A Crime of Compassion

If I were to ask ten people if they were compassionate, I would get ten “yeses.”  Even a sociopath would say she was compassionate.  No one would likely admit to being a cruel, heartless bastard.  In fact, compassion is so highly valued that we often get caught up in compassion gamesmanship–who can be the nicest guy/gal in town.

The most apparent ways of being compassionate are those we can see.  I have a piece of bread and I give it to you.  There.  I feel better.  You probably do too, especially if you were genuinely hungry.  But can I make a loaf of bread?  I mean really make it–grow the wheat, figure out how to make the yeast, build an oven from scratch?  My compassion, noble as it may be, is preceded by an act of creation, an act interwoven with commerce.

Religion and philosophy have always tended to cast a disparaging eye toward commerce.  In the quiet of the prayer tower and the hallowed halls of the academy, loftier spiritual goals supplant the grubby world of the marketplace.  Material values are thought begrudgingly to be necessary, but somehow beneath the spiritually and intellectually advanced man or woman.

Yet for all the disdain leveled at commerce, compassion is made largely of these, these material things swirling in the constant flow of goods and services.  Beyond a kind word and a pat on the back, one human being cannot give another much of use.  Money?  To buy what?  Food, shelter, and medicine all come from a web of interactions no single person can even fathom.

Each link in the chain of our economy is a tiny piece of a wonderful whole, a whole which no individual or even supercomputer could design.  The nurse may see his/her patient relieved of pain, but the thousands of people who built the hospital, invented the medicine, and created the business structure to support it will never even meet him.

So who is compassionate, the one who slings chicken soup in the homeless shelter or the one who raised the chickens?  A successful chicken farmer may get wealthy.  He/she may figure out how to make chickens affordable for more people, how to package it more safely, how to get it to more people fresh and ready to cook.  We congratulate ourselves for being there with the homeless.  Of course we downplay our actions, preferring to bask in our own humility.  And the farmer?  It’s OK as long as he/she doesn’t get too good at it, earn too much from it, or wear a Rolex and drive a Cadillac.  That would be greedy, no matter that the benefits to others outweigh their cost a thousandfold.

Our “compassion” in the public realm devolves to this.  We find the most obvious recipient and provide the most visible solution.  Then we pat ourselves on the back for being so damn kind.  If we want to go the extra step, we stick in a measure to stick it to the Rolex-wearer. Deep down, we’d like to throw paint on that fancy car, too.  Being more civilized, though, we tax her instead.

Let’s remember what the wealthy do to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.  Let us give up our trifling disdain for what they spend on themselves.  Rather let us each practice more hard-nosed creation and less soft-headed giving.  Taking from the rich to make yourself feel good about the poor is a crime–a crime of compassion.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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