Is there a word that means the opposite of ruthless? I don’t think ruthful is a real word.
“Ruth” was a common word in Middle English, first appearing (as “reuthe”) around the 12th century, meaning “pity or compassion,” and in the 13th century we spoke of a person who was kind, charitable, and just generally felt your pain as being “ruthful.” (“Ruthful” has also been used at times to mean “inspiring compassion or pity,” i.e., pathetic, as well as “expressing grief” as in “ruthful weeping,” but these are secondary senses.)
A person who lacked those qualities of kindness and charity, whose only concern was for personal gain and never shed a tear for the victims of his greed, has been, since the early 14th century, known as “ruthless,” literally lacking the quality of “ruth.”
The “ruth” in “ruthful” and “ruthless” is a noun formed on the verb “to rue,” meaning “to feel sorrow or regret” (“And yet … no sooner was alone, Than she for loneliness her promise rued,” 1885), and which is still in wide use today (although perhaps not as much as it should be). Rue,” in turn, came from the Old English “hreowan,” which meant “to afflict with sorrow, pity or regret,” and which was rooted in old Germanic and possibly Norse words. “Rue” is perhaps most often found today in phrases such as “rue the day” (or hour, etc.), meaning, of course, to regret a decisive event which took place at that time (“France, thou shalt rue this houre within this houre,” Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, 1595).
While “ruthless” is alive and well in popular usage today (and “ruthlessness” is even celebrated as a virtue on Wall Street), the sweet and gentle “ruthful” has almost entirely faded from our collective memory. The Oxford English Dictionary labels the word “archaic,” and its most recent citation for its use in print dates from the early 19th century. A search of Google News today for “ruthful” produces the epitaph “Your search – ruthful – did not match any documents,” which a quick perusal of the grim headlines confirms. It seems that this world could do with a “ruth transfusion” as soon as possible.
To lift an answer from Josh61's clear and ruthful reply, you could well use compassionate
compassion: a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them:
I was hoping she might show a little compassion.
The Free Dictionary uses "compassion" in its definition of "ruthless":
ruth·less (ro͞oth′lĭs) adj. Having no compassion or pity; merciless: ruthless cruelty; ruthless opportunism.
What I feel is missing from most of the definitions I've read is the sense that to be ruthless, you have to commit the acts which cause suffering (although this is often implied). Here it is, though, in the Macmillan Dictionary
[ruthless:] willing to make other people suffer so that you can achieve your aims.
So ruthless is to be willing to cause suffering and compassionate is to want to relieve suffering.
Ruthlessness is a lack of compassion or pity for others (OED). It's a common symptom of psychopathy (i.e. psychopaths, who have difficulty empathizing with other people, tend to be ruthless). A ruthless person doesn't slow down for anyone. Such a person might also be called aggressive and cutthroat if their ruthlessness applies to advancement in competition, or policy in business or government. On the other hand, if a person is ruthless in the endeavors of their personal lives, they might be called selfish and callous.
Your search for an antonym can start with the core definition: compassion, pity, and empathy are all opposite of ruthlessness. Therefore compassionate, sorry, and empathetic are opposites of ruthless.
If you prefer, consider a more context-specific term:
A person with power over the lives of others would be called merciful, gracious, or benevolent if they didn't use their power ruthlessly.
In competition, if one competitor gains the upper hand over another, they would be called sporting and fair if they refrained from using their advantage to dominate their opponent more than is necessary to win, or especially if they willingly level the playing field instead to give their opponent a chance to catch up.
If you're not being ruthless in personal matters, then you're being considerate of the feelings of the people in your life, sensitive to their needs, and caring.
While most of the dictionary definitions define "ruthless" as "having no pity or compassion", I feel that it bears a connotation of "acting without pity or compassion". That is, the emphasis is on doing rather than on simply being.
With that in mind, I'd suggest as an antonym "conscientious", which is defined by Merriam-Webster as "very careful about doing what you are supposed to do : concerned with doing something correctly", and "governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience".
- Feeling or showing compassion; sympathetic.(AHD)
- kind or gentle.
As a central connotation of ruthlessness is lack of mercy or forgiveness, I think magnanimous is appropriate:
adj. Highly moral, especially in showing kindness or forgiveness, as in overlooking insults or not seeking revenge.
Moreover, I feel these words naturally complement each other, since both are often used to describe powerful or political figures. One might speak of a ruthless dictator or a ruthless despot, and one might speak of a magnanimous ruler or a magnanimous statesman, for instance.
Ruthless has many shades of meaning. A good all-purpose word that serves as an antonym for most (maybe all) of them might be soft.
They are sometimes used in contradistinction to each other, for instance in this newspaper headline:
"Our 1984 culture of spying? Blame New Labour who were soft on criminals yet ruthless on the innocent" — Daily Mail (4 November 2011)
Or this quote from artist Jenny Holzer:
"I wanted to be soft like Rothko and ruthless like Ad Reinhardt." — "Celebrate With Us As Jenny Holzer Turns 65 Years Old Today", artnet (29 July 2015)
Dear Benubird et al.,
When I was a kid, my father used to love showing me his collection of black-and-white "Flash Gordon" movie serials, from the 1940s. The central antagonist, whose main purpose in life was to subjugate the entire universe, was the fiendish "Emperor Ming," a.k.a."Ming the Merciless," the ultra-tyrannical dictator of the planet Mongo. There was nothing that this character would not do, nor individual he would not betray and torture, nor lies he would not fabricate, and people he would not enslave, in order to carry out his ruthless conquests. I came across Stack Exchange purely by accident, and after reading a few of the questions and answers, I immediately joined. I like words, and I like being easily understood, because I can usually utilize just one or two, that accurately convey my message. Because Emperor Ming was so ruthless that he was billed as "Merciless," I submit the word "Merciful," as my response to your request for assistance in determining the most precise antonym for "Ruthless."