Conspicuous Compassion

Conspicuous Compassion January 11, 2009

When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret. – Matthew 6:1-4

The practice of which Christ speaks, doing good deeds not because they are good but for the praise of men, is as common today as it was in first century Palestine. Certainly people often engage in charitable activities and ethical behavior for the purest of motives. Yet just as certainly such charitable activities are often done to be trendy or so that people will think well of them. Just as people will often engage is conspicuous consumption, buying flashy cars or clothes not for any practical purpose but merely to advertise their wealth, so people often engage in conspicuous compassion, undertaking flashy acts of charity as a means of advertising their purported virtue.

Of course, the fact that a charitable is done for mean motives does not render it totally worthless. T.S. Eliot’s famous line, “the last temptation is the greatest treason/to do the right deed for the wrong reason” may be true on a personal level. But from a social point of view, the good effects of a good deed are the same regardless of the motivation whereby it was done. A society where honor was given based on how one treated the weakest and most vulnerable (rather than being based on, say, how many women one has slept with) would be a better society, even if it would not per se be a more virtuous one.

Still, doing good is not the same as appearing to do good, and to the extent that people are motivated by conspicuous compassion, there is a danger that they will opt for the kinds of charitable actions that get the most attention rather than those that have the biggest practical effect.

For instance, it is said that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, while if you teach him to fish he will eat for a lifetime. From the perspective of conspicuous compassion, though, the second option is not necessarily preferable to the first. Teaching a man to fish may be better for the man, but it is unlikely to garner as much attention as bringing him his food day after day. Conspicuous consumption, then, will tend to favor actions which leave the disadvantaged in a state of dependency to those which help get them back on their feet.

Likewise, to the extent that people are motivated by conspicuous compassion, they will tend to prefer symbolism and even mere talk to real effective action. In modern day America, for example, one way to show compassion is to advocate various anti-poverty efforts by the government. Indeed, as DarwinCatholic has noted, the conspicuous compassion value of advocating government anti-poverty efforts may actually be greater than actually helping the poor yourself, since there are strong social norms against broadcasting one’s own charitable activities, while broadcasting one’s support for government action is not similarly frowned upon. As Arthur Brooks has shown, people who advocate a greater role for government in solving social problems tend to give less to charity than those who do not (and this disparity occurs irrespective of whether government actually does take on this expansive role).

Finally, to the extent that people are motivated by conspicuous compassion, their charitable activities will tend to change with the fads and fashions of the larger society. Just as people’s tastes in clothing, music, and so forth can change almost overnight based on what is “in,” so ethical fashions will be blown about by the winds of which causes are trendy. This lack of commitment risks leaving the vulnerable in the lurch, as their benefactors shift attention to the next injustice of the week.

If we want to do good rather than simply looking good, we must be constantly on guard against the temptation towards conspicuous compassion in our own charitable acts. To paraphrase the British writer and physician Theodore Dalrymple, the question we must constantly ask ourselves is: Do I just want to appear concerned and compassionate to all my friends, colleagues, and peers, or do I really want to help people?

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  • digbydolben

    Do I just want to appear concerned and compassionate to all my friends, colleagues, and peers, or do I really want to help people?

    Is there anything wrong, though, with wanting to appear “concerned and compassionate” in the eyes of GOD? Once upon a time–and in the eyes of most of the greatest saints of the Catholic tradition–“doing good”–conspicuously giving alms, dividing one’s possessions with the poor, etc.–was a matter of personal honour: it was considered the noble thing to do. This ideal of heroic sanctity is entirely lost, I think, to our culture, because of the advent of modernism, heresy and capitalism’s “industrial revolution” and the laissez faire economics that promoted the latter. We can’t even BEGIN to understand the almost feudal loyalty to God that motivated such as Francis of Assisi and Inigo de Loyola.

    And you yourself, blackadder, are guilty of this derogation of discrete charity and compassion, when, in reverse reaction to your disdain of it, you dismiss the social concern of “liberals” as being non-existent. (And I think you KNOW that you SHOULD have a guilty conscience regarding your attacks on those insist that “un-mixed” capitalism is un-Christian, else why your constant returning to the subject?)

    In the other exchanges, you failed to notice that both I and “radicalcatholicmom” HAVE worked in the Third World with the poor, on development projects that DID show them “how to fish,” rather than hand out fish to them.

  • If we truly want to do good, to do what God wants, we will seek greater justice, which is not simply a matter of charity. Unfortunately justice never finds its way into your posts. Capitalist ideologues have no problem with charity, and even call it a “good.” Justice, on the other hand, is threatening. Perhaps we should also be on the lookout for conspicuous injustice.

