The yin and yang of compassion and consequences

One of the core fault lines among progressives and conservatives in America is that between compassion and consequences.

Progressives hold compassion sacred, believing that no human being should be made to suffer unduly. Ultimately, regardless of their actions, each human is afforded a certain level of care and respect. They don’t want any individuals to be ostracized to the margins of society.

Conservatives on the other hand hold the laws of karma sacred. Ultimately, they want good behavior to be rewarded and bad behavior to be punished, creating an incentive for moral action and self-sufficiency. They see such an incentive as a key part of the system that keeps society functioning. They want to keep society as a unit healthy and together.


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This may be heresy among progressives, but I think both propositions are equally true. I don’t think in a cosmic sense, anyone is really deeply responsible for their behaviors. Behaviors inevitably are inextricably linked to genetics, cultural values and beliefs, the circumstances of one’s childhood beyond their control, etc. In that sense, an ongoing underlying thread of compassion is really the only reasonable position.

On the other hand, properly constructed consequences, for both good and bad behaviors, have been one of greatest tools in driving human behavior toward peace, justice, and harmony. Punishment is how we enforce laws and expectations. Rewards are how we incentivize socially beneficial behavior.

The problem is these worldviews, at least on the surface, appear to be in conflict. How can we be truly compassionate when we are punishing people? How can we encourage good behavior if we don’t hold people accountable for their criminal actions?

This fault line has created intense polarization in our country. People typically hold one side quite passionately and believe those on the other to be immoral, hateful, and well, evil. Progressives just can’t understand how conservatives can be so cruel. Conservatives just can’t understand how progressives can be so lax on fundamental expectations that foster good behavior.

But what if not only are both perspectives absolutely necessary for a functioning society, but they actually reinforce another?

Are not consequences that help correct someone’s actions a form of care and compassion? How can we help reform individuals if we don’t use our most highly developed tools for discouraging bad behavior? It’s tough love. Progressives, isn’t that what you want?

And isn’t compassion and love also ultimately a strategy for maintaining strong bonds within a society? Without compassion, won’t we push more and more people to the frays of society, sewing dissent and rebellion? Through compassion, we keep investment in and commitment to society greater. Conservatives, isn’t that what you want?

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