Tag Archives: ideas

The Need for Compassionate Law

As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life.  On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.

When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another.  However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action.  Empathy is personal, individual, and private.  When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed.  Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings.  Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful.  It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most ability to exercise compassion.  Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion.  The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion.  As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.

Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions.  Are institutions capable of compassion?  Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible:  institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends.  It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws.  Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated.  The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy.  To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law.   Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice.  In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness.  The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.

The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical.  Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion.  Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism.  Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.

The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.

Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness.  Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective?   As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion.  Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure:  what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving.  Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands?  Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws?  The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving.  It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point.  What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action?  There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.

Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation.  In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.  The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality.  Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize.  Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive.  The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune.  The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history.  This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others.  For starters, you might consider sharing this post!


What Kind of (In)Equality Do We Want?

Photo Credit: Jessica Tam Flickr

When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.

If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.

What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:

It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.

Society involves differential treatment.

But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice.   Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’?  Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes.  Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently.  Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need.  Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic.  However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition.  This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people.  Nobody is average.

Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:

Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?

But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?

Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?
Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?

Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.

The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.

The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.