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Human Compassion:  Grounds for Hope or Fear [1]

[Paul Levy © 2018]


Philip Mead recently wrote a fine My Turn, “Love in the Time of Colic.”  I certainly agree with his initial point, that human compassion and caring “seem stamped into our DNA and may be the singular most important reason why we have survived as a species,” noting that “All of the world religions reflect this ‘caring ideal.’” 

But I want to explore this vision further because currently strong forces in America see compassion and caring as human defects and major threats rather than valued and vital human traits.   Here are some views of prominent Libertarian Conservatives who have been part of the 50-year, Far Right Movement (the “Movement”) that, among many recent accomplishments, has taken over the national Republic Party.  

James Buchanan was a leading Libertarian economist, Nobel Prize winner, and important player in the Movement.  In 1975, using game theory, he “proved” that compassion poses a grave danger to America and Mankind generally.  This proof became part of Public Choice Theory, the theory that won him the Nobel Prize in 1986.

He entitled his paper, The Samaritan’s Dilemma, directly confronting the most famous religious call to compassion, Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable.  Buchanan’s game involves two players, A and B, and two situations.  Readers don’t know for the first third of the paper, who the players are, but suddenly Buchanan introduces them.  A is a “potential parasite” seeking aid; and B is a compassionate Samaritan eager to help.  

In the first situation, the Parasite wants help and the Samaritan wants to give it, so help is provided.  In the second, the Samaritan wants to help but also wants A to work, and the Parasite wants B’s help but refuses to work.  Who wins?  The Parasite, Buchanan reasons -- if the Parasite holds out, the Samaritan will eventually give in because he lacks “the strategic courage” to deny help.  He simply can’t live with the prospect that A might starve.

Buchanan jumps from a two-person game to a society filled with parasites claiming to be needy and Samaritans eager to help.  The parasites will form interest groups – the poor, the elderly, racial minorities… -- and demand aid, often join forces with other groups, and enlist compassionate Samaritans.  And, in a rich democracy like ours, elected representatives seeking votes will eagerly adopt and expand aid programs. 

Buchanan offers a couple of potential preventive measures that he doubts will work, and ends with another leap:  “A species that increasingly behaves, individually and collectively, so as to encourage more and more of its own members to live parasitically off… its producers faces self-destruction.”  In contrast to Mead’s My Turn that sees caring as vital to the survival of our species, Buchanan sees it as the likely cause of our demise.

Buchanan’s purported proof is simply a set-up.  His game would turn out differently if, rather than a Parasite depicting the stereotypical lazy welfare cheater, his aid seeker was a hungry child, an unemployed bread winner, or a person working two jobs but unable to afford basic health care. 

Or again, Buchanan makes his Samaritan a stereotypical bleeding heart liberal such as the social worker he demeans in his article.  But suppose he had envisioned, instead, a Samaritan who was a compassionate, but well-trained and realistic, social worker with a good sense of human complexity, a nuanced view of human behavior, able to quickly distinguish parasitic aid-seekers from legitimate ones, and skilled at using various interpersonal tools to help clients move toward self-sufficiency.  Again the game would play out quite differently.

Or, suppose Buchanan’s world of parasites was actually a world of many people with legitimate needs.  That, in fact, is the case with most Americans.  Most of us can’t nearly buy a decent share of modern basic goods and services with our earnings.  We need help simply to obtain an education for our kids, health care, a decent home, retirement savings….  Buchanan and the Far Right tout the benefits of free market economies but refuse to recognize this shortcoming.

Ayn Rand is another articulate Libertarian voice that decries compassion.  Known for philosophical novels like Atlas Shrugged, she also was a prolific non-fiction writer and devised her own philosophy, Objectivism. 

Objectivism directs us to look realistically (rather than romantically or idealistically) at Mankind.  Essentially we are individuals, each seeking to survive and thrive (find happiness as we each imagine it) in a harsh world.  We use our unique capacity of rationality to understand our self and the world realistically, and to shape realistic plans for pursuing personal happiness.  Rather than wish humans were less self-interested, Objectivism urges us to honor and embrace our greedy human nature.  

Religion, Rand believes, has persuaded us otherwise.  It has convinced most of us to see our natural self-interest as evil, and to adopt a duty to feel compassion and care for others; and more than that, to care indiscriminately for all others – all poor people, all children, all…, even for strangers.  She rejects this religious command and believes that an objective, rational, realistic view of caring directs us to care only for people whom we know, respect, and truly believe need and deserve our help.  And she sees “any help (a person) gives (as) an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental….”   

Another highly acclaimed Libertarian, Charles Murray, offers another rationale for decrying compassion and aid, especially government aid.  He argues that aid hurts people rather than helps them.  Beginning with his seminal work entitled Losing Ground (1982), his research concludes that programs such as public education, prison reform, social security retirement, Medicare, and Head Start do more harm than good.  Though lauded on the Far Right, his research has been highly criticized by many to the left of the Far Right.

Yet another Libertarian, House Speaker Paul Ryan (a follower of Ayn Rand), offers another argument against compassion and helping.  Referring to the School Lunch Program, he said that it leaves poor children with “a full stomach and an empty soul.”  He seems to feel that such programs undermine a person’s self-respect and their drive to take personal responsibility and become self-sufficient in their lives.  

The ideological line between these Libertarian views and more moderate conservative and progressive views is stark:  compassion is dangerous and harmful on one side of the line and virtuous and laudable on the other.   Unfortunately the political line between them is murky because the Far Right realizes that it can’t achieve its ends – to eliminate government social programs – in one fell swoop.  So it aims at interim stops without proclaiming its end game.  The most familiar of these way stations is “Privatization.”  If government can be decimated by turning programs over to the private sector – public education, social security, prisons, health insurance… -- it will be substantially easier to reduce funding for them.  

Views of compassion and helping are just one of a number of critical differences between the ideology of the Far Right Movement and those of us more moderate Conservatives and Progressives to its left.  I think it is vital, at this point in history, to see these distinctions clearly and decide which side we want America to be on. 




 [1]  This essay appeared in the Concord (NH) Monitor, November 18, 2018.  They entitled it, Politics of Compassion and included the subtitle, “will America embrace caring as a defining strength or reject it as a crippling weakness.



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