Does Compassion Correlate with Wealth?

I am not trying to answer this question (in the title) from an individualistic perspective. That’d be a philosophical quest, which is well beyond my remit here. However, it is possible to answer this at a community or national level. How do these entities behave in the face of a crisis that disproportionately affects the weakest among them?

What triggered me to write this is a recent editorial on the Lancet, a medical journal. The February editorial points out that the rate of genome sequencing in Gambia, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone is higher than that of France, Italy and the USA. Here, it is clear that wealth alone is not a marker of better healthcare.

Truth is that we have known this for a long time. Cuba, a country whose economy was never even comparable to that of the West and Scandinavia has consistently outperformed most of them when it comes to gains in healthcare. Even when we look at Kerala in India, we see a health system which is much better than its wealthy peers. Why is it so?

The way I look at it, I see that the shared commitment of a people towards their weakest is at play here. It is more of a cultural phenomenon than something purely driven by material concerns. The way resources are budgeted towards common welfare is a function of how a society thinks. Most importantly, how the influential sections think about it. On a more practical level, this boils down to the positions taken by those who can sway dissent in the body politic. These people need not be directly part of the governance structure. They could be influencers and thought leaders from various walks of life. They could even be teachers or those who command respect in the society. It is important to see how they think and act.

Perhaps, autocrats understand this more than democrats do. Their inexplicable yearning to suppress dissent stems from this need to control popular discourse. As Abraham Lincoln said, the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next. This stresses on the need to have a discourse centered around compassion in our public spaces. This is found woefully missing, especially after the strong consumerist and individualist push that Indian society got post the liberalisation of 1991. I wish to state that it has polluted our social interactions, personal religious space and has even made our faiths a battleground. It might be reductionistic to argue that the market is singularly responsible for all these, but one cannot deny the role of an eager facilitator that it has played in this.

Coming back to the original question, my answer is the obvious. Compassion of a society doesn’t correlate well with the wealth that it holds. This however, operates in a way different from how individual wealth doesn’t correlate well with his/her compassion. This has more to do with how the social contract between its constituents are negotiated and enforced on a day to day basis. Different mythologies across the globe are replete with examples of societies that invited doom by ignoring compassion in favour of immediate benefit of a few.

Whether it be the epic of Gilgamesh, codes of Hammurabi, the Biblical and Quranic stories of wanton people, the greed of the Kaurava in Mahabharata, we have plenty of examples in which our shared body of learning shuns this idea of untrammelled greed. We ought to pause a bit and pay attention. No doubt, modernity has endowed us with multiple tools of distraction. But, if we cannot see through them and do the needful, our fate also will not be different from those decimated societies mentioned in the epics. We cannot afford to forget this.

Written on April 19, 2021