Krishna Kandiah, director of Sanctuary Foundation, responds to comments by author Matthew Syed in The Times newspaper around “mindless compassion…leading us towards the end of our civilisation”

The Times’ columnist Matthew Syed has decided it’s time for us to rethink compassion. In his attempt to provide a moral case for the Government’s plans to reduce disability benefits – which appear to cast people that rely on them as lazy liars and sneaky scroungers – he suggests we need to recalibrate our moral compass when it comes to compassion. The future of our civilisation, he says, depends on it. 

Syed writes: “What we really need is a moral recalibration, particularly in an age of rising military conflict. We need to rethink what we mean by compassion. We need to rethink what we mean by ‘essential’ services. We need to rethink foreign aid when we are giving money to nations with space programmes. We need to rethink human rights and, perhaps even more importantly, individual responsibilities…In short, we need to cut our moral coat to the cloth of the age or, to put it another way, embrace realism.”

Syed studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University so these words come from a man with some degree of technical training in ethics and moral theory. I nevertheless take issue with Syed on a number of grounds. 


Firstly, morality is most urgently required when we are under pressure – changing our morality to fit the situation could be seen as, in effect, having no ethics at all. Rethinking ethics based on circumstance has in the past been responsible for justifying the killing of prisoners of war, using rape as a weapon of war and exterminating Jews. This rethinking of morality based on circumstances is called situation ethics, which, as Syed knows, is a flawed philosophy – and one we do well to be aware of. 

Secondly, rethinking human rights according to economic benefit is just as dangerous. Syed’s logic seems to be that because we in the UK have mismanaged our public health system, our economy and immigration system, we should therefore cut benefits to people that we have caused to become in need. Not content at simply pushing people into poverty, we then make the poorest pay for the mistakes of the wealthiest. This may be temporarily expedient to Syed, but in the long run it could prove catastrophic for everyone. 

Thirdly, “cutting your moral coat to the cloth of the age” is terrible advice. It basically means we should “go with the flow”. It describes those who do not have the moral courage to speak up when the emperor rides around town with no clothes on. This is another approach to ethics adopted frequently by dictators so that nobody questions orders or challenges misuse of power. What if Syed tells the Ukrainians to stop fighting tyranny? Or the world to ignore the 13,000 dead children in Gaza or the genocide in Sudan? In our cold and difficult times, we need our moral coat more than ever. 

Fourthly, the idea that rethinking compassion is necessary to preserve civilisation is an oxymoron. Civility is fundamentally based on the recognition of dignity and worth of others. Compassion drives us to sacrifice on behalf of others and should not be ditched for the purposes of self-preservation. I seek to base my moral framework on Jesus who personified compassion and was criticised most heavily for his compassion towards those everyone else sought to ignore, oppress or marginalise. 

It was Christ’s compassion that led him to feed the hungry, heal the leper and welcome the stranger. It was Christ’s compassion that led to him being killed on a cross to offer forgiveness to all who want it. To cast compassion as a mindless anti-civilisation weapon is another instance of the Orwellian newspeak which turns words on their head to serve political goals. We need more compassion not less as times get harder for so many of us.

The consequences of reassessing compassion

If compassion is demonised in our culture, what will happen to the foundations of our society? What will our schools and hospitals look like? What would happen to our care homes and places of mental health support? What would our country look like without toddler groups, foodbanks and debt counsellors? It would cost the government billions of pounds to replicate all that is done in our societies in the name of compassion. It would cost the government even more to pay for the fall out. 

I fear when reading Syed’s views that there is no reference, or even the semblance of understanding, let alone sympathy, for the lives of vulnerable people. When I meet the families of the children we foster, or people in our church who are struggling to pay their bills or refugee families trying to rebuild their lives in the UK, I am given the opportunity to see things from the perspective of those who are facing the sharp end of broken systems. 

But we should be very wary of those in ivory towers who make pronouncements or moral judgements about the deservedness of those who need to rely on our welfare system. I challenge Syed to spend time with people who are impacted by our systems – and I am sure he will be inspired to reform those systems rather than axe them

Matthew Syed’s public call for a reassessment of compassion has, for me, the only benefit of reminding us just how fundamental compassion is for the preservation of our humanity. Let it prompt us to practice and embrace it all the more. Let us wear our moral coat with pride. Let us speak up for compassion and all who are in need of it. 


Dr Krishna Kandiah (OBE) is the director of Sanctuary Foundation and author of ParadoxologyWhy Christianity was never meant to be simple. Together with his wife Miriam, they are adoptive parents, birth parents and foster parents. They have recently published two books for children - check out their Whistlestop Tales series (Hodder Faith Young Explorers).