  • Liberals always accuse conservatives of being stingy because we are against big gov’t spending programs. No doubt these programs are designed to bring about Mr. Iafrate’s so-called “justice” and are as loud and clanky as a brass band or a bunch of angry hippies beating on their guitars.

    As Arthur Brooks has demonstrated, conservatives beat liberals by a wide margin in personal giving. However, because we do not sound a trumpet when we give alms, it has become accepted that liberals are the generous ones and we productive conservative members of society are the Scrooges. We’d be more respected if we ignore Christ’s admonition and brought the trumpets and PA systems for each charitable occasion.

  • Pauli – I am not in favor of “big gov’t programs,” but global economic justice. And once again, kudos to you if you give garbage bags of alms. But that ain’t justice.

  • S.B.

    Define “justice.”

  • Justice, on the other hand, is threatening. Perhaps we should also be on the lookout for conspicuous injustice.

    Certainly, we all should be on the lookout for injustice. But since your behavior frequently suggests you are incapable even of responding fairly to comments on blog posts, it is hard to take you seriously on larger questions of justice. As they say, charity (and justice) begins at home.

    To the broader point, thanks for the post BA.

  • John Henry – Define “unfair.”

  • radicalcatholicmom

    BA: If I am to understand you correctly, if a person gives money to charity then they are being charitable and they have fulfilled the duty of teaching someone to fish?

    I am not sure what your point is for this post.

  • Here are a couple definitions: “Marked by injustice, partiality, or deception,” or “not fair; not conforming to approved standards, as of justice, honesty, or ethics”

    Your basic modus operandi is as follows: 1) Misstate your interlocutor’s position, 2) Make unkind remarks about them, usually involving some reference to how un-Catholic they are. 3) Refuse to engage in any further constructive discussion, other than non sequiturs which imply your own moral superiority.

    Here is a typical example from yesterday: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/2009/01/08/after-rights-then-what/#comment-46151

    Darwin wrote: “I don’t think people are necessarily saying that people have the ‘right to be selfish’…However, just about any approach which involves respecting people’s right private property at all…involves leaving people some room to be selfish if they so choose.”

    First you completely mis-characterized his statement:

    1) “As for the “right to be selfish,” sadly, Darwin, the Roman Catholic Church does not share your libertarianism….”

    Then you condemned him for being insufficiently Catholic:

    2) “…As Catholics, we believe that our societies should be set up such that they encourage people to be good…that kind of thinking is foreign to authentic Catholic social teaching.”

    Then the obligatory, accusatory non sequitur…

    3) “If you Catholics defended the vulnerable the way you defend “private property” you would look a lot more like Jesus. Just sayin’.”

    See also: http://the-american-catholic.com/2008/11/27/happy-thanksgiving/#comment-2588

  • I’m not sure how you can say I have mis-characterized his views. He said he thinks people should have “some room to be selfish if they so choose.” I call this the “right to be selfish.” Now, Darwin may not like the term “rights,” but you can hardly say I am distorting his views.

    Perhaps you mean the fact that I called him a libertarian? He denied he is a libertarian, but he did not explain why he is not a libertarian, other than to say that libertarians would not describe him as libertarian.

    Then you condemned him for being insufficiently Catholic:

    2) “…As Catholics, we believe that our societies should be set up such that they encourage people to be good…that kind of thinking is foreign to authentic Catholic social teaching.”

    I never “condemned him for being insufficiently Catholic.” We were discussing social and economic organization, and I said that his view that the right to be selfish (or the fact that human beings should “have some room to be selfish if they choose” – whatever) should be built into our societies is foreign to Catholic social teaching. That is simply a fact. It’s not a personal condemnation.

    Then the obligatory, accusatory non sequitur…

    3) “If you Catholics defended the vulnerable the way you defend “private property” you would look a lot more like Jesus. Just sayin’.”

    Again, merely an observation. And one that should be quite obvious to anyone observing this conversation. Many of you are more concerned about defending private property and/or capitalism than you are concerned about creating situations in which the vulnerable are cared for. If I am wrong on this, then prove it by rephrasing your ethical options.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    I too am astounded how the issue of justice gets reduced to the issue of personal charity in posts such as this.

  • blackadderiv

    If I am to understand you correctly, if a person gives money to charity then they are being charitable and they have fulfilled the duty of teaching someone to fish?

    Do you really think that’s what I was saying?

  • blackadderiv

    I too am astounded how the issue of justice gets reduced to the issue of personal charity in posts such as this.

    I do not wish to quibble over a word. Replace “charity” or “compassion” with “justice” or its derivatives, and most of what I’ve written in this post will be just as true.

