Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 21 April 2024



Mindless ‘compassion’ is leading us towards the end of our civilisation

The Sunday Times

Compassion is the basis of morality, said Arthur Schopenhauer, and I suspect most of us would agree. Humans are perhaps unique in feeling the pain of others (philosophers call this “theory of mind”), which is why we often feel a powerful instinct to help one another. This is a beautiful thing — and I don’t wish to diminish it.

But compassion is — I’m sure you’ll agree — a subtle concept. As parents, for example, we notice a tension between the short and long term. When a son or daughter asks to withdraw from the school play, anxious about messing up in front of everyone, we feel a strong urge to protect them. Then we realise that if they do not confront their fear, they will never develop the courage to embrace the adventure we call life. And so we coax them, even prod them, unwillingly onto the stage. We are cruel to be kind.

Another subtlety, less often discussed, is the tension between compassion — particularly in the public sphere — and cost. After all, it costs money to fund welfare programmes and social benefits. This tension was well known to the subsistence societies in which our species spent most of the past 10,000 years: communities that were at almost constant war with neighbours. A tribal leader who proposed a shorter working week and generous social entitlements would not have seemed compassionate but positively dangerous. The society would not have survived.

Today, of course, we live in a different world: we in the UK have enjoyed three centuries of growth and, over the past few decades, unprecedented peace. This has recalibrated our conception of what it means to live in a “compassionate society” — the costs we are willing to incur to help one another. A visitor from the time of the agricultural revolution would be astonished by our wondrous technology but perhaps even more so by triple-locked pensions for all. It is affluence that has permitted this expansion of “compassion”, rather than a shift in moral sentiments.


But this shift extends well beyond politics. You see it in the human rights decisions by judges whose rulings are shaped by tacit assumptions of affordability even if they are largely unaware of it. It costs money, you see, to demand that the Swiss government move rapidly to net zero even though its actions will have a negligible influence on climate change. It costs money to book hotel rooms for asylum seekers who come to the UK in small boats. I make no comment on the legitimacy of any given judgment; I merely note that it incurs financial burdens that must be met by the wider society without which human rights would not exist, nor courts, nor judges.

Or take mental health. Since 1952 the number of conditions that can be diagnosed by doctors has grown from 106 to more than 400, while thresholds for existing disorders have lowered (the psychologist Nick Haslam calls this “horizontal and vertical expansion”). In many ways this has been a hugely positive thing, bringing relief to sufferers who might otherwise have been stigmatised. But as conditions expand, and more psychiatrists are needed to offer subsidised diagnoses and treatment, and sick notes are issued for ailments that trigger benefit payments, costs accumulate. These costs were tolerable — indeed scarcely noticed — in the age of economic expansion (the rate of growth of the British economy has often outpaced the growth of diagnosable conditions). Today, however, during an age of lower growth, we are noticing quite a lot.

And this, let me suggest, is the fundamental political fact of our age. Rishi Sunak sought to articulate this on Friday in relation to what he called “sick note culture”. He noted that 2.8 million people are now economically inactive because of long-term sickness, and that total spending on working-age disability and ill-health benefits has increased by almost two thirds from £42.3 billion to £69 billion over recent years. We spend more on these benefits than on running schools or on policing, which is — he rightly notes — unsustainable.

But that is merely one symptom of a wider problem; one that often afflicts civilisations towards the end of a wave of affluence. We might put it this way: social entitlements have a tendency to become uncoupled from the material conditions required to finance them. In ancient Rome, it was during the age of stagnation that the dole for citizens was expanded (not just bread but wine and olive oil) and the money supply inflated. It was almost as if they were attempting to convince themselves that the wave would never end — until the moment the empire collapsed.

And are we not travelling a similar path? Look at how life expectancy is increasing while retirement ages are not rising anything like commensurately; at how working weeks are shortening even as our adversaries are working harder and longer. Look, too, at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s most recent Fiscal Risks and Sustainability report, which shows that without a fundamental change in spending commitments, public debt will rise to 300 per cent of GDP by 2070 (in other words, we will be bankrupt). Successive waves of quantitative easing reveal the same truth in monetary form — while the first episode was, to my mind, eminently justified, later expansions represent the familiar attempts to evade reality of a society whose growth rate has declined.


This may come across as a rather right-wing column, but this isn’t a debate between right and left but between realism and denial. Besides, the imperative of cutting back on unaffordable entitlements applies as much to the rich as anyone else. The hard-working taxpayer can no longer afford to subsidise the tax loopholes enjoyed by the mobile wealthy, the capture of regulators and politicians by corporations and the VIP lanes for chums and cronies. Indeed, the rich and powerful are often the most dangerously entitled of all.

This problem isn’t unique to the UK; it afflicts much of the western world. The last time the collective public debt of the advanced economies reached such elevated levels was in the aftermath of the Second World War. The difference then was that we had just been in a battle for our existence. Today, after decades of peace (during which European nations have scarcely spent a penny on defence), we are back in the same place — with debts inexorably rising and little prospect of resurgent growth to save us during a transition from high to low-density energy sources.

This is why what we really need is a moral recalibration, particularly in an age of rising military conflict. We need to rethink what we mean by compassion. We need to rethink what we mean by “essential” services. We need to rethink foreign aid when we are giving money to nations with space programmes. 

We need to rethink human rights and, perhaps even more importantly, individual responsibilities. 

We need to rethink smaller things, too, such as whether individuals can fail to turn up to GP appointments without incurring a penalty.

In short, we need to cut our moral coat to the cloth of the age or, to put it another way, embrace realism. Our future as a civilisation depends on it.

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