Compassion Cannot Be Forced
The great moral argument of the left is that the government policies they advocate create a fairer and more compassionate world. Everything they advocate flows from the overt assumption that if you want a fair and compassionate society, their policies of forced fairness and compassion are for you; and, conversely, if you don’t support their policies, then you by that fact itself cannot want a fair and compassionate society.
That is the logic they present us with, and many on the left go to great lengths to prevent anybody from looking into whether or not those policies actually deliver on their stated goals.
We who value our founding principles of individual liberty often focus on the policies themselves and the people who support them, attacking the communists, the socialists, the fascists, the leftists, the progressives, or the liberals because their policies serve to undermine our freedom.
But doing this just plays right into their established story line – because to them, by our very argument we are obviously more concerned with ourselves, our own petty freedom than we are concerned about the needs of the less well-off, the needs of the poor, the needs of those without health insurance, or the greater needs of humanity.
I want to suggest that we start questioning, without apology, their fundamental assumption: The truth is, their policies do not lead to greater fairness or greater compassion (nor do they lead to greater prosperity, but this is an argument that the left has largely abandoned, like the fearsome warnings of global cooling a few decades ago).
In fact, their policies do just the opposite. The policies of the left disrupt the process of wealth creation so that there is less to go around for everybody, which pushes those who are less well off even closer to the financial edge than they otherwise would be.
But their belief is that they are changing society for the better and that over time we will be better people – in their judgment – because they will have legislated and regulated us into better people.
When our kids were very young, I can remember intervening in a fight between them and for some reason (I don’t know – it seemed like a good idea at the time) coercing each of them to apologize for what they had done.
A short time later, one or the other – or both – of them would do the exact same thing that they had just been made to apologize for. What was the matter with these kids? I thought we had cleared up that whole issue. Hadn’t they just learned my Very Important Moral Lesson?
No, they hadn’t. All they had learned was that when they do things that hurt each other, Dad will make them say certain words that mean nothing to them but seem to matter a lot to him. Besides, it’s kind of fun to see him react like that, don’t you think? (At age three to six or so, believe me, kids get great entertainment value from such reactions… and it doesn’t actually stop at that age. Think of the popularity of reality TV, for example).
On the other hand, our kids have also done things that have been very movingly empathetic and caring without the slightest prodding from their know-it-all father.
We want our kids to value empathy and compassion; saying so and doing things in the world that demonstrate the value of compassion to them does have an effect. Treating them personally with empathy, respect and compassion has an effect. Appreciating when they are kind and considerate has an effect. Their own good feeling when they empathize and care about what’s going on in other people’s lives has a very strong effect.
These are the things that matter. There is a place for scolding, nagging and unpleasant consequences for bad behavior with kids but teaching compassion is not one of them.
The truth is, along with all of the negative potentials in our very human nature, empathy and compassion are natural sentiments. We can build on those sentiments, encourage more of them as a culture but we cannot force them into existence.
We can force the behavior that looks like compassion and we can frighten people into doing all kinds of things with enough force; but we cannot force a person to feel compassion and to have their compassionate acts flow from their own integrity. We cannot force people to become genuinely compassionate.
Notice that there is a difference between advocating compassion by persuading people toward more compassionate acts and forcing them to act compassionate with serious threats of fines or imprisonment.
In Helping People versus Fixing Them, I referred to research showing the stark difference between the experiences of both the giver and the receiver of help, depending upon whether that help was given voluntarily or by force.
Forced giving resulted in a significant decrease in well-being for both the giver and the receiver, whereas voluntary giving resulted in a significant increase in well-being for both the giver and the receiver.
Of course, those, like Harry Reid, who say they believe that paying income taxes is actually a voluntary interaction may miss this distinction entirely. I guarantee you when I pay my taxes to these people, and consider where that money is going, I am not feeling compassionate at that moment no matter how much they tell me that it is my taxes that bring about a compassionate world; nor do I feel much of a sense of overall well-being. How about you?
I also suspect that those receiving their entitlement checks, from the welfare recipient to the government pensioner retired with full benefits at age 55 to the Solyndra and Goldman Sacks executives, do not feel much appreciation and gratitude to those of us paying our taxes for their benefit. They may have more stuff but they will not have increased their overall well-being or happiness as a result.
Those harping the loudest about our “materialistic, capitalistic system” are the most materialistic of all. Their compassion is measured only on a ledger and their fairness is that of Procrustes – the bandit of ancient Greek mythology who would abduct travelers and then force them to fit his bed by either stretching them out to lengthen their body or cutting off their legs to shorten them. One way or the other, all end up the identical length.
True fairness is not measured by a perfectly equal ledger; true fairness is measured in the value created and produced by a given individual. What’s fair is for a highly creative and productive person to enjoy more wealth then a less creative and productive person. The vibrancy and innovation that springs from such fairness, and the exchange of ideas, goods and services resulting from it, creates such an abundance that even those who are the very least productive have better lives for it.
Compassion and fairness are, above all, individual qualities, expressed by free individuals toward other individuals who move them to compassion and inspire them to intervene on their behalf. These qualities increase with abundance, flourish in freedom,and multiply with volitional practice.
Compassion, above all, does not grow through force.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness.