Journal of Adult Development

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 1–12 | Cite as

Developmental Levels of Conceptions of Compassion in the Ethical Decision-Making of Western Buddhist Practitioners

  • Albert ErdynastEmail author
  • Lobsang Rapgay


This study used Rawls’ social contract theory of right to examine the conceptions of compassion of Western Buddhist practitioners as they made ethical decisions. The study, which used a construction sample of 140 subjects in order to study the developmental levels of thinking among the Buddhist practitioners, identified five structural-developmental levels of conceptions of compassion along with a level of pre-compassionate thinking. Only a sparse amount of thinking at the level of ethical principles of compassion was found among the Buddhist practitioners. Buddhist practitioners gave priority to issues of karma over issues of rights in ethical decisions involving dilemmas related to life and death decisions. Scoring manuals were constructed for assessing ethical reasoning and justice-reasoning based on Rawls’ meta-ethical theory of justice and right. Different dilemmas seem to elicit different levels of conceptions of compassion, which supports the view of compassion as “levels of conceptions” rather than a singular state.


Compassion Ethical development Developmental levels 



The authors would like to thank the Balm Foundation, New York and Plum Foundation, Los Angeles for a partial grant to conduct the research and the Land of Medicine Buddha in San Jose, California for their assistance in helping to recruit research subjects.


  1. Batson, C., & McDavis, K. (1978). Empathetic mediation of helping: A two-stage model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 279–287.Google Scholar
  2. Batson, C. D., O’Quin, K., Fultz, J., Vanderplas, M., & Isen, A. (1983). Influence of self-reported distress on egoistic versus altruistic motivations to help. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 706–718.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Batson, C. D., & Shaw, L. L. (1991). Evidence for altruism: Toward a pluralism of pro-social motives. Psychological Inquiry, 2, 107–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Batson, C. D., & Weeks, J. L. (1996). Mood effects of unsuccessful helping: Another test of the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 148–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Colby, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1987). The measurement of moral judgment, Vol. 1: Theoretical foundations and research validation. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Commons, M. L., & Richards, F. (2003). Four postformal stages. In J. Demick & C. Andreoletti (Eds.). The handbook of adult development, the Springer series in adult development and aging (pp. 199–220).Google Scholar
  7. Dalai Lama, H. H. (1985, November 1) [Letter]. Asiaweek, p. 73.Google Scholar
  8. Dalai Lama, H. H. (1999). Ethics for the new millennium. New York: Riverhead Books.Google Scholar
  9. Dalai Lama, H. H., & Cutler, H. (1998). The art of happiness. New York: Riverhead Books.Google Scholar
  10. Dewey, J., & Tufts, J. H. (1932). Ethics. New York: Holt.Google Scholar
  11. Dworkin, R., Rawls, J., Nagel, T., Nozick, R., Scanlon, T., & Thompson, J. (1997). Philosophers’ brief, New York review of books, 44(5).Google Scholar
  12. Erdynast, A. (1974). Improving the adequacy of moral reasoning: An exploratory study with executives and doctoral philosophy students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  13. Erdynast, A. (1984). A Rawlsian view of Kohlberg’s conception of stage 6 justice-reasoning. In M. Commons, F. Richards, & C. A. Armon (Eds.), Beyond formal operations, Volume 2: Late adolescent and adult cognitive development. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  14. Erdynast, A. (1999). Revisions in Kohlberg’s theory and methodology in the research of moral development. Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Adult Development, Minneapolis, MN.Google Scholar
  15. Fultz, J., Schaller, M., & Cialdini, R. (1988). Empathy, sadness, and distress: Three realized but distinct vicarious affective responses to another’s suffering. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 312–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gyatso, T. (1989). The14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Nobel Prize for Peace, Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway.Google Scholar
  17. Gyatso, A. E. (1997). Bodhichitta: Cultivating the compassionate mind of enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion Publications.Google Scholar
  18. Hoffman, M. (1980). Empathy and moral development, implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Ickes, W. (1997). Empathetic accuracy. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  20. Kohlberg, L. (1981a). From is to ought: How to commit the naturalistic fallacy and get away with it in the study of moral development. In The philosophy of moral development. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  21. Kohlberg, L. (1981b). Justice as reversibility: The claim to moral adequacy of a highest stage of moral judgment. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  22. Kohlberg, L., & Candee, D. (1984). The six stages of justice development. In the psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages (Vol. 2, pp. 621–683). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.Google Scholar
  23. Kohlberg, L., Levine, C., & Hewer, A. (1983). Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics, contributions to human development (Vol. 10). New York: Meachum.Google Scholar
  24. Nagel, T. (1970). The possibility of altruism. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Rawls, J. (1980). Kantian constructivism in moral theory. John Rawls Collected Papers (pp. 303–358). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Rawls, J. (1993). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Reisenzein, R. (1986). A structural equation analysis of Weiner’s attribution-affect model of helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 1123–1133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Rinpoche, S. (1992). The Tibetan book of living and dying (p. 374). London: Rider.Google Scholar
  30. Schmidt, G., & Weiner, B. (1988). An attribution-affect-action theory of behavior: Replications of judgments of help-giving. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 610–621.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Shantideva. (2002). Guide to the Bodhisattva’s way of life. New York: Tharpa Publications.Google Scholar
  32. Tharchin, G. L. (1999). Achieving Bodhichitta: Instructions of 2 lineages combined into a unique system. New Jersey: Mahayana Sutra & Trantra Press.Google Scholar
  33. Tsongkhapa, Je. (1999). Fulfillment of all hopes: Guru Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism. Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.Google Scholar
  34. Weiner, B. (1980). A cognitive (attribution)-emotion-action model of motivational behavior: An analysis of helping-giving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 186–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyAntioch UniversityLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUCLALos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations