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Compassion in Contemporary Social Policy: Applications of Virtue Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2011

Boston University School of Social Work, 264 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, USA email:
Boston University School of Social Work, 264 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, USA email:
Boston University School of Social Work, 264 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, USA email:


Current academic debate in the social sciences and humanities is revisiting the role of virtue in civic life. This debate is relevant to social policy. We argue that virtue is already an implicit component of policy debates, but that the virtue of compassion has not received sufficient emphasis. To support our argument we review classical and contemporary arguments regarding virtue and its linkage to the ‘good society’; articulate the necessity of compassion and its application to specific policies areas (e.g., domestic violence, welfare, emergency care); and assess how compassion intersects with other virtues in the policy environment. Policy implications are identified including: recognition of the realities of suffering, the need for sufficient administrative infrastructure and trained professionals and an often long-term commitment to work in community settings. Weighing the risks, and the overall challenges of virtuous action, our analysis suggests compassion remains a compelling, yet under-utilised, basis for constructing and implementing policies.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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