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Monday, October 1, 1990

The Politics of Compassion

Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Not long ago a colleague and I were discussing my article on Federal disaster relief that appeared in the March 1990 Freeman. In the article I argued, among other things, that the government should not spend money to help rebuild the homes and businesses of the victims of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. I pointed out that someone who could own a home in San Francisco would be wealthier than most Americans, and would therefore hardly be in need of a Federal bailout; that the homeowner could and should have bought earthquake insurance; and that by “bailing out” those who failed to buy earthquake insurance, the government was inadvertently encouraging people to go without insurance.

My colleague reacted to my article not by attempting to refute its claims, but by commenting on my lack of compassion. According to him, my views on the San Francisco earthquake showed an incredible degree of “professional detachment.” This, of course, was just a socially acceptable way of calling me heartless. This is a charge I have run into before, and it is a charge that anyone who opposes Big Government must learn to live with, since by opposing Big Government one must simultaneously oppose most of the things our government does to “help people.”

Indeed, a case can be made that many individuals develop liberal political leanings—and come to advocate a variety of government aid programs—because they think that to do otherwise is to abandon compassion. Before we follow in their footsteps, though, we would do well to think about the nature of compassion.

There are, I think, two competing “theories ofcompassion”—i.e., two different ways in which we can measure how caring an individual is. There is, to begin with, what might be called the Mother Teresa Theory of Compassion. According to this theory, when A feels sorry for B, what A should do is expend personal effort and/or personal finances on B‘s behalf. This theory used to be popular, but in America it has been supplanted by what might be called the Liberal Theory of Compassion. According to this theory, when A feels sorry for B, what A should do is cause C to be taxed so that B can benefit from the revenues thus raised.

The Liberal Theory may sound odd, but it has some obvious advantages over the competing theory. In the first place, it requires nowhere near the level of personal commitment that the Mother Teresa Theory requires. In the second place, it is far easier to spend someone else’s money than your own. In short, the Liberal Theory of Compassion allows you to create the appearance that you are a caring person without simultaneously putting a dent in your lifestyle.

These two theories of compassion will, of course, differ in the “compassion rating” they assign to various individuals. Mother Teresa, for example, rates a perfect 10 under the Mother Teresa Theory (which is why I named it after her), but would rate perhaps a 2 under the Liberal Theory; someone like Senator Edward Kennedy, on the other hand, would presumably fare better under the Liberal Theory than he would under the Mother Teresa Theory.

Which Theory Is Correct?

Which theory of compassion is correct? In answering this question, it is useful to ask a second question: Who, in your opinion, is a better example of a truly compassionate person, Mother Teresa or Edward Kennedy? If you think that Mother Teresa really is the more compassionate person, you will reject the Liberal Theory of Compassion in favor of the Mother Teresa Theory.

It is indeed puzzling that anyone would take a person’s willingness to spend government funds on aid programs as evidence that the person is himself compassionate. By way of analogy, it would be absurd to take a person’s willingness to increase Federal defense spending as evidence that the person is himself brave, or to take a person’s willingness to spend government money on athletic programs as evidence that the person is himself physically fit. In the same way as it is possible for a “couch potato” to favor government funding of athletic teams, it is possible for a person who lacks compassion to favor various government aid programs; and conversely, it is possible for a compassionate person to oppose these programs.

In general, it is a mistake to use a person’s political beliefs as the litmus test of his compassion. If you want to determine how compassionate an individual is, you are wasting your time if you ask for whom he voted; instead, you should ask what charitable contributions he has made and whether he has done any volunteer work lately. You might also inquire into how he responds to the trials and tribulations of his relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Politically speaking, there are three important reasons why we should favor private acts of charity over governmental aid programs. In the first place, government aid programs tend to be destructive of Americans’ spirit of charity. Many Americans do not make charitable contributions and do not play a personal role in relief efforts because they feel that they have already given—not “at the office,” but on April 15th on their 1040 tax forms. In the second place, a case can be made that private acts of charity are more “cost effective” than government aid programs. People are unlikely to give their hard-earned money to an unworthy recipient or to a charitable organization that will waste it. Those who administer government aid programs, on the other hand, often lack the same motivation to make sure that the money they are spending is spent wisely. In the third place, private acts of charity are voluntary: No one forces anyone to give money. The same cannot be said of government aid programs, which are funded by tax dollars.

It may be true, then, that we opponents of governmental largess lack compassion—as measured by the Liberal Theory of Compassion, at any rate. Fortunately for us, there is another way to measure compassion, and I trust that we fare somewhat better under this alternative yardstick.

  • Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.