Compassion and the Epistemology of Suffering Thresholds

In an attempt to get clearer, and less hyperbolic, about the value of suffering, I earlier suggested the idea of a suffering threshold, which is the “point” at which suffering loses its (positive) value and warrants easing. The idea of easing suffering leads directly to compassion/pity and this passage from section 338 of Nietzsche’s the Gay Science:

The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress,” the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed–all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, the “religion of pity” (or “the heart”) commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly. (Kaufmann’s translation)

The last line in German is: “die ‘Religion des Mitleidens’ (oder ‘das Herz’) gebietet zu helfen, und man glaubt am besten geholfen zu haben, wenn man am schnellsten geholfen hat!” Kaufmann translates “‘Religion des Mitleidens’” as “‘religion of pity’”; however, the German “das Mitleid” can be translated as either “compassion” or “pity,” among other things. Perhaps nothing hangs on the difference between “compassion” and “pity.” However, Jeremiah Conway notes a possible difference of importance. In “A Buddhist Critique of Nussbaum’s Account of Compassion” he writes:

I find it significant that there is only one Greek word, eleos, for the English terms pity and compassion. For a Buddhist, the distinction between pity and compassion is great, while I find Aristotle (and Nussbaum to a lesser degree) blurring the two. Pity is motivated by a desire to help the other, but in such a way that a hierarchical difference between the helper and the helped is maintained. According to Buddhism, compassion is not hierarchical. It operates, not as giving help to the needy, but as life in service to another manifestation of life. Pity, ever conscious of its difference from the other, is necessarily judgmental, constantly evaluation [sic] the worthiness of the other to receive attention. (p12)

Conway’s distinction between pity and compassion from a Buddhist perspective is helpful, first, because the kind of compassion/pity I will address is what he calls “pity”; second, it is the Buddhist (and Christian) view of what Conway calls “compassion” that I wish to call into question (with Nietzsche—though likely not as vehemently as he does).

In the Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, Bernard Reginster reads “das Mitleid” in Nietzsche’s writings as “compassion.” In setting up Schopenhauer’s understanding of compassion for Nietzsche’s revaluation of it, he writes:

Compassion is a disposition to deplore the sufferings of others, and so to avoid causing suffering to them and to try to alleviate their suffering whenever possible. To make a virtue out of compassion is in fact to declare that suffering is something that ought to be deplored and eliminated. (p162)

Nietzsche rejects this understanding of compassion because it sees suffering as essentially negative, and because it leads to ill effects for the person offering compassion and the one receiving it (see Reginster 185ff for an interpretation of Nietzsche’s reasons why). I have great sympathy for Nietzsche’s revaluation of suffering, and what it implies for compassion; nevertheless, he doesn’t always give clear suggestions on how to proceed. I introduced the idea of suffering threshold to try to make things more precise and Nietzsche’s ideas more practical.

If we are right to believe that there is such a thing as a suffering threshold, then an important question arises as to its identification in given instances of suffering. This epistemological issue is extremely important, since it determines what we should do for ourselves and others. In Conway’s terms, the pity that goes with suffering thresholds requires us to constantly evaluate the worthiness of the recipient of pity. However, given Nietzsche’s understanding of compassion/pity, this evaluation of worthiness takes on a different meaning from Conway’s. As Reginster reads Nietzsche, pity/compassion means being willing either to let a person continue to suffer or to inflict suffering upon her, if it will help the person grow, be creative, become better, etc. (Reginster, p186-187). Reginster quotes Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “‘But if you have a suffering friend, be not a resting place for his suffering, but a hard bed as it were, a field cot: thus you will profit him best’ (Z II 3)” (p187).

All importantly, Reginster notes that this revaluation of suffering and compassion/pity doesn’t mean that we are never to ease the suffering of another:

It is worth noting that none of this implies that Nietzsche’s own brand of compassion cannot be aroused by the sufferings of others. Still, it will no longer be a response to suffering as such, but to the suffering that causes “precious capabilities” to be “squandered,” or “halts” someone at “something less than he might have become.” Nietzsche is mindful of the fact that even the strongest individual cannot fight all the fights, and that some challenges might provide better opportunities for growth and overcoming than others. But he largely ignores such complications in his focus to debunk morality’s wholesale condemnation of suffering. (p187)

Hence, the importance of recognizing suffering thresholds. Regarding the epistemological issue of how to recognize when someone’s suffering warrants easing, I have no formula in mind. Rather, it seems that the first important consideration is how well we know the person in question. In Nietzsche’s terms, is the person more of a higher type or a lower type? What are the person’s projects and responsibilities? To what extent and in what ways is the person already suffering? To the extent that we can’t answer these questions about a person who is suffering, it seems that the appropriate response is to err on the side of caution and attempt to help ease the suffering. And, of course, there may be types of suffering that should be eased no matter what, e.g., a person’s drowning or bleeding out. Why err on the side of caution? Is that not to devalue suffering? No. As we have seen, we can recognize the positive value of suffering without holding the absurd view that all instances of suffering have positive value. To help another, for Nietzsche, is, in part, to help them grow. That growth has value (we, of course, can question this) and to hedge our bets by erring on the side of caution is to err on the side of not wanting to let someone suffer on the wrong side of the threshold such that her growth is imperiled. But moreover,  part of the view that Nietzsche seems to be rejecting is the idea that suffering always has either a negative value or merely a short-term instrumental value. In rejecting that, we needn’t go all the way in the other direction and say that it always has a positive value and should never be alleviated because it is suffering.

A second epistemological consideration is how well we know ourselves. That is, we should ask, are we really competent judges of another person’s needs, even a person whom we know very well? If we are capable of being honest with ourselves, and the answer we come to is, “No,” then we again should err on the side of caution, for the same reasons given above. Further, regarding self-knowledge, we should ask whether we are clear about our motivations. Not only “Are we a competent judge of another person’s needs?” but also: are we judging that they need to suffer out of a kind of revenge or sadism, or because we truly want to help them? These are difficult questions. “Know thyself!” is never an easy task. And, as David McRaney nicely elucidates in his recent You Are Not So Smart, it may be even more difficult than we ever thought.

A consequence of needing to defer to our knowledge of a person when evaluating the kind of compassion/pity warranted is that we will most likely and most often be in a position to let suffer, or to inflict suffering upon, those who are closest to us: our close friends and loved ones. This surely has further implications on the kinds of people we might associate with; but more importantly on the kind of person we are required to be:

What belongs to greatness.— Who will attain anything great if he does not find in himself the strength and the will to inflict great suffering? Being able to suffer is the least thing; weak women and even slaves often achieve virtuosity in that. But not to perish of internal distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering—that is great, that belongs to greatness. (the Gay Science, section 325.)

Those of us unwilling or unable to let suffer or to inflict suffering on others out of a desire to help them grow, create, etc., are weaker types in Nietzsche’s eyes. Given the strength required for Nietzschean compassion/pity, and given the epistemological condition regarding how well we know the other and how well we know ourselves, we are left wondering how prevalent such compassion could be. A world that embraces Nietzschean compassion and appropriately and skillfully employs it may not be radically different from the way it is now. Though, perhaps, if Nietzschean compassion were taken seriously, then it might give rise to more and more “higher types” and an increase of instances.



Conway, Jeremiah. 2001. “A Buddhist Critique of Nussbaum’s Account of Compassion.” Philosophy in the Contemporary World, vol. 8. No. 1.

McRaney, David. 2011. You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself. Gotham Books.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1974.  The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Vintage Books: New York.

Reginster, Bernard. 2006. The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Harvard University Press: Cambridge and London.

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