Any talk on poverty such as the one we had on our show last week will inevitably bring up discussion around compassion. I received a note from Ralf, a loyal listener in Italy, who asked if “giving” is implied in the word compassion. To this I would say no.
Compassion is an emotion akin to sympathy which arises out of a love of one’s own life. We feel compassion for others who are suffering because we recognize that life has value and as you love your own life you can put yourself in the other person’s place and feel sympathy (or empathy as the case may be) for that other person.
Compassion may very well be accompanied by a desire to alleviate the suffering of the other person, but we have to ask ourselves if the person who is suffering worthy of our compassion. Compassion is not unconditional. We should not have compassion for criminals who are suffering because they are paying the penalty for their crime. If we feel compassion for the victims of torture we should not feel compassion for the torturer. To do so would be to negate the compassion we feel towards the victims.
Picture the Hollywood movie where the murderer is hanging from a balcony ledge and the good guy has a hold of him. In most of those Hollywood pictures the good guy will take pity on the murderer and put his own life at risk by bringing the murderer up from the brink. This would be an immoral act and rather than a display of compassion it is a demonstration that the so-called “good-guy” does not in fact love his own life. He puts it at risk by letting the murderer live. The murderer may try to kill him (as is often the case in these cheesy movies) or he may escape justice only to kill others.
Compassion does not mean that one should sacrifice their lives for the sake of strangers. Nor does it give the sufferer a blank cheque on the largess of the man with compassion. Just because someone is suffering does not give that person a right to be helped or the right for others to feel sympathy for him.
Giving is only moral if what you are giving does not constitute a sacrifice on your part. If a hobo asks for some spare change and you have spare change you could easily part with no real loss to you it is fine to feel compassion for his helplessness and give him your spare change. If your neighbour’s house catches fire and is left standing on the street with naught but the clothes on his back a person could easily put himself in that person’s shoes, feel compassion for him and help him out by perhaps offering him clothes, food and at least a place to stay until more permanent arrangements could be made. If such acts constitute a sacrifice on your part then you should not feel obligated nor feel guilty that you cannot offer assistance.
In cases of emergencies such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and the like then it would not be immoral to offer aid to the point where normality is once again achieved. The earthquake in Haiti is a good example. Normalcy there was poverty at subsistence level. While we may feel compassion for the Haitian’s before the earthquake taking them out of poverty was not an obligation nor would it be practical considering that their poverty was mostly a condition they brought upon themselves by suffering a corrupt political system. When the earthquake occurred the situation became a temporary catastrophe. In such cases giving personal private aid would be ethical as long as it was not a sacrifice to you. Aid to strangers in emergencies should only be given to alleviate the emergency, to bring the situation back to normal.
Our capacity for compassion is often preyed upon by what I would refer to as professional sufferers. Those among us who consider their lot in life to be poor and expect and demand that others help them. These people have no self-respect and have no intention of trying to better their lot on their own.
Worse than these professional sufferers are the people who set up agencies to keep these people in poverty and need. These are the agencies which turn to government to extract aid by the barrel of a gun. They rely on people’s natural desire for compassion and use it as a weapon of guilt.
Private agencies who do not appeal to governments for assistance and who fundraise themselves to help others provide a service for those not only in need but for those who want to help and find these agencies a convenient way to do so. The difficulty lies in trying to determine which agency is a legitimate agency for the poor and which is a parasite on both the government and the poor.
When guilt is used to extract aid from someone that person’s understanding of compassion is under attack and it can be difficult to understand that compassion comes from within and should not be forced from you. Compassion should be an indicator of the level to which you love your own life. It can be a motivator for decent acts of kindness. We should learn to recognize it for these qualities.
(Originally broadcast on Just Right #174, October 21, 2010.)