Written by Tim Kim
Earlier in the semester on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I was sitting on the grass outside VLSB between classes, enjoying a turkey wrap from FSM cafe and savoring my hot coffee. Not quite feeling up to the task of tackling the assigned Leviathan readings, I opted instead to casually browse my Facebook news feed. The usual assortment of friends posing for photos, advertisements for local events, and compellingly titled news articles were aplenty.
I suddenly came across an article about homeless Syrian children, followed by an article about a deepening political and economic crisis in Venezuela.
I experienced a moment of consternation.
A brief moment later, I took another sip of hot coffee, and flicked up with my thumb in a practiced motion. The algorithm eagerly generated other, more pleasant news in my network, instantaneously replacing that which I had just casually dismissed.
I set my phone down and found myself thinking about how this effortless connection to millions of events happening both near and afar, have left many of us completely awash in a sea of bits and bytes, our daily attention seized by a vast spectrum of topics, memes and tragedies effortlessly juxtaposed on our scratched screens. Faced with this “Total Noise” as the late David Wallace called it, we often grow calloused to these stories of violence and injustice.
A friend of mine recently wrote an article in which she grappled with the strange emotions that sometimes accompany these moments of apathy. I, more or less, resigned myself to the conclusion that humans are actually quite selfish, and that our capacity for empathy and compassion is abysmally fickle. I felt myself grow slightly upset and slightly more timid at this conclusion.
Recently however, I came across an interesting book by Thomas Sowell titled, “A Conflict of Visions” that made me feel a little less timid, and restored my faith in humanity. In this book, Sowell describes how Adam Smith in the 1700’s grappled with this notion of a “Constrained Morality.“
Smith describes a hypothetical situation in which the entire empire of China is “swallowed by an earthquake.” He describes how “a man of humanity in Europe who had no connection with that part of the world” upon hearing the news- would after a brief moment, “pursue his business or his pleasure…with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened.” Meanwhile, Smith woefully recognizes that while this man might “snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his bretheren”, he would surely not sleep the entire night if he lost his own “little finger.“
Sowell then comments, “The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature.”
I think this is an important idea for us to seize and take hold of. Humans as a species have never been perfect moral beings. The question of whether to engage in Truth/Justice versus Selfishness/Complicity , is sometimes subjected to a more pressing question of Immediately Relevant to Me, and Not Immediately Relevant to Me.
Recognizing this tendency within myself while within the paradigm of a perfect Morality- results in deep grief, guilt, and cynicism.
But within this alternative understanding of our nature- that our Nature is in fact Constrained- the guilt and cynicism slowly turns into understanding and hope, and I discover a newfound moral energy with which I can calmly pursue the question of how we might make up for these natural deficits of our morality.
In closing, I briefly discuss two potential methods through which we might actively combat these natural moral deficits.
If we know that we do not possess the capacity to empathize with strangers an ocean apart- perhaps we might instead commit to setting aside some of our income to organizations that can. These organizations are on the front lines of many of these situations, and there is naturally no shortage of raw compassion there.
This idea of philanthropy is one that does not come up all that often, and for many might conjure up images of Rockefeller and retired professionals. But I think philanthropy is a kind of everyday mans’ remedy for our constrained morality, and a balm for that dismay we often experience in the face of it. Let us come to terms with the limitations to our compassion and empathy, and simultaneously- actively combat it by learning how to incorporate philanthropy into our own lives.
The other thing we can do, is to stay attuned to our immediate vicinity. As a Berkeley student taking classes and still two years from graduation, perhaps the best thing I can do about the Syrian Crisis and Venezuela thousands of miles away- is to pay attention to our own local crises. Investigate our school’s funding issues. Commit to a Saturday with the Berkeley Project. Send a letter to our city councilmen in regards to unaffordable housing. Pick up the paper and stay up to date with issues in the Bay area.
By being faithful in our efforts to stay engaged with our local communities, we are cultivating that capacity to “Choose” to think about things beyond the Self. And in cultivating and strengthening this capacity, perhaps in the future when we happen to find ourselves in a situation where we can really affect change on a large scale- we will be soft hearted, practiced, and brave enough to really do so.