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Choosing to Feel: Virtue, Friendship, and Compassion for Friends.

Diana Fritz Cates. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. 298pp. $32.00 (cloth).

Are we to feel compassion for the starving African child whose face we see for fifteen seconds on the television screen? If the answer to that question is yes, why and how is that compassion generated? And what does feeling compassion have to do with acting with compassion? Choosing to Feel addresses these questions for "scholars of religious, theological, and philosophical ethics" (dust jacket), but since these questions exercise all thoughtful human beings, the answers proffered in this book deserve a wider audience.

Cates argues that compassion is a virtue, i.e., "a habitual disposition concerned with choosing to act and feel in accordance with a certain rule" learned in the context of friends "attracted and attached to each other on the basis of each other's moral character," and then extended to those who would not be ordinarily regarded as friends (2). Her argument builds upon Aristotle's and Aquinas's accounts of the nature of virtue and of friendship and applies those insights to develop a "Christian ethical account of the virtue of compassion" (3). The careful "architectonic structure" she adopts in explaining and applying classical philosophical and theological insights is probably necessary for convincing professional philosophers, but a thoughtful "common reader" will likely find Part III of the book more interesting and useful. In this section, her analysis is responsive to texts many such readers are likely to have encountered: Caring by Nel Noddings, and Compassion, jointly authored by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, and Henri Nouwen.

The book hopes to provide an account that is "adequate to the experiences of people whom [Cares regards] as deeply and richly human" (4). By anchoring her analysis in the particular relationships of family and friends, she intends to reverse traditional approaches of Christian ethics that begin with "universal neighbor-love" before moving to individual responses. Deeply human responses are necessarily complex: "Our best feeling is thoughtful feeling (i.e., passion that has been educated over time to arise and to persist 'in the right way'), and our best thinking is feeling-full thinking (i.e., thinking that takes place fundamentally in the service of love).... The deliberative process [is best construed] as a movement of passionate, practical rationality that integrates effectively the best of our feeling and the best of our thinking, at the same time" (171).

Placing her discussion in a feminist context, Cates reports that her project began because previous definitions of compassion did not square with her experience. Often in her discussion she observes (sometimes in footnotes) that a range of the issues under consideration have been of interest to feminists - e.g., suspicion of an ethic of compassion applied primarily to women, and feminist discounting of Aristotle because women are excluded from his discussions of virtue and friendship. Her pervasive concern to avoid a false dualism of body and mind, of feeling and thought, though not an exclusively feminist interest, has also been ubiquitous in feminist thinking.

Another feminist issue, paying attention to bodily reactions, is an important piece in Cates's argument. This is related to her contention that one learns to feel and act compassionately through recognizing others as part of an extended self, a move predicated on her understanding that Aristotle equates "the self's love for a friend [as] an extension of its love for itself" (89). For Cates the notion of extended self includes the notion of extended body. However, if feeling another's pain is so crucial in engendering compassion, how does such identification work in engendering compassion for strangers and enemies (near or remote)? Her arguments about why we should feel compassion for strangers are more convincing than her explanations of how.

Layer by layer, Cates works toward this final definition: "... we can define the virtue of compassion as a habitual disposition concerned with choosing both to act and to feel on the basis of our wanting with others the alleviation of their pain, our wanting for others this alleviation as one among many of the goods that are at stake in a given situation, and our perceiving partly in our wanting the best means for promoting the alleviation of pain in coordination with other of the goods at stake" (236). But does this definition help us understand better the story of the Good Samaritan, the story that has provided traditional Christian ethicists with the notion of "universal neighbor-love? Perhaps not.

Nevertheless, Cates makes clear that in order for Christians to learn the virtue of compassion, this and other stories are crucial. If we wish to learn how to choose to feel we can do no better than "listening to, reflecting upon, conversing about, critiquing, reading, reciting, studying, singing, and enacting in ritual a variety of stories that disclose the compassionate God's engagement with human beings" (224).

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Author:Erickson, Joyce Quiring
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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