Acton Commentary

Compassion -- A Uniquely Human Trait


Paragon of altruism?

Monkeys are all business, or so concludes a recent study published in the journal Nature . Joan Silk, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted an experiment with chimpanzees to determine whether the chimps were motivated by altruistic or compassionate feelings, with surprising results.

Silk's team placed a chimp in a situation where it had the option of pulling one of two ropes. Pull the first rope, and the chimp received a bit of food. Pull the second rope, and the chimp received the same bit of food, but a monkey in a neighboring cage also received a similarly-sized morsel.

What Silk found was that “the chimps were entirely indifferent” to the situation of their neighbor. They pulled the first rope about half the time, and the rest of the time they pulled the other. And this indifference was manifested even though the neighboring chimp would often plead or implore its potential benefactor to pull the second rope. “They had their face right up there sometimes. But the begging gestures don't seem to have had a big impact on the chimp's behavior,” Silk said.

The question for natural scientists is why human beings display such incredible acts of compassion — such as those seen in the wake of the hurricanes on the Gulf coast and the Indian Ocean tsunami earlier this year — but intelligent, self-aware animals like chimps do not. While there are counter-examples to be seen on both sides (not all humans always act compassionately, and chimps do sometimes act in apparently charitable ways), the issue remains valid.

Silk says that “it's important to realize just how cooperative people are and how different they are from other creatures.” Chimpanzees are known to be able to master cooperation if both parties stand to gain something on which they would have otherwise missed out. But with humans, it's just not the same. “The scale of cooperation is different,” Silk said. “We've got stratified societies, we've got division of labor. And other animals haven't matched this. And the question is 'Why? What is it that has allowed us to do it and other animals not?'”

Of course the search for a purely naturalistic or mechanical answer to such a question will necessarily prove futile. But Silk's observations do lead us to important questions about the human person that are addressed in the moral sciences. And even though not all humans act compassionately, and perhaps not all animals act selfishly, the important reality to recognize is that we necessarily make moral conclusions about such behavior.

So what may be most illuminating about Silk's research is that it clarifies the fact that humans make value judgments about selfish and selfless acts. If the monkey refuses to share when it would cost it nothing to do so, we are inclined to say that it is a “bad” or “naughty” monkey. At the very least we see just how different humans and chimps actually are. But even more, if a human person helps out their neighbor we judge it to be a virtuous act. And when a person refuses to do so, we recognize it as a moral failing and see that something is lacking.

Indeed, the duty to show compassion to your fellow-human being has been a staple of moral teaching throughout human history, and is found in all major world religions. Socrates and Confucius agree that we should not do to others what we would not like them to do to us.

But the Christian doctrine of the image of God gets to the crux of the matter and gives a comprehensive answer to such questions. The creation story of Genesis relates that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Christian theologians have often emphasized that this latter phrase, “male and female he created them,” is a constitutive part of what it means to be created “in the image of God.” There is an inherent sociality in the human person.

This social aspect of the image of God gives us an insight into the connection between the two famous love commandments. What is it about human beings that leads us to act compassionately when animals do not? Simply this: We were built for a purpose, to love God by loving our neighbor.