  • I do not wish to quibble over a word. Replace “charity” or “compassion” with “justice” or its derivatives, and most of what I’ve written in this post will be just as true.

    “Charity,” “compassion,” and “justice” are three different words with three different meanings. The distinction between charity and justice is clearly made and is most basic in Catholic social thought. If we can’t understand that very simple point, then discussions like this are pointless. The fact that you would see these words as interchangeable reveals a lot about your interpretation of CST as well as your political and economic views.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    To be quite honest, I still am trying to surmise the overall point of your past three posts. This post seems like some offshot of your last two.

    I take it that you are getting at some deeper point, but I cannot figure out what it is.

    That the free market has a better record with issues of labour justice than alternatives that allow for government intervention or government backed rights of workers to form unions?

  • ‘He said he thinks people should have “some room to be selfish if they so choose.” ‘

    No, he said that legal respect for private property generally leaves people room to be selfish. This is an observation about the consequences of a legal right to private property. Not an endorsement of a right to selfishness. Notice the Catechism acknowledges the right to private property is often part of the common good:

    2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

    Experience shows that when people have a legal right to private property, some of them misuse that right. Darwin was observing that, in practice, a consequence of private property is selfish misuse of property. He did not advocate such selfishness, much leas a right to such selfishness. There was nothing ‘foreign to Catholic social teaching’ about this observation. You mis-characterized what he said, then said the mis-characterization wasn’t Catholic.

    Many of you are more concerned about defending private property and/or capitalism than you are concerned about creating situations in which the vulnerable are cared for. If I am wrong on this, then prove it by rephrasing your ethical options

    This is a perfect example of your approach. The issue in question was what means are best suited to helping people in third world countries. BA linked to academic studies suggesting that many third world factories are, on balance, a benefit to the people in those countries. Your response was to refuse to even glance at the studies, and accuse BA of not really being concerned about the poor despite his statements and research to the contrary (an unprovable accusation).

    Now, you are suggesting that there is some burden on me to prove what is unprovable. There is no way for me to prove what a bunch of other people ‘are more concerned about’. I could say that you are more concerned about making self-righteous accusations than helping the poor, but I could not demonstrate this for the same reason.

  • Mark DeFrancisis

    And that the record of giving of those who hold your ‘”anti-government”, free market views somehow is proof of…?

  • blackadderiv

    “Charity,” “compassion,” and “justice” are three different words with three different meanings. The distinction between charity and justice is clearly made and is most basic in Catholic social thought. If we can’t understand that very simple point, then discussions like this are pointless.

    I recognize the distinction. It’s just that the phenomenon I’m talking about in this post can occur both with regard to charity and with regard to social justice.

  • Btw, thanks for fixing the formatting BA/MI. I’ll stick to using quotation marks going forward so that every comment doesn’t need to be cleaned up.

  • Darwin was observing that, in practice, a consequence of private property is selfish misuse of property. He did not advocate such selfishness, much leas a right to such selfishness.

    He was doing more than observing a consequence. Anyone can observe that consequence; it is quite obvious. He is arguing that human beings should “have room” for selfishness:

    “However, just about any approach which involves respecting people’s right private property at all…involves leaving people some room to be selfish if they so choose.”

    To Darwin, we should respect the right to private property and this involves letting people be selfish if they choose to be. Of course he was not advocating selfishness. But he WAS advocating respecting the “right” to be selfish. To Darwin, true “respect” for “private property” means preserving the right to be selfish.

  • “He is arguing that human beings should “have room” for selfishness…he WAS advocating respecting the “right” to be selfish.”

    That is exactly wrong. You have not provided one quote that said that 1) people should have room for selfishness, or that 2) a right to selfishness should be respected; only quotes saying that respecting a right to private property (as the Church does) results in permitting some level of selfishness. He did not say there ‘should’ be room for selfishness, he said that respecting private property does, in practice, leave room for some degree of selfishness.

    This is not ‘advocating respecting the right to be selfish,’ and is an observation completely consistent with CST. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, you decided to 1) put words in his mouth; 2) say the words you put in his mouth were not Catholic, 3) indulge in your wearying and familiar habit of baseless accusations of bad faith.

    Here’s Darwin response to you yesterday making exactly the same point:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/2009/01/08/after-rights-then-what/#comment-46156

    “But I specifically said that there is _not_ a “right to be selfish”. However, there is a right to private property (though not an absolute right) which is clearly acknowledged in Catholic social teaching as you know every well. And I was merely pointing out that so long as one acknowledges a right to private property…one necessarily will leave people a certain amount of room to be selfish.”

  • S.B.

