The Debasement of Compassion

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Sad Tale of Archie Simonson

Archie Simonson was a judge in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1980's. He sentenced a 15-year old boy to a year of probation for his role in raping a 16-year old in a high school stairwell. The lenient sentence, in itself, infuriated people, but what really made the pot boil over was what Simonson said to explain the sentence:

Whether women like it or not they are sex objects. Are we supposed to take an impressionable person 15 or 16 years of age and punish that person severely because they react to it normally?

The prosecutor blew up in court and called Simonson sexist to his face. Simonson actually had a reputation for some progressive ideas, but that remark enraged feminists. On September 8, 1988, Wisconsin held its first judicial recall election and Simonson was voted out of office.

I've always had a certain back-handed sympathy for Simonson. In a clumsy, ham-fisted way he was trying to be "liberal,"  "enlightened," and "compassionate." He had the misfortune to pick a topic where women had decided that compassion was not getting results. Compassion fatigue had set in.

The Debased Compassion Syndrome

Simonson's quote says it all. Are fashions today often provocative? Yes. Are we supposed to take an impressionable person 15 or 16 years of age and punish that person severely because they react to it normally? Yes. We expect you to deal with provocative clothing styles appropriately, as the price for living in this society. That is what we define as "normal." If you choose not to, we will put you into a setting where you won't get the opportunity to respond inappropriately. Is it difficult? Maybe. Do we care? No. There are rules for appropriate conduct, and you will follow them. There are more of us who support the rules than there are those of you who want to violate them, and our opinion counts and yours doesn't. If it stresses you out, chew your fingernails, scream into your pillow or punch your teddy bear. But you will keep your hands out of places they don't have permission to go, and the discussion is over. Women have a right to go about their business without being assaulted, and how you feel about it is of no consequence whatsoever.

Come to think of it, where did our society pick up the weird idea that feelings had anything to do with meeting your societal obligations? That feeling bored was a legitimate reason for dropping out of school? Or being sexually aroused was reason to commit sexual assault? Or being dissatisfied with your lot gave you the right to take someone else's property? Or being frustrated gave you the right to vent your rage on a completely innocent person?

In brief, the Debased Compassion Syndrome is the idea that a civilized society never requires people to do things that are difficult, painful, dangerous, outside one's comfort zone, tedious, boring, or unpleasant in any way.

Financial and Ethical Bankruptcy

Debased compassion was in full flower during the debate over bankruptcy reform in 2006. To give critics of bankruptcy reform their due, every single thing they said about the legislation was correct. It did target middle class bankruptcy while leaving financial shelters for the upper class intact. And most bankruptcies are due to unforeseen disasters like divorce, job loss, or catastrophic medical bills.

On the other hand, one feature of the legislation was repeatedly glossed over or minimized: it only applied to people with incomes above the median for their state. The lowest half of the population, the people most likely to get into financial trouble, were not affected. That's a pretty significant piece of compassion.

Had critics of the legislation merely focused on the failure to reform upper-class bankruptcy shelters, or the failure to distinguish between genuine catastrophe and mere financial sloppiness, there would have been no reason to argue with them. Unfortunately, they didn't stop there. Critics accused credit card companies of extending credit to dubious risks, as if people were forced to apply for credit cards or use them. The paperwork to justify bankruptcy was called burdensome, and it was claimed that people would be forced to spend years paying off their debts. Overall, the rhetoric made it sound positively barbaric to expect people to pay off debts, or to insist that people had a moral obligation to their creditors.

I totally expect to get flamed by people claiming they, or someone they know, had to declare bankruptcy for reasons not under their control. It happens. I understand that completely. What you don't understand is that, blameless or not, you have a moral obligation to your creditors. In fact, the more blameless you are, the greater the obligation. If you're overextended on frills, I can see some of the blame attaching to people who make a living selling unnecessary frills. On the other hand, your mortgage lender made it possible for you to have a home. Your doctor and hospital keep you and your loved ones healthy. If you're putting groceries on your credit card, the credit card company is loaning you money so you can eat. These people are doing you good. They are helping you. You have an obligation to do everything humanly possible to repay them. You certainly owe them an adequate explanation if you expect them to write off the loans.

