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Personality & Individual Differences, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 431-433, 1988

(With a post-publication addendum following the original article)

CAPITALISM AND COMPASSION: a test of Milbrath's environmental theory

J. J. RAY (1) and J. M. NAJMAN (2)

(1) School of Sociology, University of N.S.W, Kensington, N.S.W 2033 and (2) Department of Sociology, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Qld., Australia

(Received 2 April 1987)

Summary -- From his observations of environmentalists Milbrath extracts the generalization that there is something inimical between capitalism and compassion. This was tested by applying scales of altruistic compassion and materialistic achievement motivation to supporters of three political parties in Queensland, Australia: a Leftist party, a moderate Conservative party and a Rightist party much given to advocating capitalism. Voters for the Rightist and Leftist parties showed a difference in compassion of only borderline significance. It is concluded that there are many roads to compassion, capitalism not excepted.


Milbrath (1984) espouses the view that the environmentalist movement is the harbinger of a new era in human affairs. He thinks that the strength of the movement shows that we are moving into a new and more caring age. The enemy of this upward movement into light is said to be the old-fashioned political and commercial structures generally associated with "capitalism". He sees the new age as transcending the destructive pressures of competition that are the lifeblood of capitalism.

Such declarations that a new age is about to dawn are, of course, as old as history. The failure of such predictions is also routine. Milbrath's theory does however contain what could be an important difference: the cause he identifies as critical does already have mass support. Not only are environmentalists continually having fresh successes in their various campaigns but public opinion polls consistently show majority support among the public for environmentalism generally (Van Liere and Dunlap, 1980). Milbrath's theory is therefore not so much a prophecy as an extrapolation.

Perhaps even more encouraging is that Milbrath's theory is explicitly founded on testable propositions about present-day people. He says, for instance: "Environmentalists, much more than non-environmentalists, have a generalized sense of compassion..... In contrast, the competitive market system .... urges us to look out for ourselves first" (Milbrath, 1984, p. 28). Clearly, Milbrath believes that capitalism and altruistic compassion are fundamentally at odds with one-another. Some test of that proposition should be possible.

If capitalism and altruistic compassion are opposed, then it should follow that those who feel at home with capitalism and support it will be less altruistic and compassionate. Capitalism only exists because of the continuing support that people give it. Milbrath clearly believes that people who do give it support have less of his "generalized sense of compassion". How then do we identify supporters of capitalism?

An obvious solution might be to say that supporters of capitalism are simply conservatives. This would, however, be rather simplistic. There are many motives for conservatism and it may in fact be religious concerns rather than capitalistic ones that stand at the heart of a conservative ideology (Ray, 1984). Committed Christians are often both very conservative and very active in charitable works. To identify such people with the old order Milbrath decries would almost automatically render his theory false -- given the prominent role in society of Christian compassionate organizations. What we need then is some index of support for a specifically capitalistic type of conservatism.

As it happens, the Australian State of Queensland offers interesting possibilities in this direction. Queensland is sometimes compared to the American State of Texas. It has for many years had a government which is both very conservative and very vocal in its support for private enterprise. In theory, however, this could change overnight. Australia follows the British practice of having the administration nominated by the legislature. One of the most important of the American 'checks and balances' against rapid change is thus totally absent in Queensland. For this reason one's vote in elections for the legislature is much more an expression of political policy preference in Queensland than it is in the more personality-oriented American system.

Up until 1983, Queensland was ruled by a coalition of two conservative political parties, the "Liberal" and the "National" parties. The leader of the National party (Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen) was Premier (combining the American roles of State Governor and leader of the House). "Joh" (as he is popularly known) has long been notable for his vigorous support of unbridled capitalism whereas his colleagues in the Liberal party are much more hesitant in that direction. In 1983 these differences between the two conservative parties came to a head and the coalition agreement was dissolved. In the subsequent 1983 State election, therefore, voters had a 3-way choice --- between a Leftist party (the Labor party) and two conservative parties. There could be no doubt that a vote for the National party was a vote for capitalism. Conservatives who were less confident in the virtue of capitalism could vote for the Liberal party. The differential degree of altruism shown by the supporters of the three main parties in this election should therefore provide a fairly finely-tuned test of Milbrath's hypothesis.


