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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