No Clean Feed - Stop Internet Censorship in Australia

You are correct: westerners care more about Boston than Baghdad – guest post by Jacques Chester

By skepticlawyer

[SL: I have long been of the view--while I have great sympathy for my libertarian and leftist friends who want calamity in the developing world taken as seriously as calamity in the developed world--that the lesson that Jacques teaches below is important, and needs to be taken seriously. There is a reason why 'if it bleeds, it leads' is a common newsroom saw, and why--if the blood is shed in a developed country--we who are also in developed countries take it more seriously. The reasons for this may reflect ill on our common humanity, but that does not make them any less genuine. Jacques's home blog is here.]

——————————————————————————–

There’s two reasons why.

The first is novelty. Bombings in Boston don’t happen very often. In countries torn by sectarian violence and in which each sect has bottomless supplies of suicide bombers, bombings are common. So as time goes on it slips further and further down the bulletin.

We call it “the News” and not “the Usuals”, because what gets published is what is unexpected or rare. Headlines like “Grandmother makes it home safely for thousandth time” and “99.99999% of humans not murdered today” are unlikely to see life anywhere but on The Onion.

The second is similarity. We care more about people who are like us. I cared deeply about the death of my grandparents. I cared more about their death than I did about the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. And people were then dying in wars in Africa in countries I had never heard of and which I cannot, to this day, reliably point to on a map.

This is not a new observation:

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.

That’s Adam Smith, in a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments (written before Wealth of Nations), discussing the oddities of human sympathy. Basically, it relies on similarity and proximity.

What most bugs me is when people decide to play morality calculus poker. Oh, you lost two people in a bomb blast? We lost 50. Oh, you lost 50 people in a bomb blast? Last week 100 were hacked to death down our way. Oh, you’re mad about machetes? How about the time…

I use the word “calculus” deliberately, because it reveals a defective mode of thought: that lives can be added and subtracted; that they can be integrated to an area under a blood-soaked curve to determine who has “won” the morality olympics in a kind of more-affronted-than-thou dick-waving contest. I find the whole process of debiting and crediting deaths to be utterly odious. Deaths cannot be subtracted from deaths. Let’s get this straight: evil is not a deduction from evil. Two wrongs don’t make 50 rights.

Incidentally: Mao Tse Tung “wins” the moral calculus olympics. By a wide margin. And if you remove human agency and leave it up to mere events, he in turn is dwarfed by moderately dangerous diseases and so on up the line until you arrive at the fact that no religion, no ideology, no government, no empire, no economic system, no weapon, no army, no dictator and no president have ever killed more people, more horribly, than the passengers of fleas and mosquitoes.

So let’s just accept that Americans and westerners will care more about Boston. And that probably hardly anyone in Syria cares about either of them. And that right now people are dying in Africa of malaria at around 5-600 people per day who aren’t in a position to share some dumb bullshit on Facebook.

I see your moral calculus and I raise you the fact that the world sucks and you don’t have to be spiteful pricks about it.

26 Comments

  1. Prompete
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Absolutely brilliant piece! Succinct, deadly accurate and worthy of a front page, even in the ‘onion’. As you say, the moral calculus of the ‘progressives’ is truly loathsome.

  2. Prompete
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Test post to subscribe.

  3. Posted April 17, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I tend to reserve moral calculus for those who behave like self-righteous judgement asses by (impliedly or expressly) insisting that everyone else should give just as much of a shit as they do.

  4. markjuliansmith
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    No need to worry your conscience it is natural.

    It is simple 6 cousins=1 Brother =2/3 Sister. (if a male, 1/2 Brother, 1 sister if female)

    Either
    self-culture-family then Other (dictatorial culture)
    Or
    self-family-culture then Other (culture enabling maximized relative independence)

    Also when there is rejoicing on the streets of Jordan and Iraq celebrating the terror on Western Streets there is an understandable tendency to apathy when the same thing happens to the celebrating Culture (does not matter if moderate liberals do not join in as they are a variance of the behavioral template-the fundamentalists simply would not exist without them).

    Degree of it is their fault anyway. Both sides have cultural foundation codex defining Other as less evil and destined for grievous harm – it will happen.

    If you stop smoking early enough or do not smoke at all there is a good chance you will not get cancer. Continue to smoke you may not get cancer but as the population increases the probability of at least one person getting smoking induced cancer approaches 100%.

    As with the Islamic construct of Other you keep teaching each new generation it is indeed true – what do you expect to happen – the existence of so called liberal moderates as in Indonesia has made no difference as in Iraq.

