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David Brooks, Social Justice, and the Quality of Compassion

April 16th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

David Brooks lands an important critique of how many young social entrepreneurs talk about development:

There’s little social progress without political progress. Unfortunately, many of today’s young activists are really good at thinking locally and globally, but not as good at thinking nationally and regionally.

Second, the prevailing service religion underestimates the problem of disorder. Many of the activists talk as if the world can be healed if we could only insert more care, compassion and resources into it.

History is not kind to this assumption. Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country, a family or a person — flows from disorganization. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved, it takes hard measures to restore it.

Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.

Brooks’ critique of a certain softness, a lack of “moral realism” from the social entrepreneurship crowd is certainly a strong one.   Offhand, I can think of a couple exceptions to this that might muddy up things.  My friends Tyler Wigg Stevenson and Peter Greer both come to mind, as does the International Justice Mission.  In fact, that last one has always caused no little perplexity for me:  on the one hand, folks in the younger evangelical set adore the work they are doing.  On the other hand, we run around saying that laws and their enforcement don’t change anything.  Make of the discrepancy what you will.

Yet there is, I think, something to the broad strokes that Brooks is forced to paint with in all his 800 words.

I offer two tentative suggestions as to the sources for this lack of moral realism among the younger evangelical activists.

First, the pervasive anti-institutionalism of evangelicalism means that our first love and affection is working with individuals rather than those foundational structures of society.  A personalist approach to social transformation raises a lot of funds, as it’s instantly humanized and obviously helpful.  But in terms of engendering the conditions that allow for long term change, well, that is another story altogether.

Second, I wonder whether the lack of focus on social order that Brooks detects has to do with the generally white, upper-middle class status of many younger evangelical activists.  Personally, my experience of the police growing up was almost non-existant.  They pulled me over every now and then and occasionally broke up a party (I heard, at least, the following Monday morning).  But more often, the signs of decay were hidden from public site.  It is easy in such an environment to begin thinking of the state’s role as primarily administrative, as its other functions are largely hidden from view.

A third thought, however, comes to mind:  the virtue of compassion, which is the operative virtue of the social entrepreneurs movement, is a distinctly modern virtue that sits uneasily with the need for order of both the social and moral varieties.  So Oliver O’Donovan, in one of his characteristically insightful moments:

Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering….It is a virtue that circumvents thought, since it prompts us immediately to action.  It is a virtue that presupposes that an answer has already been found to the question, ‘What needs to be done?’, a virtue of motivation rather than reasoning.  As such, it is the appropriate virtue for a liberal revolution, which requires no independent thinking about the object of morality, only a very strong motivation to its practice.


We ought not jettison compassion, of course.  Like any of the human sentiments, however, it needs to be cultivated and constrained by reflective deliberation about the world and our obligations within it.