Thursday, June 21, 2012

The anatomy of human compassion

We care about people closer to us, we care about things closer to us, and we care about values closer to us.  The greatest economist of all times, Mr. Adam Smith, echoed this feeling of ours in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:

"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. 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 tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance."

Whereas we can't change human nature, but I believe a mark of a progress in our civilization is that we are extending our compassion towards people, things and ideas farther way from us. In this regard, Hong Kong people are just lovely


  1. Hearing the news about someone else's suffering is one thing -- actually experiencing the suffering is another. Television brings other people/places into our face; the internet brings details, first-hand accounts, immediacy. So as events are "fleshed out" to us, they become more real, and people far away become our neighbors.

    Here I sit, in Oregon, yapping with you in Hong Kong: small world, isn't it?

    A few years back, I fell awkwardly and broke a leg. While getting about on crutches, I noticed how many people walk with a limp, or suffer their legs or feet. I could suddenly feel their pain ... very similar to my own, i.e., compassion, spontaneously arising. Interestingly, that sense has continued on since that time.

  2. Incidentally I broke my leg last year! I can certainly appreciate what you felt...:):)

    Yes, the internet, technology, and above all freedom of the press bring people together, for good. Liberal people love it, authoritarian people hate it ("I can't threaten my kids [my people] no more!")


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