The Politics of Compassion: The Challenge to Care for the Stranger

The Politics of Compassion: The Challenge to Care for the Stranger

by Edward U. Murphy


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The Politics of Compassion explores the manifold obstacles that hinder our individual and collective capacity to care for the vulnerable, offering insights from history, religion, ethics, cognitive and social sciences, international relations, public policy, and contemporary politics. It examines both how far we’ve come in addressing poverty and social injustice and how far we still have to go. It concludes by discussing strategies to help us achieve a more consistent practice of compassion in public life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786607478
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/23/2018
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Edward U. Murphy is a Lecturer in the Department of Global Studies and International Affairs, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University, Boston. His teaching, research, and writing focus on issues of poverty, social justice, global development, public policy, and international relations. He has also conducted program evaluations and policy analysis for several community-based organizations. Early in his career, he worked in southern Africa for UNICEF. He received a doctorate in Social Policy from the Heller School at Brandeis University. His broad-ranging academic background and diverse intellectual interests give him a decidedly global, interdisciplinary perspective on social justice, public policy, and politics. 

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Why Compassion in Politics?

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. — Albert Einstein

We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and, yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too. — Barack Obama

I don't believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You're not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them. — Hillary Clinton

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. — Martin Luther King Jr.

Consider a photograph of migrant children held by authorities at the U.S.–Mexican border. Many viewers see the children in cages, separated from their parents, as an outrageous violation of basic human rights, and their hearts bleed with compassion, sorrow, and anger. Other viewers see illegal immigrants, Central American children who don't belong in the United States. They don't blame President Donald Trump for this unfortunate situation, but instead they are angry at the parents who got them into this mess. The first group instantly empathizes with the desperation of parents who, against all odds, hope to provide their children a better future than the gang violence besetting their home countries. The second group finds it equally natural to pity the children but blame the parents to justify what they are seeing: the law is the law, and detaining or deporting illegal immigrants sends a firm message of deterrence. And they think, who knows, this photograph might be fake news or from the Obama era. It is puzzling and even disturbing that the same photograph can elicit such dramatically different reactions. The explanation for this conundrum can be found in where we draw the line between "us" and "them." If we choose, we can use our moral imagination to expand the scope of our compassion.

In religious and ethical thought, compassion is among the highest virtues. In politics and public policy, however, there is anything but a consensus. Imagine an otherwise kind and thoughtful woman considering the plight of those without health insurance in the United States. She is unmoved; it's not my problem, she reasons. If those people can't afford private health insurance, that's just too bad, and government handouts would just make everything worse. Here's the paradox: the same woman, as a volunteer at her church, visits the sick and infirm on a regular basis. Why do good people, in making political choices, turn a blind eye to the suffering of strangers? How do they rationalize that turning away is itself a form of compassion? These are questions I've pondered for many years, and this book is my attempt to understand them.

Why should we care for the stranger? Unfortunately, we continue to live in a world full of suffering and where there is much to do in response. Police killings of black American men never seem to end. The numbers of refugees and displaced persons has jumped to an astronomical 67 million in 2016. Yet, simultaneously, we've seen a global political backlash against refugees and immigrants that has upended politics in many countries. Poverty is widespread, with approximately 900 million people worldwide still living on less than $1.90 per day in 2012. Around 1.5 million U.S. households with three million children lived, in 2011, on less than $2 per day. In 2017, millions of people are facing severe malnourishment or famine in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen due to drought and civil war. In the past decade, an estimated 5.4 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo lost their lives due to civil war, and the rest of the world barely noticed. In Syria, civil war has reduced much of the country to rubble, sparking millions of refugees and displaced persons. Of course, these tragedies are just a sampling of social suffering across the United States and the world. How should we respond to the knowledge that all these terrible things are happening? What are our responsibilities?

The recent rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States is a major challenge to compassionate public policies. Women, immigrants, refugees, racial and ethnic minorities, Muslims, poor people, and the LGBTQ community each have reason to feel personally threatened in the current political environment. The anxieties and resentments of the white lower middle class are driving these developments. Trump, ironically, won the presidency in large part due to the overwhelming political support garnered from his repeated public displays of empathy with their frustration and anger. But was this true compassion? It was not: the racial fears he evoked and demagogic promises he made will not successfully address the economic and social decline of less educated Americans of any race or ethnicity.

