Thursday, January 14, 2010


From The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. (III.I.46)
Exaggerated, but not much.


Steelman said...

Sorry, what?
I was so busy stuffing bread in my face I couldn't see my circuses.

Is it hypocritical to send money to charities that are seeking to relieve the suffering in Haiti, when one previously specified none of their charitable contributions flow in that direction prior to the news cycle making that third of an island the current circus for our viewing (dis)pleasure? I don't think so, but it still gives me pause.

Charity involves caring about others, and distance makes a psychological difference to those evolved to live inside the Monkey Sphere. TV and the Internet shrink those distances by orders of magnitude, but then one can be overwhelmed by another magnitude: the banality of preventable human suffering. And any effort one might make to alleviate all that misery seems minuscule, and easily thwarted by uncaring nature and a lot of very bad (and even some well intentioned!) human beings.

Of course, if most of those with the means to help could be persuaded to momentarily put down their crusts, and peep over and beyond their various circus boxes, and do something on a regular basis to make the world a better place, well, an ocean is made up of lots of minuscule parts. Little bitty molecules, even.

Hope I didn't rain to hard on your pessimism parade.

Hume's Ghost said...

Smith left out the part about the guy who doesn't even bother with the lamentation, but instead accuses the people of sending aid there as just doing it to get Chinese people to vote for them.

I hate Rush Limbaugh so much.