Compassion as a Political Virtue

Whitebrook, M. (2002). Compassion as a Political Virtue. Political Studies, 50 (3): 529-44.

 Abstract: The place of compassion in political thought and practice is debatable. This debate can be clarified by stipulating 'compassion' as referring to the practice of acting on the feeling of 'pity'; in addition, compassion might best be understood politically speaking as properly exercised towards vulnerability rather than suffering. Working with these understandings, I contrast Martha Nussbaum's account of the criteria for the exercise of compassion in modern democracies with the treatment of compassion in Toni Morrison's novels in order to suggest how compassion can be viewed politically. In respect of distributive justice and public policy, in both cases compassion might modify the strict application of principles in the light of knowledge of particulars, suggesting an enlarged role for discretion in the implementation of social justice. More generally, compassion's focus on particulars and the interpersonal draws attention to the importance of imagination and judgement. The latter returns a consideration of compassion to the question of the relationship of compassion to justice. In the political context, although strict criteria for compassion are inappropriate, principles of justice might work as modifying compassion (rather than vice-versa, as might be expected).

Source: Wiley InterScience



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