Acts of Compassion, Justice, and Battle


Imagine, or select from the news, some terrible crime that has occurred somewhere in the world. People may have been killed. Property has been damaged. What would be an appropriate response?

Notwithstanding the concerns about managing your level of attention given to these crimes, there are 3 basic thoughts that most people have:

  • Compassion: We must care for the victims of this terrible crime.
  • Justice: We must try to restore right by taking from the perpetrators and giving it to the victims, and/or must inflict punishment on the perpetrators.
  • Battle: We must take tangible actions to prevent the perpetrators or others from doing what these perpetrators did.

These are all good thoughts, but demand very different sorts of methods and approaches in order to be effective.

Acts of Compassion

Acts of compassion are about taking action ourselves to reduce or reverse the damage inflicted by the crime, in an attempt to heal the lives of the victims. Done properly, this can make a huge difference, but there are some pitfalls that you need to consider.

Acts of compassion, to be properly compassionate, must focus on the recipients and be controlled in large part by the recipients. If you, the giver, try to decide what kind of aid will be given, regardless of what the recipient wants, that aid won't be effective, might be counterproductive, and also is saying to the recipients "I don't think you are capable of making good decisions, so I'm going to make them for you. Nya nya nya." It's rude, not compassionate, in other words. And the same thing can go for well-meaning but misguided organizations: If the organization attaches too many strings to the aid, or even demands a takeover of the recovery process, it's not only likely to get things wrong, but can be seen as rendering the victims of the crime even more disempowered than before. Some not-so-well-meaning organizations do this on purpose, e.g. the IMF making part of their loan terms to distressed countries be effectively giving the IMF a veto power over a country's laws.

This focus on the recipients also means that you don't publicize heavily what it is you are doing, but doing what it is you are told to do by the recipients. Especially if you're putting in a lot of money or time or other valuable resources, you will be tempted to announce to the world "Hey everybody, look at this awesome thing I'm doing!" But again, you are taking the focus away from the people you are helping, and making it about you the giver. And while your actions may be helping, they aren't coming from compassion anymore, but from ego and pride in your own accomplishments. About the only time publicity should factor in is if you are told that the available resources are insufficient to the task and you need to recruit others to help out, in which case the pitch should be "XYZ needs ____ to happen, they need 3 more people able to contribute _____ to reach our goal", with your personal contribution rendered invisible.

For an action to be compassionate, the goal has to be to fix the problem. You as someone who can contribute to fixing the problem can of course set limits on the time, money, skills, and resources you are willing to put into the effort, but beyond that the right question is always "What do you, the recipients of this aid, want me to do for you?"

Notice, too, that this says nothing at all about the horrible people who created the problem you are trying to solve. That's not the point of an act of compassion.

Acts of Justice

Acts of justice are about taking action to protect future victims by punishing those that perpetrate said crimes. There may also be an effort to use the perpetrator's resources to force them into an act of compassion, but that's not the primary goal or consideration.

Acts of justice, in contrast to acts of compassion, must be as public as possible. The goal is to put on a big show that says "Person X chose to do Y, and because of that we as a community are forcing them to do Z." Notice that there is ultimately an element of force: The perpetrator in question is not required to agree with the decision being made, and in fact is normally assumed to not agree with that decision, and if they resist the community's decision then the community's response will be more harsh as a result. As a very simple example, somebody trying to escape punishment by using violence will likely become the target of violence by the community at large.

There is an expectation that the thing the community is forcing a perpetrator to do is in proportion to the impact of the offense: The punishment doled out to a thief, for instance, should be less than the punishment given to a murderer. Otherwise, the community's action isn't an act of justice, but an act of injustice. Also vitally important is that the purpose of the community's actions be motivated by deterring both the current perpetrator and other people from committing their bad acts, rather than revenge on behalf of their victims, because revenge tends to push for disproportionate responses.

For an action to be one of justice, the goal has to be deterrance of behavior that harms others. You as a member of the community trying to create justice have to focus on trying to act with fairness, caution, and proportion to both ensure that those that act badly have to answer for their actions, and that the drive for revenge doesn't punish the innocent or overly harm the guilty.

Notice that the process of justice does not necessarily do anything for the victims of crimes. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done to make the victims whole again, and even in cases where there is something to be done it's going to be compassionate thinking that does those things, not justice thinking.

Acts of Battle

Acts of battle are about destroying somebody's ability to harm others. In the most extreme version of this, people are killed in an effort, one hopes, to prevent them from killing others. Done properly, this can reduce harm considerably. Done badly, it is the greatest evil the world sees.

Acts of battle are regularly kept secret, at least until the battle is over. The purpose of this is not to prevent embarassment as in acts of compassion, but to make it less possible for the target to prevent the goal of your chosen side from being carried out, and to make it harder to retaliate. The other side isn't given the opportunity to agree or disagree with your actions in this regard, because you are acting under the presumption that they will do substantial harm to you and yours if given the opportunity to do so.

Unlike acts of justice, the goal of an act of battle is not to act proportionately to an offense committed by the target, but to act with enough power to overwhelm the ability of the target to continue to present a threat while minimizing the risk to the people taking part in your side of the battle. A target should be given the opportunity to surrender when possible, but given the choice between providing an opportunity for surrender and protecting your people, those engaged in battle will choose to protect their own over allowing surrender. It's not about setting up a "fair fight", it's about making the fight completely unfair in order to achieve victory and eliminate a problem at the smallest possible cost to your side.

For an action to be one of battle, the goal has to be elimination of a problem. You as someone intending to give battle have to focus on striking hard, fast, and secretly.

Choosing Between These Responses

The biggest problem with acts of compassion is that trying to act compassionately can exhaust yourself and your own resources, thus creating an additional victim of whatever the problem was. Also, if the underlying causes of the problem are never addressed, then that exhaustion is no longer a possibility, but an inevitability.

The biggest problem with acts of justice is that it takes a long time to sort out what really happened, and even longer to decide, as a community, what an appropriate consequence to a particular act would be truly fair to everyone involved while acting as a deterrant to others who would be tempted to create similar problems.

The biggest problems with acts of battle are that (1) your decision to fight creates the equal and opposite tendency to fight on the other side, and (2) your decision to fight is a decision to act unjustly, which can and probably will lead to previously uninvolved people getting harmed or even killed. This can lead to very rapid escalations, such as the killing of 1 person in Sarejevo becoming World War I in a matter of a few weeks.

However, if you pick none of these responses, you're going to be stuck with whatever harm was being done continuing to go unaddressed. This is effectively passively accepting certain levels of injustice and harm in the world: You might not be the victim right now of that decision, but if everyone else makes the same decision you did then sooner or later you will be the victim.

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