    When something is inevitable – it is not newsworthy simply par for the course.

    I wish it were different, in fact I want it to be different but alas – no one seems to be able in the government policy areas to be able to join the dots – to many cultural relativist ethical nihilists.

  5. derrida derider
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    That’s exactly what Stalin meant when he said “one human death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”.

    But I can’t think helping this post confuses “is” and “should”. Of course we care more about those close to us, if only for good ev-dev reasons. But Peter Singer asserts we shouldn’t, and that this follows from pretty well any Kantian framework. Given the actual consequence of Stalin’s moral framework here I’m not sure if he doesn’t have a point.

  6. fxh
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    There are about 13,000 murders in USA each year. Around 1,000 a month or 250 a week or 35 each day every day.

    About 9,000 murders a year are by firearms.

  7. Posted April 17, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    dd: it’s a battle you will never win (and I’m very wary of anything that comes out of Peter Singer’s mouth – most of the time he seems to be spouting complete rot). After seeing people accused of racism yesterday for considering Boston before Baghdad, I decided that a dose of reality was in order.

    If nothing else, it is indicative of the extent to which the word ‘racism’ has become meaningless, a Humpty Dumpty word.

  8. Posted April 18, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Well put Jacques, I made essentially the same argument in the comments thread of my blog after a couple of lefties were whining about people being relatively indifferent to the bombings in Iraq on the same day as the bombs in Boston..

  9. Adrien
    Posted April 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    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,

    True, still true but not as true as it was because.

  10. Mel
    Posted April 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    SL:

    “and I’m very wary of anything that comes out of Peter Singer’s mouth – most of the time he seems to be spouting complete rot.”

    I thought you held Singer in high regard.

    The media has an influence in who we care about. I think I’m in love with Aliaa Elmahdy after seeing her on Dateline. What a brave girl, a true hero.

  11. Will
    Posted April 18, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Arguments about proximity and like-group identification biases to explain asymmetries in our reactions are well-worn territory for moral realism. I have little to add here, except to point out that explaining the psychological grounding for how we resolve our sphere of moral concern doesn’t settle deep meta-ethical questions and their consequences for moral concern.

    Contrary to SL, Singer is definitely relevant here. For instance, our psychology helps us care more about attractive people than ugly people, and similarly for cute animals versus ugly animals. That’s realism too but the point is it’s clearly easier to discredit as arbitrary than the safety of caring about your neighbour. I am not persuaded that we ought to care about everyone equally, but these issues are more complex than simple appeals to psychology.

    The second part of this was rather confused, I felt. It seemed the author wished to express strong distaste at the crass effrontery of comparative death statistics to score points and seize the high moral ground, and the very idea of outside judgement being imposed over sacred matters of moral intuition. Okay, the first at least is a totally understandable reaction to crass righteousness. But visceral distaste is not a philosophical objection to the relevance of consequentialism or the idea of moral commensurability of death.

  12. derrida derider
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Yep, Will just put my point at more length and sophistication.

    But this stuff has practical consequences – valuing the life of a USAnian we don’t know and have never met far more than we value the life of an Iraqi we don’t know and have never met will lead us to vote for policies that kill lots of the latter in the hope of saving a handful of the former.

    And anyway, insofar as “strong distaste at crass effrontery” is to be considered a valid basis to score points, how can Lorenzo disdain my points scored on the basis of my strong distaste for ghoulish and obsessive news coverage of isolated events? I certainly consider that crass effrontery.

  13. kvd
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    dd@12 I thought Will made his best point at “I have little to add” but went downhill from there. But I accept that is just imo, and am possibly wrong.

    I’m wondering where, or on what basis, you make the claim “valuing the life of a USAnian we don’t know and have never met far more than we value the life of an Iraqi we don’t know and have never met”? Is that from tv coverage, or tweetbook, or what? Whatever, it’s a pretty sweeping condemnation of whoever ‘we’ is. You would reduce us all to tv ratings comparisons?

    Those ‘lead us to vote for policies’ you speak of: I’m not aware of any which have been unanimous. I think that’s worth remembering – along with the fact we live in a democracy, and so inevitably – as you attempt – ‘we’ are all painted beige-grey.

  14. Mel
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    kvd @13 on dd @12:

    I’m wondering where, or on what basis, you make the claim “valuing the life of a USAnian we don’t know and have never met far more than we value the life of an Iraqi we don’t know and have never met”

    You’ll note that SL makes the same point when introducing Jacques’ post:

    There is a reason why ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is a common newsroom saw, and why–if the blood is shed in a developed country–we who are also in developed countries take it more seriously.

