In his best-selling manifesto for a more compassionate society, ETHICS FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM, the Dalai Lama makes a startling claim. He says that, fundamentally, human nature is compassionate. In support of this claim, the Dalai Lama points out that increasing numbers of scientific studies provide compelling evidence to support the view that people who are compassionate are happier and enjoy better health and general wellbeing than those who are not. From this, he suggests, we can infer that ‘compassion is part of our very nature’.

One problem with advancing scientific evidence in support of a claim about so slippery a concept as human nature is that there could be other factors involved. Perhaps it is the physical activity undertaken in the exercise of compassion that is partly cause of these effects. If that were the case, a programme of gym visits might produce the same or better results.

But the Dalai Lama does not in fact base his view of humans’ fundamentally compassionate nature purely on science. For him, the scientific evidence is circumstantial, not final. The final evidence is the fact that, according to the Buddhist tradition he practises, all sentient beings contain the seed of enlightenment. We are in some sense already enlightened. Now since perfect compassion is a necessary condition of full enlightenment, this seed of enlightenment contains within it a disposition to compassion, a disposition we see reflected in human nature.

Within the western philosophical and literary tradition, there are, however some who, though they might accept that compassion is a component of human nature, nevertheless do not think it an admirable one. Here, Nietzsche and his followers come to mind. Nietzsche argues that the value of compassion is over-estimated and points out that ‘hitherto philosophers have been at one as to the worthlessness of compassion. I name only Plato, Spinoza, La Rochefocauld, and Kant’. And certainly if we look beyond these writers to epics such as the Iliad and the Aeneid, we don’t find compassionate behaviour held up as worthy of universal application. In these and similar works, compassion can be construed as little more than feminine weakness. For them, as for Nietzsche, it is might that is right.

The Dalai Lama insists, however, that to deny the value of compassion makes no sense. He points out that, invariably at the earliest stages of our life, and often in the latter stages, we are wholly dependent on others’ care for our survival. Our inability even to feed ourselves as babies or when we are sick or very frail means we could not survive if at least one person did not have compassion for us. How, then, does it make sense to suppose that compassion is without value given that it is a necessary condition of our survival?

In fact, for the Dalai Lama, compassion is both the supreme virtue and the origin of all the other virtues. It is, moreover, the ultimate source of ethics. That this is true, he says, can be inferred from the various religions that have been both source and guardian of our ethical systems. Religion, he says, in a striking passage in another of his books, is a lot like tea. Some people like it with sugar, others without. Tibetans have traditionally drunk it salted. Again, some prefer theirs black, others with milk while Tibetans add butter (though I can vouch that the Dalai Lama himself takes it English style: with milk and a little sugar). But, as the Dalai Lama reminds us, there is one thing that stays the same. There is no drinkable tea without water.

So it is with religion. Many religions accept the existence of a Creator, some do not. Some accept the concept of reincarnation, many do not. Some accept the existence of minor deities, some do not. And within these, there are any number of minor differences – different schools of thought and traditions. Yet, the Dalai Lama argues, there is one thing inherent to them all: compassion. All religions promote the idea of compassion, no matter what their actual belief-system. Compassion is at the heart of all religion. It is therefore compassion that is the ultimate source of ethics, not the religions themselves.

But if that is the case, we might ask whether the Dalai Lama draws the right conclusion inasmuch as he remains committed to Buddhism? Might it not in fact be a good idea to forget about religion altogether and simply to focus on compassion itself? This is not the Dalai Lama’s position. He adopts the much more plausible – and indeed compassionate – view that, in order to bring about positive change in society, it is not necessary to abandon or even to change one’s religion. This is true, he thinks, even if the religions themselves do not always agree on what exactly compassion consists in.

Neither does the Dalai Lama think that world’s agnostics must come down off the fence and atheists give up their atheism in order to pursue an ethical life. Because compassion is part of our very nature – and not, therefore, something transcendent – he thinks it should be perfectly possible to come up with a rationale for compassion even if we adopt a purely materialistic view of the universe.

Supposing then that we accept each of the Dalai Lama’s claims under discussion – namely that human nature is basically compassionate, that compassion lies at the heart of all religions and that compassion is the ultimate source of ethics – what are we make of all those features of contemporary society that clearly suggest a disastrous disconnect between this supposed centrality of compassion to human existence and our actual practices? How are we to account for the wars and the discord that separate us? The problem, he suggests, is simply that we do not in turn put compassion at the centre of our lives. Instead, we suppose that material goods and material wellbeing are where our true happiness resides. Likewise we misinterpret the faith traditions that are properly the vehicles of compassion and wrongly make some other aspect its primary focus. And because of these mistaken priorities, we have created structures and institutions which militate against compassion.

Here, we might wonder if this assessment is not somewhat harsh? The Dalai Lama might be right about the misinterpretation of religion but, for all its faults, is not compassion in fact a central feature at least of modern western society? After all, we have laws prohibiting discrimination against the old and the disabled. Indeed, we have laws prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, colour, creed and sexual orientation too. It might be said that ours is – at least in intent – a thoroughly compassionate society. Even when we consider the economy, it does not wholly neglect compassion. There are labour laws that ensure fair wages for all and rules to be followed that ensure people are not exploited. And when all else fails, there are safety nets to catch those who fall by the wayside.

But we do not need the Dalai Lama to tell us that if global capitalism, broadly construed is all about the pursuit of profit, it would follow that compassion should get a look in, if at all, only insofar as it does not interfere with the bottom line. On this view, it could be said that our rules against exploitation are mere window-dressing. They are there to make us think we are being compassionate, nothing more. Any society that does not forgive debt say once every seven years (to take the ancient Jewish model as an example) – especially debt that people have been encouraged to accrue – is self-evidently less compassionate than one that does.

Against this it might be argued that a society which did not permit lifelong indebtedness would not function so well as one which does – would not be able to fund public services so efficiently for a start. It could be said that the ready availability of credit is itself the mark of a compassionate society. But even if we accept this, we have also to accept that the poor are still with us and that there is immense suffering in the world as result of dubious practices in the pursuit of profit.

Of course, the Dalai Lama does not deny that there are many positive aspects to modern society, but his claim that we wrongly prioritise material things over compassion remains to challenge us. So too does his claim that in some cases religion is misinterpreted. The Dalai Lama does not deny that there are immense difficulties to be faced and obstacles to be overcome if his vision of a truly compassionate society is to be brought into being. Nowhere does he claim it will be easy.

It is precisely to engage with the obstacles and difficulties that stand in the way of a truly compassionate society that is the purpose of the DALAI LAMA CENTRE FOR COMPASSION. It exists also to investigate the nature of compassion and related values with logical rigour and, with similar precision, to find means to integrate compassion into  our ethical practices. We may never be able to prove conclusively that human nature is compassionate and there will doubtless always be some individuals who take refuge in the rhetoric of might. But the cries of the suffering demand a society where compassion is given its rightful place at the heart of all we do.