In the 1890's, Mark Twain faced financial ruin as a result of some bad investment decisions. He spent most of the decade writing and lecturing to raise money, and by 1898 he had paid off his creditors. That was back when it was generally expected that people would pay their debts. What a chump.

One incident that has gotten a lot of exposure recently involves a guy who had a $9600 credit card debt that was wiped out in court. But the credit card company refused to inform the credit bureaus, so the debt showed up on his credit record, making it impossible for him to get a home loan. The only way he could clear the record was to pay the $9600 anyway. We are supposed to get very angry over this. Supposedly the guy "couldn't pay" his debts. Yet when he wanted something badly enough, he found a way. It wasn't impossible for him to pay, merely inconvenient. And shouldn't someone who has to get his debts written off be required to spend some time showing he can manage his finances before being allowed to borrow money?

And one group for whom I have zero compassion are the people who default on mortgages because the property has declined in value. Since when is that an excuse for not paying debts? If you borrowed $500,000, you owe $500,000. The fact that your house is now worth $300,000 is irrelevant. The lenders should exercise their right (rarely used) to sue these people for the difference between the loan and the amount recouped from foreclosure. And the defaulters should have rock bottom credit ratings until every penny is paid off.

The Debased Compassion Syndrome In Action

Sometimes people do such a good job of proving their opponents' point that there is no better approach than simply to let them speak for themselves. Such is the case with the essay "Personal Responsibility" by T-Rex in the blog Daily Kos on September 12, 2006

One of the more common conservative insults hurled at liberals is that people like me don't believe in personal responsibility. Now, there's no direct evidence to support this claim -- nobody that I've ever heard of has ever said "I oppose personal responsibility" or any such nonsense.(1) So their conclusion that this is what we believe comes from indirect "evidence," primarily the evidence (or at least the argument) comes from liberal support for welfare programs for the poor. The argument usually goes something like this: "Welfare programs discourage personal responsibility and since liberals support those programs, then they oppose personal responsibility." This is an incredibly flawed argument for many reasons: (2) ....

Another significant chunk [of welfare recipients] is addicted to drugs. And while you can clearly blame these people for the initial decision to take a drug, how many people in history have chosen to become addicted to a drug? While it is debatable whether these people are to blame for their addiction....(3)

3. No real problem: If we take the above categories [short-term recipients, drug users, single mothers] out of the equation, we're left with a really, really small percentage of the population that is cheating or defrauding the system. Sure, there are some people that totally lack personal responsibility and are living off the government. But they are a lot less than 1% of the population and less than 1% of the budget, so they really aren't a significant societal problem. Conservatives like to attack this group because they are defenseless and are an easy target, but they aren't something that causes any real damage to society. (4)

4. Double standard: Conservatives are all about attacking poor people for lacking in personal responsibility, but they rarely, if ever, attack other groups for lacking in responsibility. They generally oppose government investigations of people accused of corporate crime or ethical lapses in elected office (unless they are Republicans)(5). They have no problem giving drug users stiffer prison sentences than multi-million dollar embezzlers.(6) The standard for conservatives is clear -- people who come from conservative groups don't have to have personal responsibility, but people coming from liberal groups do.

9. Punishment fitting the crime: The worst part of all this, as far as I'm concerned, is the idea that conservatives want to punish people for committing a perceived crime with a punishment that is way out of proportion to the supposed offense. Let's say that someone is lazy. Let's say that they won't work no matter what you do to them. Conservatives would basically advocate a passive death penalty for such a person (7). They say no government benefits. No guaranteed food. No guaranteed shelter. No guaranteed clothing. No guaranteed health care, even in the worst-case scenarios. Well what happens to human beings who are without food, shelter, clothing and basic medical care? They die. Hunger and homelessness are not valid punishments for the violation of any law in the United States.(8) ....