    Analogously, a right to free speech means, in practice, that people will end up being rude and obnoxious on the Internet. To point out that fact doesn’t mean that one is defending your “right to be rude and obnoxious.”

  • John Henry, thank you for pointing out how nonsensical Darwin’s position is. He wants to have it both ways:

    “And I was merely pointing out that so long as one acknowledges a right to private property…one necessarily will leave people a certain amount of room to be selfish.”

    Leaving people a “certain amount of room to be selfish” is AS IT SHOULD BE, according to Darwin, in his account of what “respect for private property” means. That he can then claim he is NOT advocating a “right to be selfish” is absurd once he has made such claims.

  • While I can vaguely see how one might construe my use of “involves” to mean that the right to private property means that one must respect people’s ability to be selfish in some positive sense, it seems to me that if one read anything I wrote around it it’s pretty clear that’s not how “involves” was being used in this context. The meaning was more “has the result that”, which is a perfectly valid use of the word.

    And if you think about it: It really is pretty much impossible to imagine people having anything like private property and yet being absolutely prevented by some outside force from being selfish. How could one do otherwise?

    Say Joe makes a just wage, and as a result he has a certain amount of money and time for leisure. The fact that he owns this leisure time and money means that it is possible that if someone asks him for help which he is perfectly able to give, he may choose wrongly and refuse to provide that help.

    I’m unable to see how one could imagine a system in which it would be impossible that anyone would ever refuse something which it would be right for them to have given, and yet still have private property in any meaningful sense. Just about anything you have can be abused: If you have food, you can be gluttonous. If you have money or other resources, you can be selfish with them. If you have leisure time, you can be slothful. We don’t want to actively encourage and enable people to commit any of these sins, but it’s not really possible to completely prevent them while still allowing them their natural freedoms which contribute to human thriving.

  • S.B.

    That’s all quite an elementary point, Darwin. It’s as if someone just wants to play games, pretending you said something else and forcing you to waste time explaining the obvious.

  • Yes, Darwin, you just used the word freedom. As I was reading this thread and in particular John Henry’s defense of you, I was thinking that the better expression would have been “freedom to be selfish” (I know most would understand your words appropriately given the context, I’m just sayin’), which as we all know that the freedom to do or be something doesn’t mean that anyway we exercise that freedom is morally correct. That God gave us free will (and considers it good and the ability to be selfish, gluttonous, prideful, etc. doesn’t mean that we should be those things, nor does it mean we can stamp them out of others. The beauty of love, of sacrifice, of mercy and justice is that it comes from a choice – an exercise of free will.

  • Imo, a moral right to private property, if reflected in law, creates a legal (but not a moral) right to act selfishly with that property. I do not think this observation is in anyway in conflict with Catholic social teaching.

    I think it is clear both that Michael I. was straining to read something into Darwin’s wording that wasn’t there, and furthermore that his subsequent assertion that the comment reflected the “kind of thinking is foreign to authentic Catholic social teaching,” was laughable on its face. Others mileage may vary, although I noticed S.B. had the same impression. To me, such a tendentious reading, and willingness to declare them outside the framework of CST is in tension with basic fairness, and it is something I’ve long deplored in Michael’s responses. I’ve said enough about the subject for now. I’ll give you (and anyone else who cares to) the final word, Michael. Apologies to BA for hi-jacking the thread.

  • of course conservatives are stingy. The best one can hope for is that trickle down fraud. Democrats aren’t all that skilled in running government programs, but/because the scam that is the American system doesn’t even allow it. Europeans run programs well usually with benefits for all people unheard of in this cutthroat country. And, not all that many have to depend on private charity to begin with. If employees had a strong position in the US, thebneed for government “handouts” would be much lower to begin with. Not to mention that it’s a rather derogatory term, much like Reagan’s famous Cadillac driving “welfare queen”. Not
    Only do people get screwed, they also get mocked if they fall on hard times – frequently caused by deregulated madness. With the dreadful religious right to boot, there is no way to see conservatives, as a group, as, putting it mildly, awful people.

  • I’ll pass on the “final word” John. Too much B.S. to address.

  • Here’s a charity I like. I saw it on EWTN, it was started by a good Catholic guy. Giving to this charity increases justice around the world and saves lives.

  • Michael, you use the term justice. You were asked for your definition of it. I’m waiting with great interest for that particular information.

    There is a question that I bring up sometimes. It goes like this. “Don’t you think we ought to help people who are more fortunate than us?”

    Who could disagree with that, until you start looking closer at the question. How do you define “help” and how do you define “less fortunate”.

    So I’d like to promote justice, Michael, but I believe my definition of justice is much different than yours. What is yours?

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