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Ethics, Compassion and Self-Deceit

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Ethics, Compassion and Self-Deceit

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Written by Peter McVerry SJ on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 40 An Ethic for the Third Millennium, 2001

Peter McVerry, SJ

June 2001


There is a homeless person sitting in the street, begging.  Passing by, I wonder whether to give him money or not.   On the one hand, I feel sorry for him, no place to go, hungry, cold, bored.  On the other hand, maybe he isn’t really homeless, or even if he is, maybe he wants money for drugs or alcohol and I may actually be making his situation worse by giving him money.   It’s all very confusing.

In the Millennium, a sustained campaign was waged to abolish or reduce the debt owed by the poorest Third World countries, who were being crippled by the interest they had to pay on loans they had received from the economically developed world.  The campaigners argued that this repayment was preventing health and education programmes from being funded and was therefore costing lives and preventing development.   Others argued that corruption was so extensive in many of these countries and spending on arms and military so high that to simply cancel the debt would make their ruling elites even wealthier, their armies even better equipped and increase the oppression and suffering of the people, not reduce it.   It’s all very confusing.



Unfortunately, ethical principles are not a quick-fix solution to our confusions.  If they were, there would be no problems in the world.  Ethical principles are grounded in the values of compassion and solidarity.   What is absent in our world today is not a set of ethical guidelines but a deep sense of compassion and solidarity.  Unless a person is living those values, then ethical principles become, not guidelines to just behaviour, but rules to be manipulated, interpreted and twisted to one’s own advantage.

Compassion is not a religious feeling.   While it is central to many religious faiths, including Christianity, compassion is a human feeling that is innate in all of us.  It is part of our humanity.  All of us, of whatever faith or none, are moved by the sight of children starving, or being ill-treated.   Cruelty and sadism shock us all.   We can, of course, become anaesthetised to suffering and cruelty and there is a movement in that direction in our society.   Technology has enabled us to witness the suffering of so many people in our world that we can sometimes close our eyes because the pain becomes too much.  We are also tempted to close our eyes because we feel so powerless to do anything – there is nothing worse than feeling pain at the suffering of another and knowing that I can do nothing about it.   Compassion involves a desire to remove the pain from people’s lives and give them a happier future.  But when the pain of observing the pain of others becomes too much for us to bear, then we preserve our own sanity by switching off.   And so we have lost not so much our compassion, but our sense of outrage.  Homeless children on the streets of Dublin in the year 2001, with our coffers so full that we dream up National Stadiums so that we can spend the money, is an obscenity.   We are all aware of children dying in our world from hunger and preventable disease.   But where is the anger, where is the indignation, where is the sense of outrage?   Ethical principles are rooted in a deep sense of compassion.  To act ethically, we have to continually struggle against the tendency to numb the pain of seeing others in pain.


Our sense of solidarity with others can help to prevent the anaesthetic from dulling the pain.   To empathise with another person in their pain, to feel that pain as if it was our own, can help to keep us alert to the suffering in the world.   It is John and Mary and Jane’s pain, John, Mary and Jane being persons known to us, which helps to minimise the tendency to treat the suffering of others as merely a “problem”.   It helps to prevent the anonymity of others, others being considered objectively as the “clients” and the problem being “an issue”.  We need to get to know people who are poor, suffering and marginalised, to be able to see life through their eyes.  People who are waiting years for an operation may see the budget in a very different way to those who are cushioned by their VHI payments.  Preserving our sense of outrage through personal, direct contact with people who are poor, suffering or marginalised makes it more likely that we will act ethically towards the poor.

Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.  On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good:  that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all.”  (Encyclical “Social Concern”, par.38)

Jesus did not pronounce ethical principles, he told stories about people:

There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day.  And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  Dogs even came and licked his sores.  Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried.

In his torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his bosom.  So he cried out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames”.   “My son,” Abraham replied, “remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus.  Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.  But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours and to stop anyone crossing from your side to ours.”   (Luke 16 v 19-26)

The stories talked about situations in which people were treated badly, ignored or walked upon.  The stories enabled people to empathise with others in the unjust situation in which they found themselves.   The ethical thing to do was usually very clear, the ethical principles were deafeningly loud, but Jesus explained them in terms of concrete situations and real people.   The discernment demanded by Jesus was based on compassion and solidarity.

