Are There Limits To Compassion?

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

This is a question that’s been on my mind lately. I heard somewhere that people can only maintain a certain number of healthy, close interpersonal relationships at any given time. Outside of that limit, people fall to the level of acquaintance or vaguely recognized person. If that’s true, does this mean there’s a limit on compassion?

People make moral decisions more often than they might realize. Going to the store, I could buy a cheap orange for a few cents. That orange had to get put on the shelf, taken from a truck, hauled from a warehouse, picked from a tree, and the tree needed planting. All of that requires people to get paid for that time and effort. Paying people less than they can live on can reduce costs to the point where the orange I buy is cheaper than the orange I don’t buy. In a way, I’m supporting keeping people in poverty. But that’s not what I see on the shelf. I just see an orange.

It’s hard for me to recognize and care about all the people I might hurt indirectly. On a long enough timeline, perhaps anything could hurt anyone else. There isn’t enough time to weigh all the consequences. If everyone did that, we’d all be paralyzed by indecision. So, in order to just keep moving forward in time, everyone makes decisions with incomplete reflection and in varying degrees of ignorance.

Is there any way to overcome this? I used to think that expanding access to information might help, but I’m beginning to doubt that. Take a look at Twitter. People can get condemned for anything these days, or celebrated for anything. Human attention appears to be so fickle. We’re these apes with machine guns, able to end lives far more efficiently than improving them. Everyone can get into an argument over the color of a fucking dress; nobody can form a consensus on how we should help people who are homeless and starving.

Is this because we have physical limits on treating people well? Is that limitation an excuse or something that can be overcome? The answer I want isn’t the answer I’m getting.

8 thoughts on “Are There Limits To Compassion?

  1. In Interstellar, Dr Mann says: “Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier. We can care deeply – selflessly – about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.”

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  2. I think here in your comparison to relationships it might not be the same with compassion. Depending on what you mean by compassion. To maintain a relationship this requires both time and energy of which we have a fine amount. There are only so many of those we can maintain at an intimate level. I would agree.

    Compassion however is a feeling. Like love, we can feel love for a seemingly infinite amount of people, but we don’t have the time or energy to act on that love. The same would be true for compassion. I would say also that there are many practitioners of meditation who have the kind of compassion that you are perhaps talking about here. Who feel this love for all people. Sam Harris has discussed this topic at length with people who practice and study meditation scientifically. The argument has come up though that some people, in loving all people, love no individual person more than another. Maybe, that’s good, maybe that’s bad. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to being biased in my love towards my family. Maybe that’s not a good way to be.

    In Paul Bloom’s book where he argues against empathy, he argues that compassion is more important. That empathy often does lead to bias, and sink our energy into certain situation unequally and perhaps to our detriment. And what John says is true. Studies have shown that as the amount of people suffering increases our empathy tends to go down. I do favor compassion perhaps over empathy, but I think both our important. I see the relationship between empathy and compassion similar to love of an individual and loving all humankind.

    I also do think that depth of feeling is not a constant in humans. Some people simply have a greater capacity to feel. But I do think we can work to expand the depth to which we feel. I think empathy and compassion can be expanded through practice.

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    • I’m talking about compassion as it relates to nourishing and maintaining an ideal relationship between individuals and others. Behind the dictionary definition, I’m using an assumption that one cannot have compassion without some form of empathy, understanding, and a desire to seek emotional equilibrium or even a relationship homeostasis.

      The difference between the robust compassion of interpersonal relationships and the generic compassion towards humanity is that neither prompts the same response. To rely on the trope of mass suffering through genocide, this is something which generic compassion is completely incapable of addressing. Compare this to the compassion expressed between individuals, where a person acts to one’s own hazard to safe the life of another.

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      • I see. I guess I’ve always viewed that as empathy or love, when we are talking about individual relationships, but certainly these definitions cover a broad range of contexts.


      • Indeed. This is why also have to have compassion for ourselves as well. Too often people constantly turn their care outwards and forget that themselves needed to be tended to as well. Rejuvenation and recharge are vital to be a good human being in this world.

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  3. All mental processing takes time, even if they are hard wired in by evolution as emotions. The emotion/feeling has to be interpreted and then some action or another debated and acted upon or not. I have always believed that there are only so many things you can care about and I deliberately pass on certain things and dwell on others. Only in the modern area has this been a problem because mass communication has brought to us way more problems than we can process (climate change, baby harp seals, save the whales, save the old growth forests, tigers are becoming extinct, deforestation, oil rig leaks, … , the list is endless and if you actually made a complete list of things people are asked to concern them and read it once a day, you wouldn’t have time to do anything.


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