom nature has endowed with great creative gifts become infected with the poison of competition. Men combine in groups to attain more strength in the scramble for material goods, and loyalty to the group spreads a halo of quasi-idealism round the central impulse of greed." - Russell, Political Ideals (1917)

    Russell seems to be saying that this sort of society reduces people to their most animalistic impulses, where compassion becomes a hindrance rather than a virtue, and where greed and injustice are rationalized as necessary to maintaining material goods.


  2. All I know about David Hume is that he could out consume Schopenhauer and Hegel.

    (Sorry about that.)


  3. I believe that the idea that one is not able to promote higher ethical standards than she may live up to in her actual life often has been a serious hinderence to the improvement in the compassionate moral thinking of human kind. I often see this kind of argument in the rhetoric of Christians and other religious belief systems as a futile attempt to explain that this is one reason that there must be a God that hands down the absolute moral priciples that only God can live up to (these principles cannot come from human thinking as no human can adhere fully to them). So, if you do not believe in such a God you have no moral foundation, and if you do you may be off the hook for ethical responsibility entirely as after all you are "only human" and God will forgive your failings (at least the Christian version).

  4. I have been thinking about compassion and empathy for a long time. I watch children from afar and try to understand their ability to show empathy. In my own daughters (age 18 and 16) I watch how it might be displayed. In my older I listen to her sheer joy at the good things that befall her friends. In my younger I hear her compassion with those who have suffered a setback. These are nearly the same emotions and in each case display a lack of concern as to their own role in the situation. I have a dear friend who feels compassion or joy for others but she tells me that it is stronger if she has played a role. This stuff is important to me and Madigan provides some insight into Schopenhauer's thinking.

    I have enjoyed reading Schopenhauer over the years though I have been unimpressed with his personal attacks on Hegel. (I don't pretend to fully understand Hegel but the attacks certainly appear to be ad hominem). I have also been pained by the use of one of his aphorisms that suggests that new ideas go through a three step process from disdain to acceptance. I don't remember the whole verse but it is used by every whacko that does not get their idea into print.

    All that is a prelude to simply stating that I think ethics, morals, compassion and empathy are universal. There are no theistic tenants that guide those emotions. Whether or not a person is religious that person knows very well when they feel those emotions or act on them.


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