Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
Compassion offers a double critique: of much secular health care ethics for not making compassion sufficiently explicit and of a number of Christian versions of health care ethics for failing to place compassion before even principled scruples. Compassion, properly understood, is an essential starting point for health care ethics even within a pluralistic society. Within the Synoptic healing stories compassion is not simply about feeling sorry for the vulnerable, nor is it even just about empathy, a preparedness to identify with the vulnerable. Rather, compassion is both a response to the vulnerable and a determination to help them, sometimes at the expense of principled scruples.
Oliver Davies' powerful book A Theology of Compassion makes a sustained case for regarding compassion as the primary Christian virtue. His concern is with theology as a whole rather than with the specific area of healing. Nevertheless what he writes can easily be applied to the latter. He argues that compassion rather than love best depicts the Christian life, since love ‘embraces concepts and phenomena that are both wholly distinct and easily confused’ (such as agape and eros):
Compassion, on the other hand, presents a complex but more easily identifiable structure, which in Martha Nussbaum's analysis entails a combination of cognitive, affective and volitional elements. In compassion we see another's distress (cognition), we feel moved by it (affectively) and we actively seek to remedy it (volition).
This combination of cognitive, affective and volitional elements is exactly what characterises mercy/compassion in the Synoptic healing stories.