Rowman and Littlefield International

The Challenge of Compassion in Politics

Published on Monday 29 Apr 2019 by Edward U. Murphy, Northeastern University, USA

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. They express compassion, sorrow, and anger. Others see illegal immigrants, Central American children who don’t belong in the United States. They don’t blame President Donald Trump, but instead blame 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 with an escape from the gang violence besetting their home countries. The second group, meanwhile, may pity the children but believes quite simply that they don’t belong in the U.S: the law is the law and detaining or deporting illegal immigrants sends a firm message of deterrence. What is puzzling - and even disturbing - is 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.” Of course, that boundary is not fixed, and we can use our moral imagination to expand the scope of our moral community – to enlarge the community of “us”.


"Why do good people turn a blind eye to the suffering of strangers?"


In religious and ethical thought, compassion is among the highest virtues. In politics and public policy, however, there is anything but a consensus about the meaning of compassion.  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?


Whether the Hebrew prophets, the Buddha, the Prophet Mohammad, or Jesus, religious teachers consistently instruct us to help those in need, particularly the poor and the marginalized. The lesson of the Good Samaritan is to take care of all strangers - 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. 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. However, the Good Samaritan parable 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 should also inspire advocacy for social change.


Compassion, it is important to note, is not identical to empathy.  We may empathize by sharing other’s emotions or in the more cognitive sense of imagining what another’s life is like. The latter is very important for politics and civic life, especially if it extends across social boundaries. Unfortunately, empathy can be narrowly selective: we often identify more easily with those who look like us, or feel the pain of an identifiable victim but not the much larger group of those excluded from the social mainstream by poverty, race, religion, and other characteristics. Compassion, or empathetic concern, is a moral stance premised on recognition of the intrinsic value of all human (and sentient) beings, the awareness that they are in need, and the motivation to help. It combines emotional, cognitive, and ethical elements.


"The recent rising tide of aggressive nationalism must be countered with a vision of inclusionary patriotism."


What should we do to enlarge our moral imaginations? First, we need leaders at all levels who model civility and compassion. The presidencies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela are exemplars. Morris Dees, who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center to combat racism and hate, is another.  Second, the recent rising tide of aggressive, other-countries-be-damned nationalism must be countered with a vision of inclusionary patriotism that binds us peacefully in common purpose. For the foreseeable future, most people will identify with their nation. To cement those ties at a time of growing inequality and racial/ethnic diversity, it may be time to institute mandatory national service for young people.


Third, we need a renewed focus at all levels of education on civics, cross-cultural experiences, and community service. In addition, the arts and humanities, which are increasingly sacrificed in favor of technical education, are essential for expanding our awareness of the lives of others and other ways of life.  Songs, novels, photographs, and films can do this.  In the words of Sue Monk Kidd: “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”


Fourth, we must change prevailing narratives about the causes of poverty and vulnerability that create “just world” beliefs rationalizing the persistence of vast inequalities. In the United States, the dominant view is that the poor, the uninsured, and racial minorities suffer primarily due to unwise choices or lack of effort. To reframe this narrative requires a concerted public communication effort focused less on presenting facts – which generally do not change minds – than on telling stories that show the dignity and struggles of the left-out and how their lives are buffeted by forces largely beyond their control. The great challenge is to do this within our current social media environment that fosters misinformation, lies, extremism, and vituperative discourse.


Fifth, in responding the resurgence of right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the left must scale what Arlie Hochschild terms “empathy walls” to identify the legitimate concerns of their political opponents. The opportunity gap between rural and metropolitan areas is growing across the world and must be addressed systematically. Immigrants are convenient scapegoats for culturally anxious white people, so comprehensive immigration reform remains necessary both politically and morally. Here is where it is paramount to reframe the populist right’s narrative of lawbreaking, unauthorized immigrants. If successful, appeals to simple compassion and fair treatment for those fleeing violence and seeking opportunity might penetrate to the hearts of those finally listening.


Finally, Democrats should offer bold proposals to address economic insecurity, climate change, voting rights, the increasing monopolization of the American economy, and other issues. At the same time, those on the left must avoid making demands for ideological purity. Such calls harm its ability to forge a broad coalition against the forces of right-wing populism and the anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-social welfare policies of the Republican party. In the United States, the demographic base of right-wing populism—older, culturally conservative white people—is declining. There must be a time limit on how long the right can win by inflaming the grievances of their base—unless they change the rules of the game. White minority rule is a possible future via conservative domination of the Supreme Court, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and unregulated campaign contributions by right-wing megadonors.


"A politics of compassion is not premised on naive idealism."


Americans must fight to keep their democracy alive and for an America they can believe in. The only solution is for the forces of liberalism, democracy, and pluralism to win elections and redirect such toxic behavior to the margins and keep it there. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to defeat the right’s challenge to liberal democratic norms and institutions in the United States and around the world. A politics of compassion, it is important to note, is not premised on naive idealism but on a clear-eyed strategic sense of how to use political power to create a more just society.


As a society, we must cultivate compassion and enlarge the moral imagination through every means possible. The deepest change that is needed is cultural: to move closer to a society that lives by an ethos of jian’ai, or “concern for everyone,” in the ancient Chinese ruler Mozi’s phrase.  Martin Luther King and Barack Obama liked to quote a version of the Theodore Parker aphorism: the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We hope so, but it won’t bend if we don’t jump on it, pull on it, and lean on it. Ultimately, we are talking about harnessing the power of love—agape, or benevolence for all—to fight for justice and push out the boundaries of moral community. If we do that together, we should be able to make real progress toward a politics of compassion. As James Baldwin said: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.”


Note: This article is adapted from the author's title, The Politics of Compassion: The Challenge to Care for the Stranger (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2018).




Edward U. Murphy is a lecturer in Global Studies and International Relations at Northeastern University, USA. The Politics of Compassion: The Challenge to Care for the Stranger, published by Rowman & Littlefield International, is available now in all formats.