20 July 2016

The impossibility of equal concern: compassion is no substitute for justice

In recent months, terrorist attacks in different parts of the world have left scores of people dead and injured. Attacks have occurred in Paris, Beirut, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, and now Nice. After each of these episodes, North Americans are moved to express solidarity with the victims. On Facebook, such expressions generally consist of overlaying one’s profile picture with the colors of the French flag or posting a meme proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” or something similar. Alternatively, we link to stories about the tragedy for friends and family to read.

But, as many have pointed out with some embarrassment, we do not offer our sympathies equally to everyone. We are more likely to express horror at attacks in Brussels, Orlando, and Nice than at attacks in Istanbul, Beirut, and Baghdad. Part of the relative inattention to Beirut and Baghdad is due to the fact that, because these cities have so often been war zones, violent acts are not altogether unexpected there, sad to say. We have become inured to the chronic bloodshed in the Middle East. An attack on Brussels, however, catches us off guard. We are horrified because Brussels is a peaceful city in which violence on such a scale is rare.

But there is another reason for the inequality in our expressions of concern. Culturally speaking, Paris and Brussels are more like New York and Toronto than are Beirut and Baghdad. We tend naturally to sympathize with people who are like ourselves. Even educated Western cosmopolitans who castigate everyone else for being too parochial in their concerns tend to sympathize more with other educated Western cosmopolitans than with, well, everyone else.

Excessive parochialism is, of course, a bad thing insofar as it tempts us to ignore the evil and suffering outside of our own communities. Nevertheless, we must always bear in mind that a functioning society has diverse spheres of responsibility in which individual actors properly care more for the things that are closest to them. This is something Aristotle understood better than Plato. And Tocqueville had a better grasp of it than Rousseau. While we may aspire to have equal regard for everyone without discrimination, in reality we are limited creatures with limited abilities. Our capacity for compassion is thus limited as well. When my daughter falls and scrapes her knee, my compassion for her is much greater than for the little girl down the street who does the same. And that is as it should be.

The problem arises when we tie compassion too closely to justice. True, compassion is often a motive to do justice. My own decision to study politics as a young man was motivated in part by compassion for my paternal relatives who had lost their homes during Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974. But I quickly came to understand that compassion is no substitute for concrete policy proposals, and that justice is more likely to be accomplished by hard work and the willingness to compromise than by claiming that such-and-such is the compassionate thing to do.

Furthermore, if we move too quickly from compassion to justice, we are at great risk of miscarrying justice. Why? Because if I seek “justice” only for those with whom I am personally able to identify, I may be unwilling to take into account the competing claims of a party I find less sympathetic.

Justice must be based on equitable treatment under a law that applies to everyone. When it comes time to weigh various interests in the balance, our political leaders must make their policy decisions without bias towards one side or another. Importing the language of compassion into the political or judicial processes could tempt decision-makers to tip the balance in favour of those with whom they can most readily identify—and that, of course, would be nothing less than injustice.

This is cross-posted at First Thoughts.

14 July 2016

Correcting Carver

Last October in this space I analyzed the Policy Governance® model that originated with Dr. John Carver and has been adopted by an increasing number of Christian organizations, including educational institutions. While admitting that there were good reasons to find the model attractive and efficient in theory, I suggested that in practice its considerable flaws should warn boards away from adopting it wholesale.

First, it expects too much of members of a volunteer board in ensuring the continuation of the organization’s mission, especially in the absence of multiple sources of information about the life of the organization. Without such information, the board will not be able to exercise sufficient oversight, the likely result being a loss of the mission.

Second, it removes the board from the life of the institution, which is precisely the opposite of what should happen. The board needs to be aware of what staff are doing, and they need to hear it from the staff members themselves.

Third, it places too much power in the hands of a single person, the chief executive officer (CEO), who is expected to be the sole source of information to the board on the state of the organization as a whole. If the CEO errs in his or her estimation of the health of the organization, the board may not discover this until too late, because it has not heard other, possibly dissenting, voices.

Plato famously thought that the best form of government would be rule by one or more philosopher-kings. The problem with his prescription is that, even in the best of circumstances, philosopher-kings are rarely available. This reality prompted Plato’s successors, including Aristotle, to opt for a second best, namely, the rule of law. John Carver seems to be a modern Plato, arguing for a board governance model that takes insufficient account of human nature and assumes too much of the CEO. So what is the alternative? I have three suggestions for alleviating the defects of the Policy Governance model:

First, there should be structured opportunities for interaction between board members and employees. If this is an educational institution, then faculty, who are on the front lines of its mission, should definitely participate. This will prevent board members too easily accepting the notion that what employees do is “completely immaterial,” as Carver unwisely puts it, to the board’s work. Such interaction could be as informal as assigning a few board members to circulate among staff (or faculty) on a normal workday to hear what things are like in the trenches, or it could take the form of regular gatherings with an agenda set by the board. It is preferable to have multiple sources of information available rather than leaving all communication in the hands of a single person.

Second, if the organization is a Christian university, the board should be formally interviewing faculty when they receive tenure, promotion, and renewal of tenure. The board should retain responsibility for approving these matters and not delegate them to the CEO.

Third, in a Christian institution of higher education, any effort to dismiss faculty or administrators should have the input and approval of the board and should not be delegated to the CEO alone. This will lessen the possibility of abuse.

An anonymous 19th-century Russian once observed that every country has its own constitution and that his country’s was absolutism moderated by assassination. I would not go so far as to liken the Carver model to such unstable political rule. Nevertheless, a workable form of board governance must find middle ground between giving the CEO a free hand and sacking him or her. The Carver model lacks this flexibility, at least without the checks I’ve proposed here.

As a people steeped in a biblical understanding of humanity and creation, we can surely do better than the Carver model. In the meantime I offer these three proposals for mitigating its worst features.

This post appeared in the 11 July 2016 issue of Christian Courier as part of the author's long-running column, Principalities & Powers.

09 July 2016

Os Salmos e a Primeira Guerra Mundial

One of my articles from two years ago has been published in Portuguese for primarily Brazilian readers: Os Salmos e a Primeira Guerra Mundial. Here is the original: One Hundred Years Later: The Psalms and the First World War.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com