A survey of voters in the Queensland city of Brisbane was carried out shortly after the 1983 election. Brisbane is Queensland's largest city and accounts for nearly 50% of the State's population. It is also the State capital. Brisbane was chosen as the venue for the survey as that is the only part of the State where the Liberal party has significant support. Conservatives outside Brisbane have almost always voted National. A random cluster sample of 209 Brisbane people was obtained. Its demographic profile was as follows: Mean age = 39.66 (SD 14.61); Sex (scored 1 = male, 2 = female) = 1.45 (0.49); Occupation (scored 1 = manual, 2 = non-manual) = 1.57 (0.49); Education (scored 1 = primary, 2 = some secondary, 3 = full secondary, 4 = tertiary) = 2.32 (1.00).

The sample answered two scales: a slightly improved version of the Ray (1980) 'AO' scale and a scale of altruistic compassion loosely based on the Rushton, Chrisjohn and Fekken (1981) instrument. The Rushton et al., instrument had the defect of being one-way worded, meaning that results derived from it might be interpreted as due to acquiescence bias. The items of the present scale are given in the Appendix. The 'AO' scale was designed to measure desire for achievement of a materialistic kind and was included as something of a converse to the sort of motivation Milbrath idealizes. If Milbrath is right, the National party voters should show especially low scores on the compassionate altruism scale and especially high scores on the `AO' scale.


The contrast of chief interest was thought to lie between the National party voters and the Labor party voters. The Labor party is Australia's major Leftist party. For both scales, therefore, t -tests between the mean scores of the two voter groups were carried out. The results were in line with the prediction. National voters were significantly more ambitious and Labor voters were significantly more compassionate. What needs to be noted, however, is that the obtained figures for t (2.04 and 2.24) were both very close to the borderline required for significance at the 0.05 level (1.98). The connection between vote and outlook was, in other words, extremely tenuous.

The reliability (alpha) of the 20 item AO scale was 0.74 while the reliability of the Altruistic Compassion scale (12 items) was 0.64. There were 44 National and 83 Labor voters in the sample. None of the four demographic variables significantly differentiated the National and Labor voters.

Voters for the other conservative party (the "Liberal" party) showed mean scores on altruism almost identical to those of Labor voters and mean scores on achievement orientation almost identical to National voters (see Table 1).

Table 1. Mean scores on two personality scales for three groups of Brisbane voters in 1983 (SDs in parentheses)

......................................Nationals.......... Liberals................. Labor

Altruistic compassion....25.26 (4.02).......27.00 (4.49)............27.12 (4.85)
Achievement motive......46.70 (6.47).......46.60 (5.77)............43.81 (7.05)
n........................................ 44.....................51..........................83


Clearly, the generalizations inspired in Milbrath by the environmentalist movement are overgeneralizations. Altruistic compassion is less prevalent among enthusiastic supporters of capitalism but only by a whisker. Many quite compassionate people vote in Queensland for a fanatical champion of capitalism. And more moderate conservatives are every bit as compassionate as those who vote for a supposedly socialistic political party. If a more compassionate future is what we seek the present signs are that there are many roads to it. Milbrath's vision may be good prophecy but if it is intended as an extrapolation from present trends then the trends he relies on are basically just not there. More precisely, they are trends so weak that any extrapolation based on them must be an extraordinarily uncertain one. Milbrath may believe that the competitive market system urges us to look out for ourselves first but it seems that those who favour the competitive market system have not heard it that way. Alternatively, they are pretty good at not letting it affect them.

