Should democracy be more compassionate? Richard Boyd looks to Rousseau for answers.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau

There is a sense that the modern democratic society is, or at least tries to be, a caring place. Our own Canadian democracy has a public health care system, free education, social safety nets, and numerous charitable organizations to help the downtrodden and minimize suffering. Despite every system’s imperfections, on balance it would be fair to call a modern democracy a bastion of compassion and concern for one’s fellow citizens.

Oddly, however, the philosophical and political theories that uphold our democratic values have traditionally paid little heed to such empathetic sentiments. Indeed, discussions centering on the potential roles of humaneness and compassion in politics tend to be rare and are generally eschewed in favor of discourse on rights, freedoms, and equality. These, after all, are the bedrock ideas democracy is founded upon.

Are we right to favor the coldly rational notions of equality, justice, and freedom in our societies? Or should we call for a “warming” of our democratic ideals by building ethics of empathy and compassion more concretely into our socio-political framework? Richard Boyd, a political theorist and Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University, tackles this question through his analysis of the writings of enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Listen to our interview with Richard Boyd 

Rousseau, Boyd points out, was renowned for his deep commitments to promoting a more compassionate and more democratic society. For him, compassion flows out of pity, the uniquely human ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of another who suffers. This imagining is made easier when we share more in common with the suffering person – the more we are able to identify with people who suffer, the more compassion we feel, and thus the more inclined we may be to offer help. A more compassionate society would bear less suffering, thus providing an argument for the incorporation of compassion as a bedrock democratic ideal.

Boyd, however, cautions otherwise. For Rousseau, he says, compassion flows from the pitying of those less-fortunate. This pity, however, may actually stem from a sense of difference, comparison, and distaste for suffering. Put simply, we may be sad to see the suffering of the less fortunate, but we also find ourselves glad our circumstances are better. This problem of compassionate comparison is only made worse by the many and diverse provisions of modern (for Rousseau, “bourgeois”) society – with every layer of acculturation a society develops its citizens become more vain, more self-conscious, and more estranged from the plight of those truly in need.

For Boyd, a democracy is most soundly grounded upon promoting the ideals of individual freedom and moral equality between people. While feelings of empathy and compassion may stir us to help others, they simultaneously focus us on our differences through social comparison and therefore undermine the very equality our society strives for. Because of this, compassion may not be an ideal we want at the very heart of our democratic philosophy. This isn’t to say, of course, that Boyd or Rousseau would stand in opposition to the development of a more compassionate society in general – on the contrary. Boyd’s major concern is only that a democratic philosophy that glorifies compassion may unintentionally serve to distort the egalitarian and liberal ideals that our society holds most dear.

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