As a value that is widely embraced, it is often taken for granted that the meaning of "compassion" is also widely embraced. In fact, what exactly the word means in practice varies widely. From a liberal/progressive perspective, compassion is demonstrated in a variety of programs offering government assistance and welfare support.

From a conservative perspective, compassion is better exercised through voluntary and church organizations. For these, a subtle coercion is sometimes at play in government programs for the poor. Furthermore, conservatives fear that state welfare/antipoverty programs disempower the poor and make them dependent, perpetuates poverty (see Robert Woodson)

Rather than bringing attention to interesting differences in how we understand the meaning of compassion, typically these distinctions are ignored. In turn, when conservatives raise questions they can be framed automatically as non-compassionate. For instance, one conservative author writes, "More often than not, in practice, compassion means a willingness to spend the taxpayers' money in ways that will increase the spender's chances of getting reelected. If you are skeptical -- or, worse yet, critical -- of this practice, then you qualify for a different political label: 'mean-spirited' [or] 'greedy.' In the political language of today, people who want to keep what they have earned are said to be 'greedy' while those who wish to take their earnings from them and give it to 'compassion.'"

What exactly constitutes compassion has also become an issue in the larger discussion about sexuality. While those who align with gay rights are often claim a mantle of compassion and inclusiveness, those who do not are labeled as hateful and bigoted.

Despite these substantial disagreements, dialogue can help reveal the nuance and common ground. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work outlines a set of moral foundations that conservatives and liberals value differentially. Compassion is one of the foundations that both liberals and conservatives share; thus it represents an area where common ground can be found.