Thanksgiving is a day to think about our blessings and tomorrow will be no exception. We are beset by challenges but we are nevertheless fortunate to live in a nation that grew out of the ideal of liberty.
If you are not already planning to read it tomorrow, may I urge you to reread the Mayflower Compact? It was signed, as we recall, on November 11, 1620 by Pilgrims who had just completed one hell of a journey across the Atlantic. Knowing that gratitude is a virtue, the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving the very next year, after a fruitful harvest. Even before that day, colonists practiced the virtue of gratitude, inspired in part by having come to a tough but promising land.
On this Thanksgiving, I want to make yet another reading suggestion in addition to the Mayflower Compact—William Voegeli’s recent Hillsdale lecture, entitled “The Case against Liberal Compassion.” (This is the only internet copy I can find.) In it, Voegeli, a senior editor at the Claremont Review, writes about moral preening, not a virtue but often mistaken for virtue by those who preen. I think Voegeli gets at a the heart of a lot of what ails the body politic today in this essay.
Voegli asks the question of whether there is a limit to how much liberals want to spend on social programs. Is there a point at which they say, “Okay, the state is big enough. We are satisfied. We feel that the government spends enough and does enough”?
Voegeli notices an interesting phenomenon: liberals tend to be indifferent to waste and failure of the programs they support. If you want to help the poor, you’d think that, once a government program is revealed to be a fiasco, you’d abandon it. Not so with progressives, who see this as a call for more spending. Voegeli began the evening by asking if there is a point when progressives say, "Okay, we've spent enough. Government is big enough." Answer: no.
To understand this phenomenon, you must understand how liberals define themselves—and conversely how they define us conservatives. They are compassionate, we are mean. President Obama has said, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs,” and he would probably add that stinginess or hard-heartedness covers all our conservative beliefs. Voegeli points out how well this has worked well for liberals:
Small-d democratic politics is Darwinian: Arguments and rhetoric that work—that impress voters and intimidate opponents—are used again and again. Those that prove ineffective are discarded.
If conservatives had ever come up with a devastating, or even effective rebuttal to the accusation that they are heartless and mean-spirited: a) anyone could recite it by now; and, b) more importantly, liberals would have long ago stopped using rhetoric about liberal kindness versus conservative cruelty, for fear that the political risks of such language far outweighed any potential benefits.
The fact that liberals are, if anything, increasingly disposed to frame the basic political choice before the nation in these terms suggests that conservatives have not presented an adequate response.
But liberal compassion often proves to be more about the noble feelers of compassion than those necessary sufferers towards whom this compassion is directed. As Voegeli writes:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latinate word “compassion” means, literally, “suffering together with another”—it’s the “feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” Note that suffering together does not mean suffering identically. The compassionate person does not become hungry when he meets or thinks about a hungry person, or sick in the presence of the sick. Rather, compassion means we are affected by others’ suffering, a distress that motivates us to alleviate it. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.”
We can see the problem. The whole point of compassion is for empathizers to feel better when awareness of another’s suffering provokes unease. But this ultimate purpose does not guarantee that empathizees will fare better. Barbara Oakley, co-editor of the volume Pathological Altruism, defines its subject as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” Surprises and accidents happen, of course. The pathology of pathological altruism is not the failure to salve every wound. It is, rather, the indifference—blithe, heedless, smug, or solipsistic—to the fact and consequences of those failures, just as long as the empathizer is accruing compassion points that he and others will admire. As philosophy professor David Schmidtz has said, “If you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, it isn’t.”
The subhead to this section of Voegeli’s speech is “The Satisfaction of Pious Preening,” and that is where conservatives must start, if we are going to begin to formulate a reply to the heartless meme. Pious preening is the opposite of a virtue and it ultimately harms both the preener and more immediately the preened about.
We must find a way to alert the poor to this shameful truth: progressives need you more than you need them. And furthermore they need your poverty. Many progressives care more about moral preening than actually solving problems. Compassion is an important virtue, as Voegeli makes clear, but it is compassion for those who suffer—not moral preening—that can be useful in lifting people up. Voegeli concludes:
Those of us accused of being greedy and cruel, for standing athwart the advance of liberalism and expansion of the welfare state, do have things to say, then, in response to the empathy crusaders. Compassion really is important.
Clifford Orwin, a political scientist who has examined the subject painstakingly, believes our strong, spontaneous proclivity to be distressed by others’ suffering confirms the ancient Greek philosophers’ belief that nature intended for human beings to be friends. But compassion is neither all-important nor supremely important in morals and, especially, politics. It is nice, all things being equal, to have government officials who feel our pain rather than ones who, like imperious monarchs, cannot comprehend or do not deign to notice it.
Much more than our rulers’ compassion, however, we deserve their respect—for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own pains without their ministrations; and for America’s carefully constructed and heroically sustained experiment in constitutional self-government, which errs on the side of caution and republicanism by denying even the most compassionate official a monarch’s plenary powers.
Kindness may well cover all of Barack Obama’s political beliefs, and those of many other self-satisfied, pathologically altruistic liberals. It doesn’t begin to cover all the beliefs that have sustained America’s republic, however. Nor does it amount to a safe substitute for those moral virtues and political principles necessary to sustain it further.
These are good thoughts for tomorrow, as we celebrate a uniquely American holiday.