So always treat others as you would like them to treat you;  that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7: 12)


Ethical principles also have to struggle against our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.  Our ability to rationalise and make decisions, which are in our own interests, while preserving the belief that we are acting ethically, is usually very apparent in others!   However, we can often delude ourselves that this very common phenomenon does not affect us.  My desire for comfort or for security are two frequently occurring drives which affect my decisions.   My attachment to my own way of doing things or my own attitudes and feelings about things may prevent me from being objective.   This need for psychological security is particularly difficult to unmask as it may be rooted very deeply in my psyche and therefore very hidden even to myself.

Few of us are quite as transparent as President Bush who is very clear that the national interests of the US take precedence over everything else, including the environment, or of Charlie McCreevy whose understanding of social justice seems to be to support those who are doing very well.   Most of us, however, are unwilling to admit that we are motivated by self-interest and believe that we are the essence of objectivity. The problem is not bad people making bad decisions but good people making bad decisions having convinced themselves that they were good decisions.   They are not acting out of malice – indeed it would be much easier to deal with if they were! – but out of ignorance, ignorance of the reality of life for poor people and of the effect of the decisions they make on their lives.

We see it in relations between different parts of the world, between different countries, different regions, different communities.   Decisions that could make a vital, life-giving difference to some people are rejected, watered down, compromised because of the relatively minor effects or inconvenience which those decisions would have for those who make them.

A Matter of Perspective

A major part of the rationalisation which we all go on with is our unwillingness or inability to listen.  We do not want our situation or our thinking to be disturbed by the contrary views of others.  And so we set up mechanisms by which such challenges can be dismissed.   We find all sorts of reasons which invalidate or rubbish such views.   This is especially true of the views of the poor themselves, which of course challenge us the most.

If I live in the top floor flat of a building and at 8 o’clock in the morning I pull back the curtains, the sun shines in.  I look out the window into the back garden and see the lovely multi-coloured flowers swaying in the breeze and watch the birds dancing on the lawn looking for worms.   It seems to be another wonderful day.

But if I live in the basement flat of the same building and at 8 o’clock in the morning I pull back the curtains, nothing happens – the sun can’t get in.  I look out the window into the back garden and all I see is the white-washed wall of the outside toilet – I cannot see the flowers or the birds or the lawn.  I’m not sure what sort of day it is.

Here we have two people looking out of the same house into the same garden at the same time of the same day – and they have too totally different views: there is a view from the top and a view from the bottom.

In our society there are two (and indeed more than two) totally different views.  There is the view of those who are in well-paid, secure, pensionable jobs, living in a nice house in a nice area and whose children are going to third-level education; and there is the view of those who are living on the 14th floor of a tower block in Ballymun when the lifts don’t work, who have been unemployed for twelve years and whose children have dropped out of school and are hanging around with the wrong crowd.  How they see the structures of Irish society and how they view the political, economic and social decisions that are made will probably be very different.

The perspective of the poor does not have any greater legitimacy than the perspective of any other group in our society or in our world.   It is, like any other view, the view of a particular group who sees the world from their own unique situation.   However, while it does not have greater legitimacy, it does have greater priority, simply because it is the view of those who are suffering or who have been excluded.  This gives  their  viewpoint  a uniqueness which demands particular attention.  However, it often receives particular disdain – because they often lack education, and so they are written off as not having the knowledge to understand the “complexity” of reality;  or because they lack the literacy skills to present their views in a way that keeps decision makers happy; or because they are perceived to be biased because of their particular problems (as if the rest of us weren’t!).

It is the difficult task of continually trying to listen to the views of those who are poor and excluded, of trying to see life as it were through   their   eyes   which   sustains   our compassion and our solidarity.   It is difficult because it challenges us, our viewpoint, our securities; sometimes it even accuses us.  And we usually do not like to be challenged, still less accused.

Ethical principles have their place. But ethical principles tend to be enunciated by the rich and powerful.  Unless they are enlivened and challenged by dialogue with the least powerful and an awareness of their problems, they become little more than maxims of self-interest.  Acting justly does not depend on our understanding of ethical principles, helpful as that may be in some situations.  It depends on the sort of person we are and are becoming.

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About the Author

Peter McVerry SJ

Peter McVerry SJ

A member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice team and an Executive Director of the Peter McVerry Trust, which provides accommodation and care for homeless young people.

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.