by Martha Nussbaum
The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 7, 2011
Well, why not? It is a day when people, immersed in busy lives, may actually stop to think in ways that they usually don’t. So why not talk about a vitally important topic that usually occupies too little of most people’s time? Indeed, shortly after September 11, 2001, I wrote that it might be that disaster itself that would force people’s imaginations outward, getting Americans, often so insular, to learn more about the developing world and its problems, since now those other parts of the world had impinged on our own safety.
But here are two discouraging facts about the moral imagination: It is typically narrow, focused on people and things that affect one’s own daily life. And it is easily engaged by sensational singular events, rather than by long-term mundane patterns. Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, drew attention to both defects when he talked about how an earthquake in China would initially arouse great compassion in a “man of humanity” in Europe—until daily life returned with its predictable self-focused events and that same man found himself caring more about a pain in his own finger than about the deaths of a million people he had never met.
By now we know that Smith was right. Studies of our primate heritage (especially by Frans de Waal of Emory University) have shown that the capacity for compassion is one that we share with a number of species. Meanwhile, studies of human infants (particularly by Paul Bloom of Yale University) have demonstrated that from a very early age we are adept “mind readers,” able to see the world from someone else’s viewpoint. But, like apes, we humans typically deploy our compassion narrowly, with favoritism to ourselves and our circle of relations. And a disaster befalling some particular person whom we vividly imagine often has more force in guiding behavior than a general principle about who is worthy of help and when.