Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tough Love

My ideas about compassion might seem at first glance to be something counterintuitive, and indeed they may be. Yet, at the same time we all know a good example of when compassion needs to be overridden in the light of reason. Take the case of a child throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store. Clearly he wants something badly (even if it's just attention) and is in a pretty severe state of emotional suffering over the lack of it. However, as any good psychologist will tell you, the correct response is to ignore the temper tantrum and resist giving him what he wants. Doing otherwise will only reinforce the behavior, and that will not help him grow up into a more adult pattern of negotiating and acting to fulfill his wants. This is a simple example of reason over-riding compassion in everyday life.

A more complex example involves many people and pain that is more severe and long lasting. I encounter dilemmas of this nature all the time when discussing economic theory. Most people have very strong feelings of compassion for the poor. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly difficult not to. Particularly when specific cases of poverty are presented, where through no fault of their own people are put in enormously difficult situations. Naturally, we as human beings want to help these people. However, the solutions usually given, while they would often help the people currently being empathized with, hurt society much more than the benefit to those people. Furthermore, fallacies of composition are often committed. A strategy that would be sustainable for one impoverished working mother (say, giving her 90,000 dollars) would wreck loads of destruction on the economic system if enacted for EVERY impoverished working mother.

Compassion can bias the debate. Time and time again the people who are most compassionate about the people they are trying to help make the worst mistakes in economic reasoning. Furthermore, they will often intellectually agree to an error, but then proceed on their current course of action as if they have not learned anything from the argument. It doesn't stick. Compassion that covers all the parties involved helps. If you have compassion and understanding for the capitalist as well as the worker it is much easier to construct sound economic policy. Thus, calls for broad compassion make more sense than some might think.

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