World religions and wisdom traditions speak as one on the paramount importance of compassion for an ethical life. On this, the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, the Buddha, the Prophet Mohammad, and Jesus are all in agreement. They teach us to offer our sympathy and help to all those in need, particularly the poor and the marginalized. The parable of the Good Samaritan instructs us to take care of the stranger and not simply those of our own kind or group. The ideal is to practice universal love and compassion to the greatest extent possible, but we — both as individuals and as a society — tend to be complacent about widespread suffering and displacement. Mother Theresa and Pope Francis have offered us encouraging examples. During her life, Mother Theresa was renowned for her work caring for the sick and dying in India. Today, Pope Francis often washes the feet of refugees and migrants, including Muslims, and incarcerated young adults. These acts provide balm to the body of the suffering, but they also convey public recognition of the inherent dignity of the marginalized.

What would it mean to act compassionately in the social and political arena? Although the parable of the Good Samaritan offers an inspiring example of compassion, it does not ask why the person was lying by the side of the road. What were the causes of his misfortune? Was he sick or the victim of a crime? Beginning in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, reformers began to ask these sorts of questions and sought to change the social conditions that led to unnecessary suffering. Compassionate action typically involves the provision of necessary care, but it might also mean advocacy for social change.

To be sure, enormous progress has been accomplished since World War II, especially in recent decades, in reducing poverty on a global scale, curbing or controlling infectious diseases, and establishing universal human rights as a widely accepted norm. Despite the good news, the world we live in is hardly one to be entirely proud of, as there is much opposition to creating programs that aid poor people. In the United States, for example, President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act guaranteed access to affordable, quality health care for Americans, but it has been fought tooth and nail by those who oppose the existence of such a universal right. The Trump administration has tried to institute work requirements as a condition for receiving public health care. Today, preventable suffering due to poverty, disease, violence, and the abuse of human rights remains far too high and is a moral challenge that we must meet.

Globalization today means that images, sounds, and ideas travel instantly around the world, connecting us closer to one another and yet pulling us apart. The rapid flow of money, goods, services, and people across borders is unprecedented. Compared to fifty years ago, we are far more aware (and often vividly) of poverty, disease, civil wars, and other suffering in the world. On the one hand, this creates unprecedented opportunities for compassionate action on a global scale. On the other hand, a paralyzing sense of information glut and "disaster porn" can engender hopelessness or "compassion fatigue." Or we might simply blame suffering people for their plight. How does one process all the multifarious terrible things with which we are now bombarded? We know more, but many people seem to care less. Pope Francis, who we might call the anti-Trump, recently decried what he termed the "globalization of indifference":

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own.

I do not entirely agree with the pope here. Many millions of people do care about refugees, migrants, and the vulnerable, but it's true millions do not. I will discuss at length later in this book why this is. Here's an example of what moral indifference looks like. In May 2018, the Trump administration announced it was ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 57,000 Honduran immigrants who had been residing in the United States after a devastating 1999 hurricane. It argues that the conditions that displaced them no longer held, so they should return to Honduras. Altogether, as many as 390,000 immigrants in the United States under TPS will be deported, the vast majority from Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras. The administration's policy decision is within the law but outside its spirit. The fact is that most of these deportees, who have lived and worked and paid taxes legally in the United States for up to twenty years, will be barred from receiving social welfare benefits and face poverty, unemployment, and violence in countries that they, especially their children, no longer call home.

In 2016, millions of Americans elected a president who is openly prejudiced against immigrants and refugees who are Mexican, Central American, Muslim, or of African descent. His administration has used intentional cruelty to unauthorized immigrants, including children, as an instrument of its policy of deterrence. However, almost everyone — even if he or she had voted for Trump — would be kind and concerned when encountering, say, a Syrian refugee or a migrant child. We donate to charities and support political candidates and public policies we believe will make a difference. The upside of contemporary globalization is that the Web and social media now give us tools for organizing and collaborating with other like-minded individuals and organizations in order to respond more effectively to famines, extreme poverty, human rights atrocities, and environmental disasters. However, each of us must choose what we care about and want to support, a process subject inevitably to personal biases, moral commitments, group loyalties and prejudices, happenstance, and general subjectivity. President Obama, Pope Francis, and many other observers of the human condition argue that if we could truly empathize with "the other" — to see past pernicious stereotypes and imagine the actual lives of those in need we will never meet — we would be able to find the personal motivation and political will to address far more proactively the perspectives and needs of the excluded.

