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In this period where everyone in the country is under quarantine, everyone is doing their part in order to minimize the spread of the epidemic. In fact, there are some people that sacrifice themselves out there in order to help the people, such as healthcare workers, grocery store workers, and delivery services. However, can we consider their actions are done for the sake of helping people, or for the sake of surviving? In this time of the epidemic, the economy has suffered greatly as most people cannot go to work due to the virus. As such, many people lack jobs and to make ends meet. While we can see a lot of those workers outside doing noble, maybe others are only forced into this situation in order to make ends meet.
Actions done for the sake of others well-being is a noble action. One can consider this action to be selfless, compassionate, and kind. People commonly consider these traits as humane, to aid other people in suffering. However, some have seen these actions as a form of marketing, celebrities and brands called out when showing support for one community solely as a form of promotion. An example of this was reported In an article written by Khatchatourian (2015) stating that Disney’s promotion of their Star Wars movie was changed based the region it was shown to, where a certain character was shrunk down in the poster in order to appeal to the demographic in China. However, in comparison to the posters in other countries, this character can be seen more prominently. It can be argued that Disney removed the prominence of the character in order to appeal to the Chinese demographic where the morals are different compared to other countries. Thus, we can see that the act of helping others in need can be exploited for personal gain. As such, one ponders the question of what makes an action humane. How do we determine if one does an action simply to help or if they have an ulterior motive behind a noble action?
The reason I started asking this question is because I constantly saw brands hop on the bandwagon, where they claim to support movements such as Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ+, only after they are accepted as the mainstream. It is clear to see that these companies do not actually care about the cause, they only care about the popularity of the cause. This thinking leads me to wonder on why we want to do humane actions and what it truly means to be humane. In this paper, I aim to analyze what makes an action humane, such as the compassion, the act of selflessness, and the kindness we give to one another. I aim to analyze multiple philosophical perspectives on what makes the act of helping genuine in order to find out how to differentiate genuine aid being given to help people in need and aid given in order to pander to the popular movements.
Compassion is the feeling that alludes to the act of kindness and sympathy since we closely associate the feeling of this emotion towards the suffering of others. Compassion is a topic that has been tackled for centuries, as books such as the Bible since compassion can be found in the Old Testament such as Isaiah 49:10 which says, “They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.” Compassion can also be found in the New Testament such as Matthew 9:35-38 which states,
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
These excerpts from the Bible show us that compassion is not a new concept but rather one that has lasted until the modern age. Thus, this shows us that compassion has been relevant in religion, or at least in Christianity.
However, if we view compassion from the perspective of western philosophers, we see that the value of compassion varies differently from each philosopher. People such as Friedrich Nietzsche, with an article written by Daniel Harris (2017) named Compassion and Affirmation in Nietzsche. In the article, it states that Nietzsche is critical on the concept of compassion since he views the word “compassion” as too broad of a term since this implies that it condemns all forms of suffering without viewing what makes our nature to be susceptible to suffer a noble thing, and thus robs our importance. But despite that, Nietzsche does not view the act of compassion as inherently bad since he sees that if one with a master morality has pity on something, then the pity has value. The author of this article argues that compassion by itself is harmless, but the act of compassion whilst losing the upper hand might impact more suffering rather than help. This basis on compassion is based on Nietzsche’s view on master-slave morality, which in short, implies that the master morality are for the “strong-willed” and create their own morality whilst slave morality are for the “weak”, who are viewed as pessimistic and try to convert others into the same morality. This means that the act of compassion, while meant to be for goodwill, can result in a form of weakness as it does not address on the positive aspect of struggle when based upon the master-slave morality.
However, if we view compassion as a form of weakness, we fail to see its inherent value in creating value. Is it worth helping others? The way I interpret what Nietzsche meant on compassion is that our compassion must come from our own morality, rather than to feel pity on all forms of suffering, as to put more value in feeling pity towards others.
Selflessness is what people commonly view as a noble trait. The act of putting one’s self behind others has especially been tackled by a philosopher named August Comfe, who is commonly associated with the philosophy of Altruism, the act of putting others over one’s self. In an article written by Campbell (2006), he stated that Comfe believed that one should put others over themselves, in a form of collectivism where everyone helps each other. Essentially, altruism believes in the common good, with its method being that the common good is to put others over one’s self. However, Comfe’s view is flawed when in comparison to the act of being humane. If we do actions for others for the greater good, we fail to acknowledge the compassion for the situation. Comfe’s view on how one should be altruistic considers the overall view rather than the individualistic view that compassion brings.
What this means is that altruism can prove a form of selflessness, but the way Comfe views the act of altruism, it isn’t because one helps another because they feel compassion for the suffering another person has, but rather they feel that it is their duty to help others. And in a way, this devalues the pity one has for others, since it ignores the motive to help. This also implies that there is no true selflessness, one cannot be truly motivated to help others solely for their sake because if we view it that way, we ignore the reason we’re trying to help, which in a way, is a form of self-satisfaction, since we feel satisfaction in helping others. In a study done by Szuster (2016), she researched in detail about the different dimensions of altruism. In the study, she found that altruism can be rooted in our social life, through forming bonds, we form familiarity and a form of dependence upon others in order to create a sense of belonging and affection.
