Journal of Professional Nursing

Compassion: A Concept Exploration

Andrew Jull, RCpN, DipNurs, DipBusStudies (Health Management) Clinical Nurse Consultant, Auckland Hospital and Researcher, FutureHealth

Reference:  Jull, A. (2001). Compassion: A concept exploration. Nursing Praxis in New Zealand, (17)1, 16-23.


Feelings or sentiments, such as pity, sympathy and compassion, were fundamental to early nursing, but have been replaced in the theory of professionalised nursing by tools such as therapeutic empathy. It has been argued that therapeutic empathy is inappropriate to the context of nursing, and that sentiments are more accurate sources of nursing action. Despite frequent reference to compassion in the nursing literature, this concept has received limited descriptive attention. The present article explores the nature of compassion and suggests that compassion is not only a feeling, but also a moral virtue that requires the nurse to act in the presence of suffering.  

Compassion, virtues, ethics   

In a society that gives great emphasis to technology, alleviation of suffering through personal engagement has become less valued (Cassell, 1991). The curative role overtook palliation as medicine was revolutionised by autopsy (Foucault, 1973). Historically, nursing has also internalised the devaluation of engagement. Attention was deflected from the sentiments (or feelings) of sympathy, pity and compassion, as wellsprings for nursing, and emotional detachment was promoted (Morse et al., 1992a). However, theorists in the midtwentieth century acknowledged the importance of the relational nature of nursing (Peplau, 1952; Orlando, 1961) and sought tools to explain how nurses’ work had an impact on patients (Newman, 1983). It has been suggested that this resulted in the adoption of the psychotherapeutic tool ‘therapeutic empathy’ (Morse et al., 1992a; Morse, Bottorff, Anderson, O’Brien, & Solberg, 1992b). Morse et al. (1992a, p.276) believe that sentiments were thought to have no place in the drive to professionalize nursing, noting that with the exception of Travelbee (1964), who believed both compassion and sympathy had a place in nursing practice, the outcome of the debate was the devaluation of sympathy as sentimentality and the promotion of empathy as a more professional approach. Continued

Subscribe for full access to Nursing Praxis