Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The subject matter of the new Centre for the Study of Compassion

Today I went to the launch at UCLan for the Centre for the Study of Compassion including a memorial lecture by the new professor, Patrick Pietroni (pictured) on ‘What does a compassionate university look like?’ And then a talk by John Ballatt on the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion (DIISC) scholarship programme.

The Centre’s key research areas include:
  • the role of compassion in health and wellbeing 
  • compassion in education and organisations 
  • mentoring and compassionate leadership 
  • mediation and compassionate approaches to justice 
  • the role of compassion and cooperation in establishing sustainable communities
The mood or tone of both of today's talks was on the multidisciplinary basis for the proper study of compassion (and hence, too, an emerging DIISC network). Patrick Pietroni pointed out that compassion might be proximal, in the response to the needs of someone present (raising a question of the psychology why some such appeals command compassion and some do not) or distal. His talk stressed the latter, giving a number of examples of projects which helped people. In one, processes to aid the resettlement of refugees cut the time they spent in cramped B&B hotels in London from 24 to 6 months. Another subtly linked (through representations of where everyone lived shown in a communal room) isolated elderly in high rise accommodation with similarly housed single parents such that they came to support each other. The stress was on practical general strategies or systems to produce good effects. It did not matter whether anyone had had any personal I-thou feelings to those who partook of the systems. One simply had to think through, accurately, their needs.

Both he and John Ballatt also stressed the multitude of disciplines on which any study of compassion should draw, in the former’s case connecting theology’s focus on the golden rule, anthropology on pro social behaviour, social science and the spirit level, psychology on imprinting and empathy, the biology of altruism and its genetic explanation via completion, neurology’s interest in mirror neurones etc. Various disciplines could feed their perspectives into a spectrum of foci from the personal, to the social, to the environmental which in turn would feed into interventions in quite distinct areas (eg mentoring in the NHS, compassionate universities etc).

I couldn’t help wondering, though, what kind of placeholder ‘compassion’ was. For example, would it matter whether a system with sufficiently virtuous ends was ruthlessly efficiently run by soulless bureaucrats? And how would that relate, say, to the Biblical widow generously but practically uselessly donating her mite? Once compassion can take as its focus the mindless environment, is it clear that this is the same virtue as that involved in fellow-feeling? If it can be elicited from listening to the fourth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (singled out by Pietroni), how does that compare with practical effectiveness, as the systems approach emphasised?

By the end, I half wondered whether ‘compassion’ played the same role as ‘quality’ does in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Some thing, or property, or virtue that always lies on both sides all the many distinctions mentioned today. If so, does that matter providing some tacit grasp of the good is shared and communicated by examples rather than flowing from some more explicitly univocal concept?