Now I'm certainly a firm believer in personal responsibility (9).  I started out as one of these extremely poor people and made my way up the ladder with the help of welfare programs and financial aid.  Was it easy?  Hell no.  It was incredibly difficult and I had to fight every step of the way against not only money and social expectations, but against my own learned instincts and lack of knowledge about how to make my way in the world.  Would I have made it without help from a lot of people along the way?  Absolutely not.  Well, there are a lot of people who don't get the help I got.  Do they choose to be poor, uneducated and on welfare(10).  Absolutely no way, but they don't know how to make it on their own and if they don't get the help, it is extremely difficult to make it (11).


1. Wow, can you say "straw man argument?"

2. Savor the logical flow here. T-Rex starts with the stereotype that liberals don't support personal responsibility, zeroes in on one issue related to personal responsibility, then attacks that one issue as if it made up the whole picture. T-Rex is absolutely correct in noting "If we eliminated every welfare program for the poor, you would not, in any way, notice the difference in your taxes, even if all of the money was refunded." But the adverse effects of welfare are but a tiny part of the whole personal responsibility debate. T-Rex picks the least significant piece of the responsibility problem and makes it the whole debate.
    In my experience, people aren't against welfare because of the amount of money involved, nearly so much as they are enraged because almost all attempts to link welfare to personal responsibility have been beaten down by legal challenges and political opposition. Elsewhere T-Rex laments the fact that people don't know how to make it on their own, yet when society tries to structure welfare to enforce responsible behavior, penalize irresponsible actions, and show people how to make it on their own, those attempts run a gauntlet of legal attacks. Attempts to link assistance to keeping kids in school or out of trouble, staying off drugs, avoiding crime, and the like have all been bitterly opposed. As for not having children unless you can reliably support them, well, that's not even on the table.
    Let's say that someone runs a red light, wrecks your car, and puts you in the hospital. He's on welfare and uninsured. Guess where that leaves you. Or he burglarizes your house and causes a huge amount of damage. Or he runs up a huge debt with no intention of paying. You and I can be sued; he can't. "Equal protection of the law?" Not being deprived of property without due process? What's that?
    Attacks on the notion of personal responsibility are legion. Criminals aren't really responsible for their crimes; society is. Students don't fail; schools fail. An article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 16, 2004) called Higher Education Isn't Meeting the Public's Needs, by Frank Newman, Laura Couturier and Jamie Scurry. They complain "The rhetoric [of colleges]describes devotion to student learning while, in reality, the student bears principal responsibility for learning and the failure to learn." Yes, you read that correctly. These people actually regard it as a problem that universities put the burden of learning on the student.
    To me, the whole personal responsibility issue comes to a point at tort reform. If you spill hot coffee on your lap in a car and get burned, the fault isn't yours for being clumsy or failing to yank your clothing off, nor is it your driving companion's for being too stupid to pull over immediately. No. It's the fault of the restaurant that sold you the coffee. Fail a course in school or be disciplined for some other reason and sue. Irresponsible lawsuits in themselves are only a small part of the overall problem, but as long as courts can strike down or impede laws designed to enforce personal responsibility, nothing else matters. The really frivolous lawsuits are not the ones that demand money, but the ones that challenge even reasonable laws on specious grounds involving some tortured reading of the Constitution (because it's a "living document" and can be twisted into any desired shape, like a bonsai tree).
    An anonymous article on the liberal blog site Corporate Mofo called "Ignorance Isn't Bliss," says: "The concept of children's rights might have gone a bit too far, as well. 'Corporal punishment' is now defined as any situation in which a child feels threatened in any way... If the class enters the room noisily, the teacher may not line them up and have them walk in quietly again: This is corporal punishment. An unruly child may not be stood in the corner, nor physically separated from the class. This, too, is corporal punishment. Even asking, with a smile on your face, why the young Einstein did not complete his homework assignment is deemed corporal punishment if the child feels threatened by your actions....And the kids aren't stupid: not only do they use the threat of reporting their teachers to get away with whatever they want to, they also threaten their parents that they will report them to the Bureau of Child Welfare if they are punished at home." When someone on a liberal blog site posts comments like that, can there be the slightest doubt that the concept of personal responsibility is under wholesale attack?
    On Election Day, I don't care how bad the war is in Iraq, or global warming, or corporate malfeasance. The battle for personal responsibility is a war civilization cannot afford to lose. As long as we have forces in our society actively undermining personal responsibility, the rest is just details. As long as the courts can look at a legal brief arguing that obesity is the fault of fast food restaurants and not the individual, without flinging the document angrily in the plaintiffs' faces and jailing them and their lawyers for contempt of court, there is no more serious issue facing society.

