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The Philosophical Basis of Caring, Compassion, and Interdependence

Caring, and especially the closely related concept of compassion, is the only core value shared by the Buddhists, Confucians and Taoists, which is remarkable considering that their teachings often diverge if not clash. Let’s compare what some of their greatest champions say on this topic: compassion is the greatest virtue of Mahayana Buddhism, and thus it comes as no surprise that a prominent Buddhist once said "The greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the cultivation of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being." Laozi talks about compassion as one of his three most treasured virtues, and in the Confucian Analects, the concept of ren or humanity, which is about putting oneself in peoples’ shoes and acting upon it, is mentioned in nearly one hundred passages.  The Chinese graph for “ren,” which you can translate as “humanity” or “benevolence,” is simply a symbol of a person next to the symbol for the number two. Humanity is realized if we think about the “we” as much as the “me.” People are fond of quoting the expression “no man is an island” from a poem by John Donne. He was trying to say the same thing. But Donne didn’t think about what an island really is. Islands are a lot like people. On the surface, we appear to be separate and independent. Yet under the surface we are linked together. Thus your happiness is inseparably linked to the happiness you create for others.

In the Western tradition, this idea that happiness is associated with benevolence is urged by Scottish philosophers such as Frances Hutcheson and David Hume.  Hume famously argued that human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures and that morality should depend on cultivating our better emotions rather than merely appealing to our reason (Kant’s notion of duty).   One of the most important of these emotions is that of benevolence or “natural sympathy” which can be cultivated to produce the ultimate end of morality, which is the “greatest happiness for the greatest good.”  As Hume writes: “benevolence offers the merit of meeting human need and bestowing happiness, bringing harmony within families, the mutual support of friends, and order to society. And with this utility it is rightly praised.”  More recently an “ethics of care” has been put forward by feminist thinkers like Nel Noddings, who has explored the connections between care, happiness and education.   She argues that our educational institutions need to be redesigned to teach qualities of care in order to produce happier and more productive students.