Compassion as a Basis for Moral Values

Compassion, as a basis for moral values, implements the Golden Rule directly: avoiding harm to others because one imagines their feelings.

It is possible to derive the Golden Rule by appealing to empathy or compassion: one avoids harming others because one imagines what it would be like to have that harm done to oneself.   Karen Armstrong cites the Buddha’s version of the Golden Rule in her book The Great Transformation (p. 287):

“a person who loves the self should not harm the self of others”.

Her reference for this quotation was Samyutta Nikaya 3.1-8.  She points out that the Buddha’s argument did not depend upon the authority of any deity, so it can be seen as a philosophy as well as being referred to by some as a religion.

There is an emerging “science of morality” that seeks to collect empirical evidence and develop psychological theories that explain why people behave as they do.  An Edge seminar, The New Science of Morality, featured nine scientists working in this area – and their work has revealed evidence of empathetic behaviour from a very early age.

A “group of social and cultural psychologists” in MoralFoundations.org described humans as “mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others”, further endorsing empathy as a human characteristic.  This means that compassion as a basis for moral values can have almost universal application.

Frans de Waal’s article, How bad biology killed the economy, linked our biological nature directly to the Golden Rule:

“Without claiming other primates as moral beings, it is not hard to recognise the pillars of morality in their behaviour.  These pillars are summed up in our golden rule, which transcends the world’s cultures and religions.  “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” brings together empathy (attention to others’ feelings) and reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you will be treated well).  Human morality could not exist without empathy and reciprocity – tendencies found in our fellow primates”.

It is argued by de Waal and others that mankind has evolved to be a cooperative species because groups which exhibit supportive behaviours will survive better than those that do not.

Modern neurobiology suggests a mechanism by which the brain develops its desire to reduce stress by making other people feel safe and comfortable.  The abstract of Patricia Smith Churchland’s lecture, How the Mind Makes Morals, described this phenomenon:

“In the evolution of the mammalian brain, circuitry for regulating one’s own survival and well-being was modified.  For sociality, the important result was that the ambit of me extends to include others — me-and-mine.”

“Oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule, is at the hub of the intricate neural adaptations sustaining mammalian sociality.  Not acting alone, oxytocin works with other hormones and neurotransmitters and structural adaptation.  Among its many roles, oxytocin decreases the stress response, making possible the friendly, trusting interactions typical of life in social mammals.”

The key word here is ‘sociality’: awareness of other people and a desire not to make them uncomfortable, to reduce the stress on everyone.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4232a.htm.