One of the Open Question sessions looked at last week was the relationship between compassion and detachment. The meaning of both of these terms are highly contested, playing quite different roles in the Western and Eastern traditions of philosophy and spirituality.
In the Eastern tradition, detachment plays an important role in Buddhism (including Zen), Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Jainism, and the Bahai faith. It is often interpreted as non-attachment to things, desires, and even thoughts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detachment_(philosophy)
Similarly, the idea of compassion plays an important role in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism. Typical of these views is that given expression by the Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion
However in the Western tradition of philosophy, detachment and compassion are understood quite differently. For example, detachment can have three possible meanings: 1. Objectivity 2. Aloofness 3. Indifference. In the first sense, detachment simply means examining an issue or question in an impartial and dispassionate manner. This is also sometimes called . In the second sense, detachment refers to presenting an emotional attitude of being withdrawn, distant, or austere. This is sometimes expressed as being without feeling or affection. The final sense of detachment is that lacking concern, interest, or sympathy. While it is clear that each of the senses can be related to each other, it is clear that they don’t appear to have any direct relationship to the Eastern meaning of non-attachment. However, there does appear to be some similarities of meaning. While in the Western tradition, aloofness and indifference are generally regarded as undesirable qualities, in the Buddhist tradition these qualities are often regarded in a positive manner.
In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is often viewed as the counter-balance to aloofness and indifference, although it is not clear whether compassion in this sense entails actually doing something to relieve the suffering of another person or whether it is simply entering into the subjectivity of another in a deep and total manner. In this sense, the European expressions of sympathy and empathy are relevant.
Sympathy is often thought of doing something to relieve the suffering of another person (as in the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan) and hence similar to compassionate action. In contrast, empathy is usually viewed as understanding another person’s emotional state without any motivation to act to relieve the suffering of another person. The sole purpose of empathy is simply to understand what another person is experiencing.
In general terms then, it would seem that objectivity is closely related to empathy, that we seek to understand why a person acts or feels as they do but without any inclination to act with respond to those feelings. This knowledge-based understanding of detachment can lead to perceptions of being aloof or indifferent, although the assumption implicit in this view is that one should act to relieve another person’s suffering. It could be argued that the desire to relieve the suffering of another person is itself a motivation that might be unwanted by the person who is suffering. It might be felt that it is better to endure pain and suffering than to receive an emotional salve for it. The question that is left unanswered then is when is it appropriate to act and when is it appropriate to simply understand?