Empathy and Earthquakes

It’s been a hard week to read the newspapers.  Two photos stand out in particular for me from the pages of the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the disaster in Japan.  The first was the image of a married couple looking at the twisted automobile which enclosed their dead teenage daughter, who was taking a driver-ed lesson when the tsunami struck.  The second was the front page photo of a grieving woman grasping the necrotized hand of her deceased mother lying mostly buried in the rubble.

For me, the tragedy these two images represent is magnified when I reflect on how different were the lives and deaths of these victims from what anyone who loved them could have imagined.  The middle-aged daughter must have had the same concerns and conversations about carrying for an elderly parent still living on her own that her peers around the world all have.  The married couple must have been thinking about the rapidity with which their infant of not so long ago has grown up and the increase in independence a driver’s license represented.  The young daughter surely was both nervous and excited by the lessons and the potential they offered her as she moved into full adulthood.  Yet, in a moment, and on account of a massive tidal wave, all of those thoughts, fears, and concerns were rendered innocent and moot by the staggering force of nature.

We feel compassion for the Japanese, I think because we intuitively recognize the common elements of human experience we all share.  In fact, a person’s emotional response to this tragedy is a good test to show how developed that person’s sense of empathy is.  We would naturally fault a person who looked on the disaster in Japan with cold detachment.

Empathy is a complex phenomenon but its presence in all well-adjusted people serves as the basis for constructive human interaction, or what phenomenology calls “intersubjectivity”.   I wonder now if technology has expanded the breadth and scope of our capacity for empathy.  The reason I wonder this is a disagreement I have with my old friend Adam Smith precisely on this question of empathy’s scope.

In 1759, and without my prior consent, Smith published his great work, The Theory of  Moral Sentiments, in which he used empathy as the basis for moral human relationship.  Smith argued that morality is based on emotions and that empathy is the emotion which allows us to relate to the other person.  No morality would be possible without this empathy and we’d be left with the horror of merely self-interested people competing with each other, a caricature of Smith’s thought common among those who have never troubled to read him.  But in a passage on earthquakes, Smith ascribed a shallower depth to empathy than I would.  Perhaps the disagreement lies in the difference between the reach of technology then and now.  Here’s what Smith writes:

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 connection 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…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 befall 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.

This business about the loss of a little finger seems to argue for a more limited empathy, but there are reason’s consistent with Smith’s own anthropology to explain this.  In any case, I am speculating that the Japanese catastrophe has had more compassionate response than Smith would have allowed under his Chinese example.

Might it be that the whole of my disagreement with Smith lies in this: that an event in China was so remote to the European “man of humanity” in 1759 as to be near negligible?  If so, then the greater proximity, the so-called global village, that technology enables, does serve to broader both the depth and scope of empathy.  It seems to me that distance in the 18th century created the same remove that time continues to do for us.  I feel more empathy for, which is another way of saying I feel more in common with, the victims of the Japanese disaster, than I do with the victims of the Irish potato famine, who are some of my ancestors, or more than I do with the millions of victims of the “Spanish flu”, with most of whom I have a greater cultural, religious, and linguistic fit than I do with the Japanese.

The theory I am testing is that technology exponentially increases the proximity by which people can feel empathy and obliterates cultural differences and geographic distance.  The only distance that exempts itself from the compassion-broadening effect of technology is the distant past.  The fact that the past is so exempt only goes to show in a new instance the inherent difference between the space and time of human experience.

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