Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it. (…)
The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.” (…)
Simon Baron-Cohen observes that some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though typically empathy-deficient, are highly moral, owing to a strong desire to follow rules and insure that they are applied fairly. (…)
Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community.
There’s a lot wrong with this New Yorker article, which you can guess just by the fact that it is in the New Yorker, and cites all the now-mandatory (unscientific) studies that every “think piece” is now required to include.
It also features a matter of fact bias towards big government “solutions” to mundane “problems;” of course people “care” more about a little girl falling down a well than they do with “millions going without health care” or “going hungry every night;” the former is a fairly unusual occurrence in modern North America, while the latter is arguably not a “problem” at all for anyone except the foolish people who didn’t feel like insuring themselves or otherwise planning their lives properly (and those “millions” are based on criteria for “hunger” and “health care” that are biased toward left wing outcomes and standards.)
Why mention Thomas Gradgrind and not Mrs. Jellyby?
The list of flaws would take me all day.
However, having been born without a fully functioning empathy gene (see above) I appreciate someone, anyone, raising the alarm about our often misplaced urges and actions.
The Sex Pistols sang about taking “a cheap holiday on other people’s misery” and that remains an apt description of this not-so-modern Western impulse.