Why Compassion Is the Cornerstone of Ethics
Many adjusters and defense attorneys know firsthand how problems are magnified in the claims process and in litigation because of hostile competition and disrespectful communication. What can Gandhi teach us?
Mohandas Gandhi found the purchase of insurance to be morally suspect. He believed strongly in marital celibacy. He thought sheep and people were equals, believed that one of the keys to his successful marriage was a lack of communication, considered cleaning latrines an honor, and for a time had young women share his bed to strengthen his commitment to self-restraint. He was a committed vegan and also avoided wine, tea, coffee, salt, peas, beans, and cereals.
Such facts certainly make Gandhi’s life story more interesting. If focused on too intently, however, they can not only distract from Gandhi’s significant achievements but also obscure his most central and deeply held conviction: that compassion should be regarded as not only the chief virtue but also the driving force behind a truly successful life.
Perhaps for many, compassion can smack of idealism. It can seem like a noble sentiment that has little application to the difficult realities of life. Other virtues such as diligence, honesty, fairness, and even inquisitiveness are much more easily recognizable as having a practical function—especially amidst the complex tasks and interpersonal interactions that make up the business world.
However Gandhi, who was by profession a lawyer, thought the practice of compassion was in actuality foundational to an effective career. He attributed both the growth of his law practice and his crucial contribution to India’s independence movement to his insistence on acting with compassion towards his opponents even (and perhaps especially) when they were abrasive, insulting, and unjust.
Compassion was a comprehensive principle for Gandhi. It focused on the full consideration of perspectives of others, a willingness to change one’s mind, and a heartfelt attitude of respect based on a notion of the intrinsic worth of every person.
Although Gandhi’s methods developed into an approach that has been used successfully in international human rights efforts (most significantly in our own country by Martin Luther King, Jr.), his compassionate emphasis was already clearly evident while he was still practicing law. Compassion was his foundation for approaching stubborn officials and opponents in court. It was his focus when he encouraged his clients to be reasonable in settlements before trial and to drop frivolous cases. And he claimed that it was by means of compassion that he was able to prevent personal rivalries and unnecessary contentiousness, thereby preserving the possibility of reaching amicable settlements.
It is interesting that despite his high ethical ideals, Gandhi considered compromise to be a mainstay of his practice, even noting that “a large part of my time during the 20 years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby—not even money, certainly not my soul.”
Many adjusters and defense attorneys know firsthand how problems are magnified in the claims process and in litigation because of hostile competition and disrespectful communication. In the worst instances, opposing parties can assign intellectual or moral bankruptcy to their opponents, adding punishment or revenge to their objectives and paying the price in wasted time, effort, and money. In many ways, Gandhi’s ideas about compassion could bring an added dimension of effectiveness to alternative dispute resolution. The spirit of compromise that so often undergirds effective negotiations and mediations could be significantly intensified with a more purposeful focus on respectful and considerate dialogue.
Of course, one need not adopt all of Gandhi’s beliefs or practices to learn from him. Some of his opinions can seem extreme or overly rigid. In my view, he does not convincingly demonstrate how some of his more ascetical practices were helpful in achieving his goals. (Incidentally, I don’t find his reasoning behind rejecting insurance to be particularly compelling. Rather, I believe that many families and businesses would be harmed if they followed such advice.)
Fortunately, Gandhi neither insisted on nor expected complete agreement. He fully recognized that compassionate living was a personal pursuit, and that people with the same general goal need not have identical means. With his successes, however, it is clear that he would view it as our burden to show why developing our own sense of compassion would not be valuable for both the adjusting and defense process and our interpersonal interactions in general.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CPCU Society membership, the CPCU Society Ethics Committee, or the author’s employer.
Barrett A. Evans, CPCU, AIC, is a regional claims manager for County Reinsurance, Ltd. He is a member of the CPCU Ethics Committee and has been a CLM Fellow since 2012.
Practicing What He Preached
Gandhi is frequently referred to as “Mohatma” instead of Mohandas Gandhi. However, Mohatma was not his name but rather a title meaning “great soul.” Gandhi himself disliked the term and wrote that it “deeply pained” him because he felt it was an undue honor. He favored term ahimsa for the principle of compassion, which literally means “non-hurting” or “non-violence.” He called it “the basis of the search for truth.”
Here are some other beliefs held by the leader:
K On revenge: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
K On respecting others: “It has always been a mystery to me how some men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”
K On greed: “There is sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not man’s greed.”
K On insurance: “In getting my life insured I had robbed my wife and children of their self-reliance. Why should they not be expected to take care of themselves? What happened to the numberless poor in the world? Why should I not count myself as one of them?”