What does it take for us to achieve this state of empathy in order that we might help others less fortunate? It takes a leap of moral imagination to enter into the perspectives of members of groups that face discrimination and exclusion. This can be achieved via such means as novels, films, music, and other art forms; travel, education, and interacting directly with those in different circumstances than ours; and having an open mind and heart. Navigating the news media, social media, and the Web are obvious additional means to learn about the larger world and how people live very different lives. Unfortunately, our fragmented media landscape often facilitates the opposite. Misleading anecdotes, incendiary rumors, and false information flow freely on social media. If, say, a single undocumented immigrant commits a heinous crime or a Muslim of any nationality is implicated, even falsely, in a terrorist plot in the United States, right-wing nationalists circulate this information to increase fear and paranoia.

Our attitude toward strangers, especially in need, should be benevolence, but it often isn't. Why not? It goes without saying that we are all flawed, often selfish creatures ourselves. We have the unfortunate habit of dividing people into "us" and "them" categories. Research suggests that our minds are generally unable to conceive of the scale of mass suffering, leading to a kind of psychic numbing. As Stalin supposedly said, "The death of an individual is a tragedy; the death of a million people is a statistic." Moreover, if we individually tried to care for all the needy and vulnerable, we would not only fail, but each of us would be overwhelmed and frustrated. So, we've created social institutions, public and private, to provide care more efficiently and effectively than we could ever do by our individual efforts. Moreover, public policies, such as education, training, and social insurance programs, can boost people's opportunities and prevent them from falling into economic hardship. In the end, however, there remains gap between the often openhearted compassion of individuals and the indifference or worse of society to the suffering. The title of theologian Reinhart Niebuhr's important 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society summed up this contradiction.

This book also examines the relationship between compassion and social change. Speaking in 2016 to representatives of Black Lives Matter, Hillary Clinton argued that empathy and compassion themselves were not enough. Channeling Max Weber's unsentimental description of effective politics as "the strong and slow boring of hard boards," she suggested that the important thing was not to change hearts but to change laws and reform systems. In other words, compassion is not enough; social reform comes instead through the patient application of power to solve social problems. The way to effect change is to change institutions and policies in ways that make them more inclusive and equitable.


To explore these questions, we need to define compassion and six other relevant concepts: empathy, altruism, moral community, social solidarity, justice, and charity. Although compassion is widely agreed to be an exemplary virtue, what is it exactly? The definition itself is simple: it's the ability to discern and feel another's pain combined with the desire to help. A simple definition is "a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc." More detailed is "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." How these noble sentiments work out in practice or exactly what they mean under different conditions is, of course, subject to debate, as will be explored in this book.

Empathy is sometimes used interchangeably with compassion, but it is not the same. As noted above, Barack Obama often calls for greater empathy as the key to reducing mutual suspicion among disparate groups and to healing our fractured politics. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else's feelings." Unlike empathy, compassion presupposes a degree of suffering or pain experienced by a sentient being (person or animal). The observer's awareness of this motivates her to want to help. In contrast, it is possible to empathize with another's joys, fears, or anger as well as her suffering and sorrow.


Excerpted from "The Politics of Compassion"
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Copyright © 2019 Edward U. Murphy.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Why Compassion in Politics?
Chapter 2: Historical Perspectives on Social Welfare and Global Development
Chapter 3: Historical Perspectives on Human Rights
Chapter 4: Compassion in Religious and Secular Thought
Chapter 5: Justice and Moral Responsibility
Chapter 6: Altruism, Empathy, and the Making of “Us” and “Them”
Chapter 7: The Moral Politics of Liberals and Conservatives
Chapter 8: Politics against Compassion
Chapter 9: Compassion in Public Policy and Law
Chapter 10: Creating a More Compassionate and Just Society

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