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Jesse Norman MP

Jesse Norman MP: Adam Smith's great insight. Compassion isn't pity. It's fellow feeling.

Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. His biography of Edmund Burke will be published in May. Follow Jesse on Twitter.

  Screen shot 2013-04-28 at 20.28.47Where did the idea of compassionate conservatism come from?  According to many on the left, the answer is former U.S President George W. Bush.

Bush certainly branded his first administration with the same label, especially before 9/11.  But this was a serious misnomer, for in fact his approach had the twin drawbacks of being neither compassionate nor conservative.  It was not compassionate: indeed, its main promoter, John DiIulio, fell foul of his colleagues in the White House in 2001 by insisting that money be directed to black and Latino churches, infuriating white Evangelicals.  And it was not conservative, as was shown by the extension of federal influence into local schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and the extraordinary ramp-up in federal spending that took place even before the financial crash of 2008.

Moreover, Bush’s compassionate conservatism was a moralising doctrine, which assumed that society’s basic moral standards were in decline and set the federal government the task of improving them.  And, as a slogan, it lacked a deeper theoretical justification that could be used as a basis for long-term policymaking.  The effect was that it quickly came to seem merely an electoral expedient, not a genuine contribution to a wider political and cultural debate.

Properly understood, compassionate conservatism is something utterly different.  To find its true modern roots we must look much further back, to the mid-eighteenth century, and to Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.  The two men were friendly, without being especially close.  But they shared a remarkably similar cast of mind:  Smith once remarked that "Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.”  Much the same was true on other subjects as well.

Burke we will leave to another day.  But Smith’s founding role should not be underestimated; and in morals as in economics, he is far more conservative than is often recognised.  He saw himself not as an economist but as a moral philosopher, as a legal scholar and (in effect) as a social scientist.  Thus he dealt with economic problems and ideas, but only in their wider social, historical and political contexts.  And he certainly did not believe that human beings were purely selfish.  Indeed he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 to argue for the quite different and opposed view that compassion or “sympathy” was the psychological basis of personal morality.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments opens with the following lines:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.

In the Smithian view, personal morality and social norms arise from a process of imagining and reconstructing the experience of others.  What matters is not compassion as pity, but compassion as fellow-feeling.  Smith, then, is one of the founders of compassionate conservatism.


For Smith then, what we now call capitalism was not a form of desiccated economic atomism.  He recognised the workings of the invisible hand, of course, but he also recognised the human capacity for sympathy or compassion.  So Smith saw markets not as disembodied but as operating within a rich local cultural context which embraced individual moral beliefs, a person’s own energy, flair and imagination, unstated background assumptions as to honesty and fair dealing, and a shared understanding of market conventions, institutions and traditions.  In short, not the University of Chicago economics department of the 1970s, but the Edinburgh of the 1770s.

What kind of person can have this capacity for fellow-feeling, for attachment to others?  Only one conceived as an active human being, a being engaged in the institutions around them.  On this view, then, people are naturally compassionate; their self-fulfilment involves the development and exercise of their capabilities; and the expression of these capabilities in action is something for which they can be held properly responsible.  The contrast is with the liberal idea of the self as an unfettered will, which cannot be made the subject of duties at all.

This is not mere fancy or philosophical speculation.  On the contrary, there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence for them.  In particular, research by Jean Decety and others suggests that there is a neural basis for compassion or empathy in the human brain.  Thus people who observe others in pain, especially their partners, seem to process this recognition in part through their own pain centres.  People who consider the emotional reactions of others process this through their own emotional neural systems.  By contrast, certain autistic, narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders manifest themselves in a lack of empathy, or may cause their victims even to recognise others as people at all. 

Overall, then, there is good reason to think that people are naturally compassionate.  Moreover, compassion gives purpose to human life, and as such is deeply psychologically rewarding.  Thus several studies suggest that people who regularly give money, time or support to others enjoy better physical and mental health, have lower levels of depression and suicide and have increased longevity, compared to those who do not.  Those who donate to charity report higher levels of happiness than others.  People who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater bodily functioning and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer, especially if they spend more than 100 hours per year in volunteering, and if it involves repeated personal contact in helping strangers. 

But compassion is ultimately one of the most basic resources of society itself.  To use a chemical metaphor: if the active self is an atom with carbon bonds, then families are small molecules, other institutions are larger ones, and society itself is the largest molecule of all.  It has no fixed shape - indeed, it can be of any shape depending on how its individuals and institutions link together.  But on its shape and composition depend many if not all of its characteristics and effectiveness. 

This allows us to resolve an apparent paradox.  As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s highly influential book The Spirit Level underlines, different societies can and do have different characteristics.  In particular, they can have massively different levels of social capital.  But this does not mean we have to think of a society as something over and above its component individuals and institutions, and potentially with interests opposed to theirs.  There is such a thing as society, but it’s not a further thing.

Different societies can be more or less successful, and the role and efficacy of the state can be an important part of the difference.  But far more important are the energy and effectiveness of those individuals and institutions.  How to improve that energy and effectiveness is arguably the central public policy challenge of the present day.


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