16 September 2003

The limits of compassion in politics

Public appeals to compassion have become ubiquitous at the beginning of a new century. A few years ago one of Canada's major daily newspapers carried a photograph of quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed as a result of an accident in 1995. As is well known, Reeve has been working tirelessly in the cause of research into spinal cord injuries. The photo was captioned with the plea that fetal tissue research is the only hope for Reeve to regain the use of his limbs. Naturally the reader was expected to sympathize with Reeve’s predicament, the solution to which is blocked only by the apparently irrational – and uncompassionate – objections of anti-abortionists.

About a decade ago an opinion piece appeared in a christian periodical arguing that the legalization of abortion in the United States was a genuinely progressive development favourable to the well being of women everywhere. Those opposed to the abortion licence were guilty, in the author's estimation, of erecting barriers to compassion for women.

The electronic media often feature reports of someone adversely affected by some policy pursued by some government somewhere. Clearly we are expected to oppose such a policy, ignoring the fact that, if another policy had been pursued, someone else would have suffered from its consequences. Clearly, appeals to compassion are not enough to bring about justice.

There is no doubt, of course, that we are called to have compassion for others. Many of us were initially drawn to politics out of a concern for those suffering from unjust policies. The fact that so many of my relatives became refugees in Cyprus in 1974 was a strong motivation to understand the political process and the roots of such injustices. It also gave me compassion for others in a similar predicament, especially Palestinian refugees who are treated as strangers in their own land.

All the same, in recent years I’ve come to understand the limits of compassion in politics. I’ve grown suspicious of politicians who claim to be able to feel our pain.

To begin with, if compassion is the desire to alleviate people’s suffering, then this mere desire is not sufficient grounds for assessing the justice of a proposed action. An unmitigated compassion may prompt us to forego punishment because it inevitably causes suffering. But if the punishment is deserved, then to refrain from imposing it would be unjust.

Second, compassion by itself tends to lead, not to justice, but to favouritism and one-sided advocacy. Compassion is necessarily selective. Our ability to enter into the suffering of others cannot be stretched indefinitely. Parents naturally feel for their own children more than they do for others'. We suffer along with our friends in adversity more than with mere acquaintances, or with the faceless names we read about in the papers. There is nothing wrong in this; it is simply part and parcel of our created limitations.

Only God himself is capable of entering into the suffering of all, as he did in the person of Jesus Christ. I may be touched by the plight of the Palestinians, but my compassion for them may blind me to the legitimacy of claims made by Israelis – especially of "sabras" who were born, grew up there and know nothing else – to the same land and resources. In the politics of compassion one helps only those with whom one is able to feel suffering. The suffering of others further removed from oneself is somehow deemed less valid.

Thus Marxists are moved to action by compassion for the proletariat, but in attempting to emancipate oppressed workers, they are unmoved by the suffering they may cause those getting in the way of their agenda. The irony is that appeals to compassion can be a cover for acts of genuine cruelty, scores of millions of which were committed by the heirs of Marx and Lenin in the former Soviet Union and China.

Finally, arguments from compassion are often a way of shortcircuiting the deliberative process – of keeping some arguments from being heard. If politics necessarily entails conciliating diverse interests in accordance with public justice, then arguments need to be heard from all sides before a decision is made. Ruling an argument out of court too soon on the grounds that it is not compassionate is a recipe, not only for less than peaceful politics, but for outright injustice.

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