Compassion is contentious. For about twenty-five hundred years it has found both defenders and opponents. While the former have considered it an essential ingredient of the ethical life, the latter have denounced it as irrational and a bad guide to action. These opponents have strongly influenced the rhetoric of contemporary debates in Western societies since the ancient Greece. Also, since this period, contrasts between emotion and reason have been recurrent in public life. Some modern defenders of compassion, however, have made strong, rational claims in favour of it.
Martha Nussbaum, for instance, has made a compelling argument against the common understanding of compassion as an irrational emotion. The US philosopher argues that emotions are highly discriminating responses to what is of value and importance and are, therefore, suffused with intelligence and discernment (Nussbaum, 1996, 2001). For Nussbaum, there cannot be adequate ethical theory without an adequate theory of emotional experience and meaning in which compassion plays a very relevant role. In her words: “Compassion is not the entirety of justice; but it both contains a powerful, if partial, vision of just distribution and provides imperfect citizens with an essential bridge from self-interest to just conduct” (Nussbaum, 1996: 57). Elaborating from Aristotle, Nussbaum has developed why compassion is concerned with value: “It involves the recognition that the situation matters for the flourishing of the person in question. Intuitively we see this quite clearly. We do not go around pitying someone who has lost a trivial item, such as a toothbrush or a paper clip, ... In fact, internal to our emotional response itself is the judgment that what is at issue is indeed serious” (Nussbaum, 2001: 316). Compassion, on Nussbaum’s account, is definitely one of the distinctively moral emotions.
This project departs from this affirmative view of compassion, not as an irrational emotion rather a moral one, a prosocial behaviour, a response to the suffering of others, and a willingness to alleviate it. As a prosocial mind-set and proactive behaviour against suffering, cultivating compassion can be seen as progress toward a more ethical society. Accordingly, blocking compassion is certainly problematic.
COMPASS aims to examine how this internal moral compass, as Nussbaum defines compassion, may be prevented from flourishing and developing in modern society through the work of a major public relations and public affairs actor: interest groups. In order to do so we will address one of the most growing moral concerns at present, whose inattention has proved to have most devastating global effects: this is our relationship with nonhuman animals.