Rand (1977) has of course argued that unbridled capitalism is more benevolent in its effects than any other system. While the present data certainly provide no support for that view, it could be that the effects and mechanisms Rand identified do have some place in the real world and hence make capitalism more acceptable to compassionate people than we might otherwise expect. The material comforts at least do seem to be more widespread in capitalist than in non-capitalistic societies. Compassionate people might well find that aspect of capitalism a redeeming one.


Milbrath L. W. (1984) Environmentalists: Vanguard for a New Society. State Univ. N.Y. Press.

Rand A. (1977) Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal New Am. Library, N.Y.

Ray, J.J. (1980) The comparative validity of Likert, projective and forced-choice indices of achievement motivation. J. Social Psychology, 111, 63-72.

Ray, J.J. (1984) Attitude to abortion, attitude to life and conservatism in Australia. Sociology & Social Research 68, 236-246.

Rushton J. P., Chrisjohn R. D. and Fekken G. C. (1981) The altruistic personality and the self-report altruism scale. Personality & Individual Differences, 2, 293-302.

Van Liere K. D. and Dunlap R. E. (1980) The social bases of environmental concern: a review of hypotheses, explanations, and empirical evidence. Publ. Opinion Q. 44, 181-197.


The Items of the Altruistic Compassion Scale

1. Do you tend to give money to beggars if they approach you?
2. Do you tend to give money to buskers? (i.e. to unpaid street entertainers)
3. Would you say that no-one would call you a "do-gooder"? R
4. Does the idea of self-sacrifice seem foolish to you? R
5. Is compassion for others something you feel only seldom? R
6. Are you pretty quick to offer to help people -- sometimes even before they ask?
7. Do you sometimes get so involved in helping others that you forget your own needs?
8. If you come across people who are very poor, do you tend to feel sorry for them?
9. Do you always make sure that you "Look after No. 1" first of all? R
10. Do you try to live by the golden rule "Love your neighbour as you love yourself "?
11. Do you really feel that all men are brothers?
12. If you were a doctor, do you think that you would always insist on being paid for your services as far as possible? R

Items marked 'R' above are scored 1 for 'yes', 2 for '?' and 3 for 'No'. The remainder are scored 3, 2, and 1 for the same answers respectively.


The items of the achievement motivation scale. Negative items marked 'R'

1. Are you satisfied to be no better than most other people at your job? R
2. Do you take trouble to cultivate people who may be useful to you in your career?
3. Do you find it easy to forget about work outside normal working hours? R
4. Is "getting on in life" important to you?
5. Do you have very strong desires to be a success in the world?
6. Are you an ambitious person?
7. Do you prefer a job which is important, difficult, and involves a 50% chance of failure to a job which is less important but not difficult?
8. Do you think more about your past accomplishments than any future goals? R
9. Would you be perfectly happy if throughout your life no-one except your immediate friends and family had ever heard of you? R
10. Do you like to make improvements to the way the organization you belong to functions?
11. Would you describe yourself as being lazy? R
12. Do you work hard at a job?
13. Do you limit your recreational and social activities in order to work more effectively?
14. Do you have a tendency to give up easily when you meet difficult problems? R
15. Do you prefer to be an observer rather than a participant because one learns more and gets into less trouble? R
16. Have you always worked hard in order to be among the best in your own line (school, organization, profession etc)?
17. Are you inclined to take life as it comes without much planning? R
18. Would you prefer to work with a congenial but incompetent partner rather than with a difficult but highly competent one? R
19. In your work, do you generally go by the rule: "Near enough is good enough"? R
20. Do you find it rather unpleasant to be in the limelight? R

Replication is one of the cornerstones of science. A new research result will normally require replication by later researchers before the truth and accuracy of the observation concerned is generally accepted. If a result is to be replicated, however, careful specification of the original research procedure is important.

In questionnaire research it has been my observation that the results are fairly robust as to questionnaire format. It is the content of the question that matters rather than how the question is presented (But see here and here). It is nonetheless obviously desirable for an attempted replication to follow the original procedure as closely as possible so I have given here samples of how I presented my questionnaires in most of the research I did. On all occasions, respondents were asked to circle a number to indicate their response.

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