Compassion and politics: a dangerous mix

Once, driving in a foreign land many years ago, I passed a person walking alone on a dark, unlit country road. As random, irrational violent thoughts cross all our minds from time to time, I had an unbidden image of attacking them. Instead of just dismissing the impulse through fear, anger or humour, as those of us who have the good fortune not to be psychopaths are wont to do, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of their vulnerability and through that of the vulnerability that we all share in this world. I think this was the first time that I understood what compassion, as spoken of by the great religious and moral exemplars, such as the Buddha, actually meant: something between a sense of identity with others, of oneness, and what today we refer to as empathy, but also something like a sense of awe at our smallness in a vast and perhaps ultimately uncaring universe.

Given that personal insight and the importance I believe attaches to the great moral teachings for our psychological and social well-being, I want, nevertheless, to explain why I think the idea of compassion as a basis for political rhetoric and policy is as reckless, corrupting and dangerous as that other great idol of the push for political supremacy, equality of outcomes.

In the first place, compassion is a subjective feeling that in and of itself has no necessary correspondence with the state of nature or the disposition of society or the individuals within it. It could be referred to as a state of grace in which we are given some insight into the existentiality of human being. Unlike an alternative, but in some respects similar, intuition that life is insular and meaningless, however, which can lead to a pathological indifference to or even hatred of humankind, experiencing compassion makes us feel in some manner connected to people. It is important to recognise, though, that this feeling is neither reciprocated nor otherwise manifest in the world. It only becomes so, when it is acted on in some way, through a negotiated transaction between ourselves and others, through politeness, through a greeting or a kind word, though an act which is received and found acceptable to another.

It is the failure to enter into such a negotiation with the world that the first danger of compassion can emerge, which is the delusion that the feeling is, in itself, a portent of personal virtue. In this respect it can be compared with sentimentality, a feeling indulged in by some of the vilest dictators and murderers, which, while universal, has sometimes assumed an exaggerated importance in a particular cultural milieu, notably that of the Nazi leadership. All values, of which compassion is but one, exhibit a fundamental semiotic duality: as concept, as arbitrary and conventional linguistic sign for communication; and as symbol, expressing and evoking a shared emotion. Because we are social beings, a communality of experience leads us inexorably to identify shared emotions in a cultural setting with virtue in-and-of-itself.

This danger is augmented when, in addition to the failure to negotiate one’s feeling with the world by a value-appropriate communication and action, the sense of in-group virtue overrides the essence of the value itself – in the case of compassion, the sense of empathy with the other and togetherness in a hostile world – and becomes, instead, the basis for an exclusionary rhetoric: that those of different political perspectives, for example, not only lack compassion, but are intrinsically without virtue and can be justifiably be mistreated verbally, reputationally and even physically. This is a phenomenon not exclusive to the value of compassion, but its strong divergence from innermost meaning is peculiarly striking.

The second danger of compassion is that, particularly with the prevailing orthodoxy that feelings trump all else, including facts, the belief that one is motivated to a specific course of action by feelings of compassion, in itself constitutes the rightness of that action. To be moved by feelings of compassion to address an evil in the world cannot, obviously, be wrong, as this is one of the important reasons why people are motivated to do things. The problem arises because either someone is biased by ideological presuppositions about the nature and location of evil and thereby misidentify the root of the problem they wish to address, or they collect insufficient evidence to verify that their proposed solution will actually work, or both. It is, I suppose, an example of the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The figure of the do-gooder derided in much of post-Victorian fiction, the busybody who makes others feel equally inadequate and irritated, is at least an individual who can do damage only on a local level. This is nothing compared to the damage achieved by governments that attempt to pass legislation based on feelings of compassion, or at least the assumption that they are acting in the interests of a more compassionate society. For it goes without saying that most such attempts invariably fall foul of the objections raised above, that they misidentify the nature of the problem and do not take account of the possible – usually unintended – consequences of the policy. The law and compassion are fundamentally incommensurate. Law upholds the virtue of justice, which – at least in the common law tradition – is the examination of the claim to truth of a particular case. It is based on the evidence of the particular disposition of facts in the real world, in which feelings play little or no part.

To illustrate this point, I want to examine two cases ostensibly involving compassion politics. The more recent and easier case, that of Universal Basic Income, which has been proposed numerous times, most recently in face of the challenge posed by automation. The harder case, is that of the abolition of slavery 200 years ago, in which slavery was outlawed in the UK and throughout its colonies.

