Compassion and Practical Reason: The Perspective of the Vulnerable

In Carolyn Price & Justin Caouette (ed.), The Moral Psychology of Compassion. Heidelber/New York: pp. 77-94 (2018)

Carla Bagnoli
University of Modena
Contemporary moral philosophers and philosophers of the emotions widely agree that Kant’s discussion of compassion is an unfortunate byproduct of his rationalistic and legalistic account of ethics. In fact, Kant departs from the solid established rationalist tradition not only in distancing himself from dogmatic and perfectionist rationalism but also in claiming that there is a practical use of reason, which commits him to acknowledge that reason directly guides rational agents by furnishing them motives for action. Kant’s argument is that reason is not assisted by sensibility in this function. The practical function of reason is ensured only if reason produces motives of its own, autonomously, rather than depending on the emotions. To highlight the role of these two concepts, I will focus on two distinct models of compassion which are said to sharply depart from Kant: I. Murdoch and T.W. Adorno. My conclusion is that despite overwhelming critiques, Kant provides us with a useful distinction between two kinds of compassion. I deploy the distinction between proximal and distal compassion to capture the significance of the much criticized—and admittedly obsolete, but also little understood— distinction between pathological and practical compassion, which takes center stage in Kant’s account of the duties of benevolence. Proximal compassion is felt in the presence of suffering and mandates immediate action. By contrast, distal compassion is directed to suffering that is distant, e.g. placed in a distant time, either future or past or felt by persons unrelated by proximity and intimacy. While proximal compassion is not a virtue, and may even have a bad impact on moral agency, distal compassion is a virtue that requires abstraction and the exercise of rational capacities. Kant’s complex account of compassion coheres with empirical psychology and succeeds in vindicating different roles of compassion in practical reasoning.
Keywords rational agency  compassion  Kant  practical reason  vulnerability  T.W. Adorno  I. Murdoch  emotion
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