Acton Institute Powerblog

Compassion — A Uniquely Human Trait

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Jordan Ballor, associate editor at the Acton Institute, responds to a study published by Joan Silk, a researcher at the University of California, which finds that monkeys do not exercise compassion.

Silk’s team placed a chimp in a situation where it had the option of pulling one of two ropes. Pull the first rope, and the chimp received a bit of food. Pull the second rope, and the chimp received the same bit of food, but a monkey in a neighboring cage also received a similarly-sized morsel.

What Silk found was that “the chimps were entirely indifferent” to the situation of their neighbor. They pulled the first rope about half the time, and the rest of the time they pulled the other. And this indifference was manifested even though the neighboring chimp would often plead or implore its potential benefactor to pull the second rope. “They had their face right up there sometimes. But the begging gestures don’t seem to have had a big impact on the chimp’s behavior,” Silk said.

Ballor reflects on Silk’s research, commenting that “even though not all humans act compassionately, and perhaps not all animals act selfishly, the important reality to recognize is that we necessarily make moral conclusions about such behavior.” Selfless compassion, says Ballor, is a manifestation of the imago dei: “We were built for a purpose, to love God by loving our neighbor.”

Read the full commentary here.

Jonathan Spalink