Monday, August 8, 2011

Compassion can’t be paid for By Kenneth Mandile

This is an Op-Ed published in the T&G on Friday August 5, 2011

The word compassion has Greek and Latin roots meaning “to suffer with.” It is an emotion caused by awareness of someone else’s suffering. It is an emotion so strong that we actually feel another person’s pain. A compassionate person will sacrifice time, effort, goods, money, and maybe even his life to alleviate the suffering of a fellow human being.

Governments do not have emotions. They cannot share the suffering and the pleasure that make us human. Governments do not love, hate, laugh or smile, so why should we expect them to be compassionate? By pretending that we can have compassion by government proxy we are made less human. A truly compassionate society would not relinquish compassion to a soulless entity.

There is a popular television show on ABC called “What Would You Do?” It puts people in ethical situations where they witness some form of abuse or injustice. Hidden cameras record the reaction of strangers to the situations created by the show. Sometimes it is hard to watch, even knowing that the people being abused are really actors. What makes the show worth watching is that in almost every situation someone steps forward to intervene to aid the victim.

What would make a total stranger step forward to help a person who is being abused? Wouldn’t it be easier to ignore the situation and let someone else take care of the problem? Perhaps, but by personally witnessing the abuse, the good Samaritans have a tenuous, but real, relationship with the victim. Compassion is relational. Witnessing the abuse causes the witness to suffer along with the victim.

Supporters of unlimited social programs want us to have a compassionate government, but compassion is a human trait, and expecting our government to be compassionate for us is a copout. Is a tea party member less compassionate than a big government advocate? Perhaps it is the statists, who would use the government to seize the property of one person to give to another who are the ones who lack compassion.

Professor of philosophy William B. Irving of Wright State University makes an interesting analogy in his essay “The Politics of Compassion”: “... it would be absurd to take a person’s willingness to increase Federal defense spending as evidence that the person is himself brave, or to take a person’s willingness to spend government money on athletic programs as evidence that the person is himself physically fit. In the same way as it is possible for a ‘couch potato’ to favor government funding of athletic teams, it is possible for a person who lacks compassion to favor various government aid programs; and conversely, it is possible for a compassionate person to oppose these programs.”

Professor Irving differentiates between the Mother Teresa theory of compassion and the liberal theory of compassion. The first requires personal suffering and sacrifice. The second requires that a third party sacrifice to relieve suffering.

I’m sorry, but forcing someone else to pay more for government programs is not compassion. It is lazy, greedy selfishness. Perhaps you can look and feel compassionate, but you have made no sacrifice and have not shared in the pain of your fellow citizens.

I am offended when statists claim that conservatives lack compassion. I also cringe when fellow conservatives fail to show compassion toward the poor and disabled, to illegal immigrants, to gays and lesbians, the homeless and others who do not fit their concept of ordinary. Compassion is not a political philosophy, though. It is a human trait that we share and that we sometimes have trouble practicing.

Our society cannot thrive without compassion. We are all dependent upon others for survival. Witness the many volunteers who recently came out to help area tornado victims.

The role of government in a crisis of that nature is to provide emergency services. The government cannot provide a shoulder to lean on, hands to help sort through personal possessions or an ear to hear the stories of sorrow. The government cannot relieve the emotional suffering of the victims.

Instead, hundreds of people sacrificed time and energy to help strangers.

Let’s not fool ourselves into the belief that any amount of government aid could replace this kind of compassion. When we attempt to use the government as our proxy in the role of compassion, we distance ourselves from those we are trying to help, and our society is the poorer for it.

Kenneth Mandile is a resident of Webster and president of the Worcester Tea Party.

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