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Politics and Compassion: Finding Common Ground Through Empathy

Politics and Compassion: Finding Common Ground Through Empathy

While liberals tend to view conservatives as cold-hearted, rule-bound, and self-interested, right-wingers often consider left-wingers irrational, sensitive, and destructive. Both characterizations, are, of course, exaggerations, and they fail to recognize the political common ground of human empathy and compassion.

In the far-off days before he was famous, Jordan Peterson, along with some colleagues, published research showing that personality traits strongly predict political belief. According to the study, left-wingers tend to be higher in traits related to compassion and the desire for equality, while right-wingers tend to be higher in traits related to orderliness and concern for social norms. While no one’s political beliefs are predetermined merely by psychology, temperament may dispose an individual toward a certain political position. This is especially helpful to remember when trying to understand people with differing political beliefs from one’s own.

Though I couldn’t be more opposed to left-wing political beliefs, I do believe that many leftists hold their views with good intentions stemming from their strong sense of compassion. If Peterson’s research is correct, there is a psychological element at play here—something like an impulsive maternal instinct that liberals give free rein to. The maternal instinct directs mothers to care for infants or other people who are truly helpless and weak and need advocates and caretakers. This desire to care for those who are in need is, of course, a beautiful human trait.

But when it is misdirected, even something good (like compassion) can cause damage. Describing the state of the modern world, G.K. Chesterton says:

The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

What is “untruthful” pity? Well, I think it looks a lot like what has come to be called “wokeness.” The maternal instinct has been let loose, and it has grown ravenous and tyrannical. As a result, we view whole categories of people as though they were infants or victims who need protection, need everything done for them, when, in fact, such treatment can actually hurt these people. The virtue of compassion has been isolated from reasonable judgment.

Of course, conservatism need not be compassionless. At its core, I think conservatism is profoundly compassionate. The values conservatives hold are self-sacrifice; the pursuit of the good of others; and the common good overall, which we can identify, in part, from tradition stemming from the cumulative experience of thousands of generations and what they have learned about human nature and the truly good life.

Many, though, don’t seem to understand that there is a compassionate side to conservatism. What many see, often, is mere callousness: Conservatives are stodgy, intractable wet blankets—both out of touch with the world and uncomfortable with change. This is the origin of the self-righteous tone that often comes from the left. Knowing their own compassionate motives (and bewildered at the fact that conservatives don’t share their approach), they conclude that they have hearts, and their right-wing opponents do not.

But the difference runs deeper, even if, psychologically speaking, conservatives focus less on the pathos of a given issue. The real difference is in the political camps’ definition of what is good for a person, and thus what the compassionate course of action looks like. A conservative worldview holds to the existence of moral absolutes, which must be adhered to for true human happiness and flourishing to be possible, whereas a liberal worldview sees individual choice and freedom from restraint as the path to happiness. That is why a conservative can be against gay marriage and a liberal in favor of it, and both believe themselves to be compassionate.

This point bears emphasizing. A conservative argument against, for example, transgenderism, should include an appeal to compassion (as well as an appeal to morality and the order and harmony of civil society). The appeal to compassion would run something like this: “I understand that my opponents want to have compassion for a gender-confused person’s experience. I do as well. We differ only in our definition about what true compassion is.”

A conservative could then explain: “By way of analogy, only shallow compassion would direct us to give drugs to an addict, even though he pines for them. Drugs will not make the addict ultimately happy—in fact, they will ruin his life. Thus, giving him drugs would be cruel rather than compassionate.”

A similar argument can be made about transgenderism. Based on both the natural order as well as the statistics about transgender depression rates, it’s clear that trying to change one’s gender won’t make that person happy in the long run. Thus, conservatives are obligated, out of compassion, to prevent gender transitioning from taking place.

To put the same concept another way, conservatives believe that true compassion consists in doing what is ultimately best for someone, and liberals believe that true compassion consists in giving someone what they want.

In the broad political sphere, then, we might make more progress by placing compassion at the center of political discussion and explaining different manifestations of compassion. We could point out that, in some ways, the motive is the same on both sides; it is the application that differs.

If both left-wingers and right-wingers engaged hands-on in what used to be called the corporal works of mercy—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked—both sides would carry a lot more weight. Those in an opposing political camp, then, might realize that the other camp’s principles are anything but cold-hearted.

At the very least, the idea is worth considering. I, for one, have a lot of room for growth in that area.

Image credit: Pixabay

Walker Larson
Walker Larson

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  • Avatar
    November 1, 2023, 1:00 pm

    Compare the " guidance" of Marx's 10 basic tactics of a Communist takeover (end of section 2 of his Manifesto) to the Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments. Then proceed to the history and true teachings of Christ and the Disciples v. all other religions and cults in the world. There is Truth and Good. There is also Evil. The results, the fruit, the proof of all can be objectively found through all of history and in the world in 2023. See Frederic Bastiat, THE LAW, for clear explanation of why 'The Right" is aptly named, and "The Left" surely takes its results from its Latin root – Sinister. Sorry, Walker. You are missing the truth here. Keep living and learning.

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    November 4, 2023, 10:23 am

    Very finely woven piece! Thanks this helps.

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    Josh McDowell
    November 13, 2023, 1:50 pm

    This is what I find fascinating in the whole argument around compassion. I am conservative and hang out with a lot of progressive people, yet I can find common ground when I discuss issues with them in the light of compassion and where my views originate. It throws them into cognitive dissonance. If you can empathize, I find people are more willing to let their guard down when in an argument and become less defensive. I think that people associate their views with their being, thus it feels like an attack.

    The other thing I do is volunteer a lot, so they cannot say that I am uncaring, it disarms them. I do find many progressives pay lip service to compassion and do not volunteer for anything.


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