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


  • David Hadley

    I found Mr. Ballor’s article and the underlying experiment to be interesting and potentially important, but I would be careful about drawing overly broad conclusions from the experiment, particularly since such conclusions are not necessary.

    I suspect that at some point, scientists will be able to document "selfless" behavior from higher animal life if they look around.

    More importantly, even from a Christian doctrinal standpoint, it is not necessary for animals to be less than compassionate for humans to be different and special. The animals were created for a purpose as well. In addition to sustaining us in many ways, they could also easily serve as examples both good and bad. Humans are not created any less in the image of God even if certain animals are found to enage in compassionate behavior.

    David Hadley

  • Evan McClanahan

    I am curious about the way the image of God doctrine is used. How do we reconcile the Fall then? Yes, we were made in the image of God, but didn’t we lose that image with the Fall? If we look at ourselves as still being in the image of God post-Fall, then can’t we justify any human behavior has being intrinsically good? For example, many pro-homosexual theologians argue that because all of God’s creation is good, their sexual orientiation is also good. But with gospel comes law, with creation comes the Fall.

  • Reformed theologians hold that humans lost the “narrow” image of God in the Fall, while retaining the “broad” image in a broken and fragmentary form. The narrow image consists of those traits such as holiness and righteous integrity. It is with respect to both of these aspects that Calvin writes, “the image of God extends to everything in which the nature of man surpasses that of all other species of animals.” Later he writes of Adam, “although we grant that the image of God was not utterly effaced and destroyed in him, it was, however, so corrupted, that any thing which remains is fearful deformity; and, therefore, our deliverance begins with that renovation which we obtain from Christ, who is, therefore, called the second Adam, because he restores us to true and substantial integrity.”

    In this case, I’m simply asserting that when humans do act compassionately towards one another, it is a manifestation of the image of God, imperfect as it may be. And when we do not act that way towards one another, we are manifesting instead the reality of sin.

  • Christine

    This seems to be a peculiar fixation of the Christian West. The Christian East has always taught that Christ’s redemption had a cosmic effect. It is simply not true that animals have not shown altruistic behavior. There are many stories of dolphns protecting human beings who were shipwrecked or whatever from sharks or other sea predators. Dogs and cats have been known to alert the human beings they live with in case of fire — logically the animals should simply seek to save themselves.

    The Old Testament taught that everything with "life blood" has a soul. Animals have animal souls. The beautiful Anima Christi prayer uses the Latin term for "soul" from which the word "animal" is derived.

    When God made the covenant with Noah after the flood he also made it with all living beings.

    I have heard personal stories of animals that bonded with other species defending them against danger.

    I agree with the view of C.S. Lewis that our beloved companion animals just may make it to the next life with us because of their relationship to humanity.

    Nothing is impossible for God. I think we should show a healthy dose of agnosticism on this issue.

  • Who funds these studies?

  • Jim

    Just wanted to clarify the difference between (a) voluntary compassion, i.e. where individuals decide by their own free will to support charity, and (b) coercive distribution of wealth, i.e. where government acquires wealth through force and redistributes it.

    The former is an example of true compassion precisely because it is voluntary on the part of the individual; the latter is not an example of true compassion precisely because it employs coercion to achieve the goal.

    The type or structure of government — republic, democracy, tyranny, etc — is irrelevant to this reality, because all governments operate on the principle of coercion. That is, in fact, what fundamentally defines government: it is the organization in a society which holds the unique legal right to initiate force as a means to an end (anyone else who does so is a criminal).

  • Michael Acree

    I’ll bet the humans who volunteered to help after the hurricanes weren’t raised in cages.

  • Tim Trimble

    I have beed struggling with this issue for quite some time. I am a True Believer in (Volunteering Compassion) without expecting ANYTHING in return.

    I had the opportunity to volunteer as a shift supervisor for volunteers for approx 1 week when our city hosted about 200 of the Kitrinia Evaucees. I enjoyed doing this and have NO REGRETS.

    The Volunteers were absoulty wonderful. Thanks to a Community Church effort there was plenty of help. These people gave of their Hearts and only wanted to help others.

    Now (not volunteers) but Government wonder how they are going to be reimbursed for the help that "THEY" gave these poor people.

    I am very frustrated! Faith Based Initiviates DO NOT HAVE MY VOTE. I’m really appauled at any organization who would expect something in return for caring?

    Thank God I was led to this site