Can compassion be taught?

Stephanie Pye, Priya Jaggi & Dr. Shane Sinclair

November 4, 2021

“Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” [1]

Meno, an inquisitive political mind in Ancient Greece, asked this of Socrates over 2400 years ago. The debate over whether virtues can be taught is a long and storied one, with our recent scientific research on the instrumental role that virtues play in compassion adding to this age-old conversation. Our research began at the bedside by first listening carefully to patients’ and to healthcare providers’ (HCPs) insights and real-life experiences on compassion – those individuals who need compassion and those who aim to provide it – establishing a much-needed evidence-based answer to this question.

Can compassion be taught? Or is it just in people’s nature?

Our question is slightly different than Meno’s, as contrary to popular opinion, compassion is not simply a “virtue” that exists as a personal quality, character trait, or latent component of the human genome that only certain individuals innately possess. Virtues make up one of the essential components of compassion, but compassion also involves a virtuous response tied to a recognition of our shared humanity, seeking to genuinely understand another person, and action aimed at alleviating suffering. While compassion is multi-faceted, virtues such as love, kindness, understanding, acceptance, and authenticity, among others, function as the essential energy source that ignites the unfolding of its other components – all that are found to coexist in a fluid and dynamic manner.

In order to answer the question about whether or not compassion can be taught, let’s begin by looking at how Socrates responded to Meno’s question. Ever the philosopher, Socrates begins by reframing the original question such that instead of launching his argument with the subject of virtues, he looked into the existence of teachers who could actually dispense knowledge pertaining to the subject of virtues. Socrates argued that in order to teach any subject, there must be teachers and students. Accordingly, without the co-dependent teacher-student relationship for any particular subject, one can safely conclude that subject cannot be taught [1] [2]. While both Meno and Socrates had no trouble identifying teachers and pupils for the flute, or shoe-cobbling experts and apprentices, neither Meno nor Socrates could identify any examples of teachers on the topic of “virtues” and therefore ascertained that the subject cannot be taught. As such, Socrates concluded that virtues are“an instinct given by God” [1] [2].

Not everyone agreed with Socrates’ conclusion. Protagoras, another Ancient Greek philosopher, argued precisely the opposite, noting that Socrates was short-sighted in his assessment and stating that “all men are teachers of virtue, each one according to his ability” [3] [4]. To help us understand his point, Protagoras makes compared learning virtues to learning a language. Learning a language as a child is not from a single source or an official teacher, but rather consists of an unfathomable number of overheard snippets, directed conversations, affirmations, and a countless number of voices. According to Protagoras, “everyone in the Athenian society is a teacher of Greek”, and thus, everyone is also a teacher of virtues [2]. Protagoras therefore encourages us to expand our thinking beyond Socrates’ strict definition of “teacher” and consider the myriad of virtuous mentors that surround us in the form of “parents, friends, spouses, early childhood stories, and colleagues” [4]. While these informal guides and life lessons are not located in the four walls of a classroom, the pages of a textbook, or confer any degree, for Protagoras they provide evidence that virtues, one of the essential components of compassion, can be cultivated within us.

Language matters

Taught, trained, educated, cultivated,nurtured, developed – in a casual conversation these adjectives are employed liberally and often are used interchangeably. However, with respect to compassion, these subtle, but important nuances cannot be overlooked. Interestingly, when we asked patients if they felt compassion could be “taught”, patients were resistant to this notion, with many of them initially expressing that they didn’t feel this was possible [5]. Digging deeper, we realized that the word “taught” was generating thoughts of lecture halls, classrooms, rote-memorization, textbooks, and the sounds of unremittent classroom clocks ticking in the background. For this reason, we modified this interview question and instead asked them whether they felt compassion could be trained, which resulted in patients and HCPs to concur that compassion could in fact be trained [5] [6]. In contrast to the language of teaching, which was associated with dispensing knowledge and acquiring technical skills, the term training generated images of mentorship, practice, and experiential learning that resonated with compassion’s relational and dynamic nature. Perhaps Socrates in his wisdom was correct – that we can’t teach compassion—at least in the traditional sense. But, like Protagoras proposed, this does not mean that learners cannot cultivate the innate virtues associated with compassion over time and under the right conditions.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

[1] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html

[2] https://muse.jhu.edu/article/227905/summary

[3] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/protagoras.html

[4] https://jme.bmj.com/content/medethics/9/4/189.full.pdf

[5] Sinclair, S., Torres, MB., Raffin-Bouchal, S. et al. Compassion training in healthcare: what are patients’ perspectives on training healthcare providers?. BMC Med Educ 16169(2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-016-0695-0

[6] Sinclair, S., Hack, T.F., McClement, S. et al. Healthcare providers perspectives on compassion training: a grounded theory study. BMC MedEduc 20, 249 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-020-02164-8

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