    There is a great deal of research literature on who we care most about and it isn’t exactly controversial to note that we care more about those like us. So what’s your beef?

    I’m also note sure why you’ve been rude about Will’s @11, which is far better expressed and more considered than anything I’ve ever seen you write.

    Finally, your third paragraph doesn’t make any sense. Did you write it yourself or was it the pooch?

  15. Posted April 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    the psychological grounding for how we resolve our sphere of moral concern doesn’t settle deep meta-ethical questions and their consequences for moral concern.

    What are morals other than some aggregate of our human desires?

  16. kvd
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Mel@14 it might all just be a sport to you – and that’s fine if that’s what you get off on, but I’m left wondering how you balance support for a blanket “we care more about USAnians than Iraqis” with your own declared love for the ‘Naked Revolutionary’? – see @10

    All I think that means is that you are an individual, and you choose your own heroes, and you choose which people and/or actions you support. On that, we are in complete agreement.

    On my third para, I accept lack of clarity. Perhaps you might rephrase it for me to more clearly express my resentment at being lumped in with the “us” who “vote for policies that kill lots of the latter in the hope of saving a handful of the former”.

  17. Mel
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    kvd @16:

    “Mel@14 it might all just be a sport to you – and that’s fine if that’s what you get off on, but I’m left wondering how you balance support for a blanket “we care more about USAnians than Iraqis” with …”

    Read the literature. You have Google at your service, for Christ’s sake. Exceptions don’t change the general rule.

    Let’s not have a rehash of an earlier embarrassing episode whereby it took half a dozen attempts before we could get you to understand a simple graph.

  18. Mel
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    kvd @16:

    “Perhaps you might rephrase it for me to more clearly express my resentment at being lumped in with the “us” who “vote for policies that kill lots of the latter in the hope of saving a handful of the former”.”

    Sorry kvd, but you do much worse than that because you also vote with your dollars.

    You could sell your computer, your lounge suite, your home and live frugally in a caravan park. You would then have many tens of thousands of dollars freed up to vaccinate kids in poor countries etc thus saving countless lives. Your action (money vote) in not doing this kills people. You kill people every time you lavish money on yourself and on those you care most about. So do I, but unlike you I admit it.

    Screw your resentment and your sense of entitlement.

  19. markjuliansmith
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    “What are morals other than some aggregate of our human desires?”

    Morals are the culturally defined methods by which we gain what we want as individuals and a culture they are not the desires themselves.

  20. Mel
    Posted April 20, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Iain Hall @8:

    ” I made essentially the same argument in the comments thread of my blog after a couple of lefties were whining about people being relatively indifferent to the bombings in Iraq on the same day as the bombs in Boston”

    And we see the same ritualistic whining from Righties who cry crocodile tears over public indifference to the eviction of Cletus the Fetus and 80,000 similarly unwanted placental tenants each year in Oz ;)

  21. Posted April 21, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Mel@20
    In this country you are able to kill as many of your unwanted unborn children as you please but thankfully it is not aganst the law to object when you do. That said abortion is not the topic here.

  22. Mel
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    IH @21:

    Sure but the principle is the same.

    Lefty holds up sign in street saying Let’s Care For The Iraqis.

    Righty holds up sign outside abortion clinic saying Let’s Care For Cletus the Fetus.

    Same shit, really.

  23. Posted April 22, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Mel you do yourself no favours by attempting to dehumanise the unborn, frankly that line of argument just makes you seem narrow minded and unwilling to accept any of the moral ambiguities of the issue.

  24. Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Morals are the culturally defined methods by which we gain what we want as individuals and a culture they are not the desires themselves.

    Well OK, perhaps I should rephrase it as: “What are morals other than some aggregate of our human desires filtered through history and congealed into culture?”

    My point was that we shouldn’t try to found morality as some abstract and fundamental truth that exists independent of human psychology. Even abstract concepts such as equality and utilitarianism are constructs of high cognitive processes driven to facilitate optimum satisfaction of our more base desires.

  25. Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Iain@23, since when is making a comparison with Iraqis the same as dehumanisation? If anything, Mel is granting them the same moral status as full human beings.

  26. Posted April 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    desipis @25

    What I am talking about is Mel using this phrase:

    Cletus the Fetus.

    to dehumanise the unborn and I don’t think its beneficial to the argument at all. I am not commenting on the citation of Iraqis at all.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*