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  • Compassion as Justice
  • Richard Reilly

In what follows,1 I consider the relationship between "justice" and "compassion" or "love of neighbor." Generally speaking, Western philosophical ethics tend to be based on notions of "justice" and what is "right," whereas religious ethics tend to be based on love or compassion. Many see an antinomy between these bases of moral value, especially in light of Immanuel Kant's rejection of the Golden Rule as an adequate criterion for moral discernment. To begin I examine Kant's rejection of the Golden Rule and then proceed to indicate how both the Christian and the Mahayana Buddhist might respond successfully to the basis of Kant's critique. Then, following Arthur Schopenhauer's lead, I construct an account of Golden Rule reasoning—within primarily a Buddhist context—that supports the view that compassion is the basis of all moral value and, hence, of what it means to act justly or rightly. I close with an examination of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard to illuminate how this view of the relationship of compassion and justice is fundamental to Gospel ethics.

Rationalizing the Golden Rule

In the broadest sense, the Golden Rule is the notion that one's own desires can serve, by analogy, as a standard for how one is to treat others. This notion can be formulated either positively or negatively. For instance, the most well-known formulation in the Christian tradition is: "Do to others as you want them to do to you" (Luke 6:31; cf. Matthew 7:12); whereas the Confucian tradition emphasizes the negative formulation: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others" (Analects 15.23/24; 12.2). In one form or other, the Golden Rule functions in most of the world's great religions.2

In this section I will develop Christian and Buddhist interpretations of how the Golden Rule should be practiced. Each religious tradition, on these interpretations, offers a clear "rationalizing" principle that, when coupled with the Golden Rule, provides the basis for correct moral judgment.

Despite its pedigree, the Golden Rule, understood in itself as a standard sufficient for moral discernment, has been widely dismissed by Western philosophers since [End Page 13] Kant. In a well-known footnote to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims of the Golden Rule: "It can be no universal law because it contains the ground neither of duties to oneself nor of duties of love to others (for many a man would gladly agree that others should not benefit him if only he might be excused from showing them beneficence), and, finally it does not contain the ground of duties owed to others; for a criminal would argue on this ground against the judge punishing him, and so forth" (Kant 1996a: 80n).

Even if one is skeptical of Kant's notion of "duties to oneself," it remains true that many people have very diminished views of themselves and how they wish themselves to be treated, and, clearly, condoning treatment to oneself that goes against one's own long-term good surely should not give one the "right" to similarly treat another person. Put otherwise, "the agent's wishes for himself qua recipient may not be in accord with his recipient's own wishes as to how he is to be treated" (Gewirth 1978: 133). Moreover, as with Kant's criminal, what one may wish for oneself might go against justified social rules or practices; what then? This so-called "particular interpretation," according to which it is an agent's particular wishes or desires that are to serve as standards of conduct towards others, has received near unanimous rejection.3

However, there is also a "general interpretation" of the Golden Rule that some Western philosophers endorse. On this view, as expressed by Marcus Singer, "I am to treat others as I would have them treat me, that is on the same principle or standard as I would have them apply in their treatment of me" (Singer 1963: 300). If the Golden Rule, under such a general interpretation, is meant to be a necessary and sufficient condition for the acceptability of principles or...


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