3. No, it is not in the least debatable. If something has a predictable outcome, and you take the initial step, you are responsible.

4. Au contraire. You really don't think the hostility that these abuses create towards all forms of social welfare is a significant problem? If abuses of welfare make up such a miniscule proportion of welfare cases, why weren't the abuses reformed ages ago?

5. Enron and similar cases are real crimes, but a large fraction of the political scandals in my lifetime have involved things I call "bean counter crimes." These are violations of laws that exist for the sole purpose of making life easier for accountants and lawyers; record-keeping and the like. T-Rex is absolutely right. There is a double standard. Commit a crime, and the state has to prove you guilty. Be in business, and you have to keep records to prove your innocence. Until Enron came along, the vast majority of political scandals in my lifetime (and I recall the Sherman Adams controversy in the Eisenhower administration) caused me to ask "what did these people do that was wrong?" Keeping a political slush fund is wrong if you use the money for wrongdoing. Merely having a pot of money the accountants can't sort out is inconvenient for the accountants, nothing more. Don't tell me someone got a loan via irregular channels - did he pay it back? Don't tell me someone bought stock on an inside tip - show me the specific individual who was harmed. In legal terms, tell me about mala in se (things that are wrong in themselves).
    Then there's conflict of interest, otherwise known as making it illegal to look like you might be guilty. I can just see what T-Rex would write if we tried to criminalize the appearance of crime.

6. I think white collar crime should entail mandatory 100% restitution, and no recourse to bankruptcy. If that means working 18 hours a day until you're dead, too bad. But T-Rex's logic says "if you can't punish one type of crime properly you have no right to punish any other kind." The fact that drugs are illegal is universally known, and so is the fact that possession of drugs is harshly punished. If you have so little regard for your freedom that you use them anyway, come get your Darwin award.

7. Hmm. Jump back to the first paragraph where T-Rex says "nobody that I've ever heard of has ever said 'I oppose personal responsibility'," Then look at this argument. Ever heard any conservatives say "I advocate a passive death penalty for people who won't work?" T-Rex appears to think the only options are total unconditional welfare support or death.
    Long before we get to death as a consequence for personal irresponsibility, we get to serious inconvenience and discomfort. You have food, but it's monotonous. You have shelter, but it's poor quality and crowded. You have clothing, but it's old and ratty. You even have health care, but you may have to wait hours at a clinic to be seen. You have survival, but no money for pleasure. You walk or take the bus because you don't have a car. Most people discover those are incentives to try for something better.

8. Actually they are. Fail to pay your debts, or your taxes, and you can lose your home. The law will take it and evict you, and if you resist by force they will hit back as hard as they have to. The irony is that when people lose their homes for failure to pay taxes, the taxes are used in part to support the assistance programs so dear to T-Rex's heart. If you care about homelessness, isn't the first logical step not making more homeless people?
    The world is full of punishments "way out of proportion to the supposed offense." Merely touching a wire can kill you. Merely ingesting a tiny virus can kill you. A split second lapse of attention while driving can kill you. Are these consequences "way out of proportion?" Or are we failing to take the actions as seriously as they really should be? If being lazy could lead to the consequences T-Rex describes, doesn't that indicate that it's not the trivial issue than T-Rex seems to believe it is, that maybe the real offense is far more serious than the "perceived" offense?

9. T-Rex considers personal responsibility a viable option. An option. He's merely opposed to anything that puts unpleasant consequences on personal irresponsibility. The reason I love T-Rex's essay so much is it's a perfect distillation of the Debased Compassion Syndrome: if we're going to be a just society, we have a moral obligation to protect people from the adverse consequences of their bad choices - even if they themselves do absolutely nothing. It's not what conservatives say about liberals that bothers him - at bottom he really hates reality for daring to impose unpleasant consequences on certain actions.

