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Compassion, a quality in short supply

December 22nd, 2012

In early December ABC RN’s fabulous program “All in the Mind”, now presented by Lynne Malcolm, broadcast an interview with James Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery, Founder and Director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

The program was entitled ‘The Science of Compassion’.

It is one of the most outstanding programs I have heard in the last 10 years! It has relevance to leadership and human affairs generally. It undermines, as much as any statement I know, the basis of affairs at this time, grounded in neoclassical (or market) economics advocated by the likes of von Hayek and adopted with relish by the more powerful so forming the philosophy fundamental to such major issues as education and health.

I have extracted below a few sentences from the transcript of the program.

The last paragraph of this transcript summarises the astonishing inequality in the United States at this time as depicted by The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (Allen Lane, London, 2009) and as elaborated for the United States by Timothy Noah in The Great Divergence (Bloomsberry Press, New York, 2012). Noah demonstrates that the vast majority of the factors contributing to the ‘Great Divergence’ have been driven by the super rich, not least through their influence on the US Congress and successive administrations.


James Doty emerged from a disadvantaged background in the United States to become a neurosurgeon, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist—only to let his fortune go and dedicate his professional life to the scientific study of compassion and altruism.

Here is the transcript.

Compassion is being at the same level, looking them in the eye and saying we’re the same and that defines your humanity—that is true compassion…

… I think compassion in business or compassionate leadership can have a profound effect on an organisation in terms of how employees respond to stress, create environments to decrease their stress. The fact of the matter is we all have to work, pretty much, but nobody wants to work in an environment that they don’t feel connected to. But it takes enlightened leadership to create an environment where you’re passionate about being there.

When you remove a person’s dignity, when you give them the sense that they have no value, well what do you expect? They’ll engage in negative behaviours, because if you’re nothing you feel your nothing, and in fact you’re in so much pain you want to get rid of the pain, and so you turn to drugs, you turn to alcohol, if you’re not having a living wage, if every day you wake up it’s one of despair, geez, I’m shocked that people commit suicide, I’m shocked that they do these horrible acts against society. This is easily explainable. Look, in the United States per population and compared to other industrialised countries, we have an epidemic of people in jail. The vast majority of people who are in jail are not because they’re bad people. Most of the people in jail are there because they have not been given love and kindness in their lives. It’s because the simple act of caring for another has not been available to them because of the way we have created our society in the United States.

You know, you look at Nordic countries, other societies that are more socialised, they create a safety net for their community where people are looked at as, you know, we’re all in this community together, where we have a responsibility to the most vulnerable. Those are the most successful societies. You know, this ridiculous concept in America of this rugged individualism and this Ayn Rand attitude, it is pathalogic, it will create despair, it will ruin lives, as it has done.

And as we get more disparity between the rich and the poor, you will see the further fragmentation of society. It is only until we reach out and embrace every human being as an important part of our society that our country is going to survive—and I think our world is going to survive.


One Response to “Compassion, a quality in short supply”

  1. Rosalie Chapple Says:

    Des, I applaud your post on compassion as well as the articles on ethics. I am coming to see, increasingly, that possibly the most effective path out of the human conundrum is to use compassion and ethics as the guiding lights for decisions and leadership – values that create sustainable societies.