At any one time there are several experiments with Universal basic Income (UBI) being carried out worldwide. Some of them are very localised and small scale. The largest and very recent one (2017-2018) was carried out in Finland, which involved 2000 unemployed people randomly assigned to the programme. The purpose was to give the participants some economic security while they looked for work and would be paid throughout the period regardless of whether they found a job in the meantime. To the extent that it provided security and promoted psychological well-being, it was considered a success, but in terms of motivating people to find work, it was not deemed successful and there are no plans to extend the programme or even repeat the experiment. UBI appears an enlightened idea which founders repeatedly on the entwined issues of human nature and affordability. As we have seen with the protection payments for furloughed staff during the lockdown this year, justifiable and certainly compassionate as they have been and which can be considered a quasi-experiment in UBI, they do not address the issue of ongoing employability – or even, there are some indications, the desire to re-engage with work – while racking up an unsustainable debt.

On the surface the abolition of slavery seems an open and shut case of compassion politics – Wilberforce even read out accounts of the mistreatment of slaves in parliament. Also, it seems to go against the principle that action should be evidence-based as, certainly, no pilot studies were carried out to see if abolition were likely to be a success. However, this is to miss the point. Although slavery had existed in almost every society (and continues to exist in many societies to this day), against the shift in the religious, cultural and philosophical beliefs of the age, it could no longer be held as justifiable. Therefore, although there is no denying that compassion played a part, the force behind abolition was the repudiation of what had come to be seen as a great evil in the light of an evolving truth. There was no question at that point, in the minds of the abolitionists at least, who eventually became a majority, that justice would only be served by making slavery illegal.

Although some of the issues raised by those who believe in compassion politics are evils which should be ended, too many of them fail to meet two important criteria: That a potential change in the law addresses a tangible evil and that the solution is clear and the enforcement of law is the sole option. The case of slavery meets these two criteria; one set of human beings were owned by another and were being traded as commodities, so there was no disagreement over the way in which this could be brought to an end. UBI does not meet either of these criteria; the supposed evil – a future without employment due to automation and AI – though possible, is still hypothetical and, therefore, not tangible, and it is entirely possible and likely that the challenge will be met by new forms of employment.

Meeting these two criteria is important because changes in the law impose a burden on the freedom of individuals and a judgment has to be made that society as-a-whole benefits from such changes. Many issues meet one of the criteria, but not both. Drug addiction is an obvious scourge which has a tangible impact on the user, their families and society to some extent. But after 50 years of drugs proscription we are further than ever from eliminating the problem – in fact, it has only exacerbated the problem. Drug use and addiction are enormously complex phenomena and it is not obvious that prohibition was ever the answer. Moreover, it is not clear that drug use at least is even seen as a tangible evil any longer.

I want to build on the foregoing discussion to consider the epitome of compassion politics, the welfare state as the solution to poverty. I believe that having a welfare state as a safety-net that prevents people from falling into destitution, or supports those incapable of supporting themselves, is a mark of a civilised society, so I have no problem with its existence. But mainly when we talk about poverty we are speaking about relative poverty, which only means falling below the median wealth in a particular society. Although it may sound harsh, there is always a measure of choice to such poverty. Some people, admittedly a minority, prefer to live simply and probably consider themselves free rather than poor. For the majority of the poor in developed societies and economies the suffering of poverty involves opportunities not taken and the consequences of choices made, such as not taking advantage of education, not being willing to move, being a teenage single parent or some form of addiction. One of the unfortunate effects of institutionalised welfare is that it facilitates such choices by blunting the consequences of them, allowing the development of an underclass for whom living on welfare is virtually a lifestyle choice.

This brings me to the third danger of compassion politics, which is inherent in the very nature of compassion itself, which is that it is, fundamentally, a feeling of the powerful for the weak. This links the experience I referred to at the beginning of this essay with things such as the welfare state, but whereas my experience was unexpected and fleeting, institutionalised compassion cements this inequality in place. Compassion politics is infested with a particular type of corruption in which the assurance of its institutional power and the sense of superiority of those who advocate it lies in the continued subjugation of its constituency. There is little motive to solve the powerlessness of the powerless and thus their unfreedom. On the contrary, the existence of such an underclass, rather than a sign of failure of welfare to address a systemic problem, becomes perversely a sign of the virtue of welfare advocacy.

Compassion motivates us to recognise suffering and reach out to others. It plays a vital role of mitigating the processes of our society: the impersonal objectivity of scientific method, the inevitable decay of all things and the extinguishing of life, the unfairness in the lottery of birth and the disparate outcomes and experiences of people’s lived-experience, the punishment for wrongdoing, the unforgiving nature of the market, the losing out to rivals in love, promotions, sporting events and elections. Compassion helps to soften the reality that so much in life is a zero-sum game. However, compassion cannot replace these processes, nor can it underlie them. The processes are realities of nature or discoveries of universal human social application, which have added to the collective sum of human peace, prosperity, freedom and happiness, but not in every moment of time and not in every case for every individual, which is where compassion has its place. However, we should not forget that it is a subjective feeling that has no necessary correspondence with the real world. We should appreciate it for what it is, an intuition of the suffering of all people and all things. In all else we should be guided by our accumulated universal wisdom.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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