Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. His biography of Edmund Burke will be published in May. Follow Jesse on Twitter.
Bush certainly branded his first administration
with the same label, especially before 9/11. But this was a serious misnomer, for in fact his approach
had the twin drawbacks of being neither compassionate nor conservative. It was not compassionate: indeed, its main promoter, John DiIulio,
fell foul of his colleagues in the White House in 2001 by insisting that money
be directed to black and Latino churches, infuriating white Evangelicals. And it was not conservative, as was
shown by the extension of federal influence into local schools through the No
Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and the extraordinary ramp-up in federal
spending that took place even before the financial crash of 2008.
Moreover, Bush’s compassionate
conservatism was a moralising doctrine, which assumed that society’s basic
moral standards were in decline and set the federal government the task of
improving them. And, as a slogan, it
lacked a deeper theoretical justification that could be used as a basis for
long-term policymaking. The effect
was that it quickly came to seem merely an electoral expedient, not a genuine
contribution to a wider political and cultural debate.
Properly understood, compassionate conservatism
is something utterly different. To
find its true modern roots we must look much further back, to the mid-eighteenth century, and to Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. The two men were friendly, without being especially
close. But they shared a
remarkably similar cast of mind:
Smith once remarked that "Burke is the only man I ever knew who
thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications
having passed between us.” Much
the same was true on other subjects as well.
Burke we will leave to another day. But Smith’s founding role should not be
underestimated; and in morals as in economics, he is far more conservative than
is often recognised. He saw himself not as an economist but as a moral philosopher, as a
legal scholar and (in effect) as a social scientist. Thus he dealt with economic problems and ideas, but only in
their wider social, historical and political contexts. And he certainly did not believe that
human beings were purely selfish.
Indeed he wrote The Theory of
Moral Sentiments in 1759 to argue for the quite different and opposed view
that compassion or “sympathy” was the psychological basis of personal morality.
The Theory of Moral
Sentiments opens with the following lines:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some
principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and
render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it,
except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the
emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to
conceive it in a very lively manner.
In the Smithian view, personal morality and social norms arise from
a process of imagining and reconstructing the experience of others. What matters is not compassion as pity,
but compassion as fellow-feeling. Smith, then, is one of the founders of compassionate
Smith then, what we now call capitalism was not a form of desiccated economic
atomism. He recognised the workings
of the invisible hand, of course, but he also recognised the human capacity for
sympathy or compassion. So Smith
saw markets not as disembodied but as operating within a rich local cultural
context which embraced individual moral beliefs, a person’s own energy, flair
and imagination, unstated background assumptions as to honesty and fair
dealing, and a shared understanding of market conventions, institutions and
traditions. In short, not the University
of Chicago economics department of the 1970s, but the Edinburgh of the 1770s.
What kind of person can have this capacity for
fellow-feeling, for attachment to others?
Only one conceived as an active human being, a being engaged in the
institutions around them. On this view, then, people are naturally compassionate; their
self-fulfilment involves the development and exercise of their capabilities;
and the expression of these capabilities in action is something for which they
can be held properly responsible. The
contrast is with the liberal idea of the self as an unfettered will, which
cannot be made the subject of duties at all.
This is not mere fancy or philosophical speculation. On the contrary, there is an increasing
amount of scientific evidence for them.
In particular, research by Jean Decety and others suggests that there is
a neural basis for compassion or empathy in the human brain. Thus people who observe others in pain,
especially their partners, seem to process this recognition in part through
their own pain centres. People who
consider the emotional reactions of others process this through their own
emotional neural systems. By
contrast, certain autistic, narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders
manifest themselves in a lack of empathy, or may cause their victims even to
recognise others as people at all.
Overall, then, there is good reason to think that people are
naturally compassionate. Moreover,
compassion gives purpose to human life, and as such is deeply psychologically
rewarding. Thus several studies
suggest that people who regularly give money, time or support to others enjoy
better physical and mental health, have lower levels of depression and suicide
and have increased longevity, compared to those who do not. Those who donate to charity report
higher levels of happiness than others.
People who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater bodily
functioning and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not
volunteer, especially if they spend more than 100 hours per year in
volunteering, and if it involves repeated personal contact in helping
But compassion is ultimately one of the most basic resources of society
itself. To use a chemical
metaphor: if the active self is an
atom with carbon bonds, then families are small molecules, other institutions
are larger ones, and society itself is the largest molecule of all. It has no fixed shape – indeed, it can be
of any shape depending on how its individuals and institutions link
together. But on its shape and
composition depend many if not all of its characteristics and effectiveness.
This allows us to resolve an apparent paradox. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s
highly influential book The Spirit Level
underlines, different societies can and do have different characteristics. In particular, they can have massively
different levels of social capital.
But this does not mean we have to think of a society as something over
and above its component individuals and institutions, and potentially with
interests opposed to theirs. There
is such a thing as society, but it’s not a further thing.
Different societies can be more or less successful, and the role and
efficacy of the state can be an important part of the difference. But far more important are the energy
and effectiveness of those individuals and institutions. How to improve that energy and
effectiveness is arguably the central public policy challenge of the present