We learn that helping others is important in order to build a relationship and thus, altruism, and the act of selflessness, is formed through our social interactions with others, which is entirely subjective and cannot be truly selfless. This shows that while we cannot be truly selfless and that our reason to help is somehow to benefit our own, the reason we develop the will to help others can be seen in our relationships with other people and the compassion new feel for them. And from that, I understand that altruism in the eyes of Comfe is not true selflessness, since it fails to see why should we help them but rather sees that we have to help them, falling into the slave morality that Nietzsche implies, and from that, I believe that genuine selflessness is formed from a subjective view that is more in line with a ‘master morality’, where one should help others because they believe it’s right, where it comes from one’s own sense of compassion, which in turn, forms a genuine want to put others above one’s self since while it aligns with one’s own goals, the action is done for the sake of other people because they believe that it’s the right thing to do to help them.
Kindness has always been valued. Its been shown in every show and people generally appreciate acts of kindness. The act of kindness shows parts of compassion and a sense of selflessness. We can think of it as the part where we act upon said compassion and selflessness. Kindness has always been valued as something everyone should learn, that even texts as old as the Bible show an example of kindness, in the parable of the Good Samaritan found in the book of Luke. The act of kindness is more explicitly shown in the excerpt in Luke 10:33-35 which says:
“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “
This part of the Good Samaritan shows how far kindness can help people and shows one’s compassion as he disregarded the man’s status and only sought to help him, which shows some sense of selflessness. I interpret the parable as one of the Bible’s best examples of the act of kindness and what can be compared as a humane act. Kindness is a term that is hard to define. We know kindness when we see it happen, yet when we try to define it, we often just end up thinking it means any good act.
However, we cannot say that all acts of kindness are for good. As stated earlier, companies will try to act kind by supporting movements such as LGBTQ+ and BLM. However, these companies have shown a history of only supporting these movements solely for publicity. A recent example of this was from Activision Blizzard as reported in an article by Victor (2019) was that a Chinese player named Chung Ng Wai from their tournament because the player showed support for the protests that happened in Hong Kong, which resulted in him being kicked from the tournament, and losing all the prize money he earned as well as suspending the two commentators at the time. The result was that a lot of fans internationally showed support for Chung and the Hong Kong protests which resulted in immediate backlash in the community against Activision Blizzard as it was leaked that their Chinese social media account in Weibo apologized to China about the behavior of Chung. This shows that companies like Disney and Activision Blizzard do not actually care to support movements for a good cause if it damages profit as these are the same companies who show ‘support’ for movements popular in the west and that they feign kindness solely for their gain. So, if kindness can be manipulated for personal gain, what makes kindness genuine?
Based on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Nietzsche’s take on compassion, and the philosophy of altruism, I understand that most of these show forms of what people commonly see as humane. The Good Samaritan shows a Samaritan helping another because they want to help, Nietzsche viewing people with a ’master morality’ showing pity upon others be given actual recognition, and Comfe’s collectivist view on altruism share a common factor. The capability to care. The word ‘humane’ can apply to many things, most of which are focused on ethics. So, the act of doing something considered to be humane shows a form of genuine care. Whether it be care for others, care for animals, care for nature, or to care about anything, to recognize value and act upon it. We can see lab rat tests as somewhat ‘inhumane’ because we don’t consider about the rat’s lives, but we can say that the reason those rats are used is due to their similarity to our DNA so it can be argued that it’s for the common good. We can feel pity for a criminal for their motives and still consider them deserving of a sentence. We can help people who’ve wronged others in the past if we believe it is the right thing to do. Based on these actions done by companies, we cannot say their support for movements are humane and considered as acts of kindness since we can see it’s used to gain their own profit. I see that the act of being humane isn’t just to feel pity, to act selfless, and to act kind. But rather, I see the act, in some way, embodies all of them, with a sense of care involved. We commonly view charities as something humane. We commonly view animal testing with proper conditions as something humane. So, what stops the act of being humane as a form of seeking the common good through the means of proper care? I’ve learned that the act of being humane cannot be determined solely from the act, or from where it comes from. It depends on the motive and the method.
In the end, I have learnt that humane, like all words, cannot be given a concrete definition. We all view ethics in different manners. What matters in humane acts is not the action, but rather the method. To look back again on the parable of the Good Samaritan, why did the Samaritan help the guy? Because he saw that he needed help. But did he recklessly help the man, without considering other factors? He patched him up first, then gave him a ride on his own donkey. He considered how to approach this, rather than to blindly help the man. He even promised the innkeeper to pay back any extra expense the man had. He could’ve simply patched him up but he considered what would be the right decision. Because of the parable, I believe that the act of being humane is not to simply help others in need due to being kind, but to help them in the best way according to the conditions presented.
In the context of the pandemic, one might see the essential workers working for their own self-interest, even if the job poses health risks. But one can also argue that this is the best they can help, and that their hard work shows what can be considered humane.
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