10. No, people do not choose to be poor, uneducated and on welfare. Doubtless, if they could, they would choose to be rich and comfortable. Nobody chooses to get addicted to a drug. I'm sure drug users would gladly choose a drug that lets them get high without consequences. But life rarely offers the chance to select an action and the consequences. And at least some people would make better choices if society presented a uniform front.

11. Although I have some sympathy on this issue, let's have a reality check. There's nobody to show people how to make it on their own? No responsible, law-abiding neighbors with jobs? No ministers, no churches, no teachers? No characters on television? No public service ads telling people to stay in school, stay off drugs, and avoid casual sex? (And of course the public service ads aren't being ridiculed as simplistic for saying 'Just Say No To Drugs') No school or public libraries where you can read about people who made it? No place you can find the biography of Lincoln or Albert Schweitzer or Martin Luther King?
    Often, "lack of role models" means "lack of people who achieved wealth and luxury with little effort." There are good and bad people all around us. We choose to emulate some and regard others as object lessons in what not to do. Role models are a choice.

More Debased Compassion Syndrome In Action

In Salt Lake City, Weldon Angelos, described as a "record producer and pot dealer," was sentenced to 55 years in Federal prison for selling pot. The sentence was dictated by the fact that Angelos had a gun at the time he sold the marijuana. Said the Salt Lake Tribune:

If an effective life sentence for such a common crime, invoked merely because Angelos was found to be carrying a gun when he was caught selling marijuana to undercover police officers, is not cruel and unusual, it's hard to imagine what would be.

Angelos was operating in a world where everyone carries weapons because, as the song goes, you always carry cash. That the law that set the sentence or the prosecutors who invoked it should be offended at the presence of a weapon in that environment is childish.

I wouldn't have any problem with significantly reducing this sentence, but consider:

Whether pot should be legalized is a subject of legitimate debate. What is not up for debate is the idea that, while it's illegal, you don't use it or sell it. Period. No excuses. If you do, you consent to the risk of going to jail.

I also don't have any problem with sand barrels to protect drunk drivers and speeders from getting killed on bridge abutments, or fences to hinder people from falling off cliffs. But if they choose to indulge in risky or irresponsible behavior and get killed anyway, that was their choice.

Let's consider the statistics: people sentenced to 55 years for selling pot and "merely" carrying a gun: one. People not sentenced to 55 years for not selling pot and not carrying a gun: millions.

According to the editorial, we're supposed to cut the guy some slack because selling pot is a dangerous business and he needs to carry a gun. Maybe we can cut child porn owners a break because, hey, the only way they can look at it is to store it on their computers. Maybe we take armed robbery off the books because the only way robbers have to convince people to turn over their stuff is with a weapon. The editorial seems to hint that there is a right to choose crime as a way of life and society has no right to set penalties that make the choice painful. Cancel my subscription.

Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles

Although Europe, in many ways, has gone farther down the path of debased compassion than even the United States, it is occasionally capable of moments of insight. A Reuters story from December 14, 2006 relates:

BERLIN (Reuters) - The leader of Germany's centre-left Social Democrat party told an unemployed man his chances of finding work would improve drastically if he got washed and had a shave.

Kurt Beck, the bearded leader of the SPD party which has traditionally stood for the interests of Germany's blue-collar workers, gave 37-year-old Henrico Frank the advice at an event in Wiesbaden late on Tuesday, the Bild newspaper said.

Frank, pictured in the newspaper with two nose rings, long, bleached hair and a black beard, approached Beck during a walkabout and held him responsible for controversial labour market reforms which cut benefits for the long-term unemployed.

"You are responsible for Hartz IV and I don't have a job," the paper reported Frank as saying.

"If you had a wash and shaved then you'd have a job in three weeks," Beck told the man.

What makes this story so gratifying is that it involves a leftist politician laying it on the line. Ganz toll, Herr Beck.

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Created 20 September 2006;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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