Rousseau's Discriminating Defense of Compassion
Political theorists from Martha Nussbaum to Amitai Etzioni appeal to compassion as a basis that liberalism otherwise lacks for refraining from exploiting and even for helping others. However, critics like Clifford Orwin and Richard Boyd have raised this question: is compassion too weak and undiscriminating to rely on in politics? Jean-Jacques Rousseau's account of compassion helps answer it. Rousseau understands compassion as a useful manifestation of the otherwise dangerous desire to extend the self and show signs of power. Consequently, he considers compassion's relative weakness a strength and explains how it can be supplemented and complemented by other, independent motives for serving others, including gratitude, friendship, and obligation. Compassion's weakness also makes it less likely than self-love, narrowly conceived, to overwhelm reason. Rousseau excels compassion's contemporary defenders in his awareness of the complex relationship between compassion and other social passions and of the dangers that his understanding of compassion addresses.
c1 Jonathan Marks is Associate Professor of Politics, Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA 19426 (email@example.com).