Arthur Schopenhauer’s ethical theory contends that compassion is the basis for ethics. He disregards reason as a means of determining morality; he condemns ethical theories, such as that of Immanuel Kant, that prescribe reason as the means to understanding ethics. Schopenhauer accepts reason only as an instrument to fulfill the ethical goals instilled by compassion. By compassion, he means that we should all treat each other’s well-being to be equal to our own–an ethical person would be willing to sacrifice his well-being in order to prevent another person from suffering.
He arrives at this conclusion from the premise that we are all manifestations of the same “will;” the well-being of each of us is equal in the grand scope of things. Schopenhauer asserts that most people act selfishly, and thus unethically, because of the phenomenal, or sense-based, pleasures that they receive from regarding their own needs and desires to be more important than those of others. To Schopenhauer, the difference in power between the tormentor and the tormented is illusory–we all, in the truest sense, share all the pains and sufferings of humanity. Thus it is clear that Schopenhauer’s ethical theory implies that we should act to reduce the suffering of others, even to our own expense if the suffering prevented is more than the suffering we would have to endure.
Still, we must consider whether we should really really on emotions instead of reason as a basis for a valid ethical theory. What if one were to, hypothetically speaking, feel more compassion for the murderous criminals locked up in jail more than the people whose lives and properties would be put in jeopardy by the release of said criminal? (This person feels that time lost is worth more than the safety of others.) If compassion serves as the premises for this person’s rational faculties, then he will look to release the criminals. Almost any rational ethical theory, however, would suggest that this person should value the safety of innocent people more than the freedom of the criminals.
Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s ethics prescribe strong altruism. But is it really unacceptable to value one’s own well-being over that of another? It is only natural and frankly, much social progress can be attributed to the achievement of selfish desires (it is how capitalism works). Still, I do not advocate the total disregard for others’ well-being, I just think it is valid to consider a certain amount of my well-being to be more important that an “equal” worth of another’s well-being. In a case where one would have to sacrifice one’s own life to save another’s, for example, I deny that it is at all unethical to save one’s own life. Furthermore, the refusal to prevent a lot of suffering in others’ lives at a small amount of suffering in yours is understandably unethical. To refuse to save a drowning child just to avoid getting dirty is clearly unethical.
In conclusion, Schopenhauer’s ethics promotes compassion as the source of all moral behavior, despite its intrinsically irrationality. Undoubtedly, we would be better off in a world of Schopenhauer’s altruists than in a world of pure egoists, but I propose that a world of rational agents who still value others’ well-being, though less so than their own, would be best.