Our Big, Crowded Moral Circle

As you might already know, as horrible as we humans are to each other, we used to be much, much worse. In the Boston Review, Claude S. Fischer takes a quick trip into the history, not of callousness, but of sympathy; primarily, why are we getting nicer to each other?

Before roughly the 1800s, sympathy was less common and more restricted in scope, overwhelmed as people were by practical needs and circumstances. Cruelty ran through everyday life—animal torture, bloody brawling, severe punishment of criminals, child abuse, whipping of servants, and so on. Such atrocities repel us today but were less dreadful and sometimes even amusing to people then.

Fischer spends some time on Western civilization’s eventual fetishization of misery (more on that in a bit), and gets to the meat of it:

Other explanations of sympathy’s greater reach point to economics. One version simply claims that growing wealth and security freed Westerners to focus on higher goals, including the pursuit of conscience.

Ermmm, I don’t think so. If you’ve read Robert Wright’s Nonzero or The Evolution of Godwhich I reviewed here — you might be inclined to think in terms of utility, where treating the “other” as fully human (or, an expanding moral circle as Wright calls it) turns out to be a pretty good developmental trait for a society. “Our society prospers, and the commoners are less likely to rise up and kill me, if we engage economically (and through economics, culturally) with other clans/tribes/states. Let’s get some glastnost on!”

Fischer goes there.

An alternate economic explanation may be more interesting. Some scholars, the historian Thomas Haskell perhaps most explicitly, argue that the widening circle of sympathy resulted from growing participation in commerce. Commerce, especially at a distance, introduces participants to strangers. Success at trade both requires and teaches people to see situations from others’ perspectives, to make and to keep promises, and, by experience, to have sympathy, even empathy, for the other. Buyers and sellers, however much they struggle against one another, come to know one another.

Fischer’s order here is a bit different, but I suppose there’s a little chicken-and-egg here. Fischer/Haskell has it as, “I want to trade with this alien person, and oh look, he’s not so bad once you get to know (and profit by) him!”

This doesn’t quite explain why we’d start feeling sympathy for slaves, for example, or children who supply labor, as they are both sustainers of a particular kind of economy. Perhaps it’s an inevitable and fortunate byproduct of losing xenophobia, that we look closer to home to see the human beings being mistreated right in front of us.

This is where the fetishization comes in. Fischer seems to be implying that a lot of what we think of as deep and natural sympathy today — the mourning for lost family members and acquaintances, the need for passionate love in a marriage, the desire to help those suffering on the other side of the planet (or in another species) — an expression of our “humanity,” really, is at least in large part the result of a kind of sentimentality porn in popular literature. Novels and the like that fired off our emotions taught us not just to feel, but got us a little bit addicted to grief and passion.

For example:

Nineteenth-century sentimentality focused a great deal on death. Middle-class Americans amplified grief by, for example, adopting elaborate mourners’ clothing and burying the deceased in forested cemeteries rather than churchyards. These romantic settings evoked stronger feelings and provoked experiences of the sublime.

If you think that, say, the national rending of garments every eleventh of September has gotten to be a bit much, you may be seeing this in action. Or, more locally, perhaps you simply don’t get so worked up at the death of acquaintances, distant relatives, or generally people you don’t know very well, as some others do. You may be a sociopath, or, perhaps, you just don’t go in for what I think is often, as Fischer calls it, the amplification of grief. It’s one thing to feel a loss, and another (and this is not a judgment on it) to broadcast it with an expectation that many others feel it as you do, and that it must last and last. (You can see why I think the hashtag #neverforget is one of the more easily mockable.)

And so maybe these two somewhat distinct phenomena feed into each other. We have learned to grieve more, to feel great pangs of sympathy and attachment to all manner of persons (and non-persons…I’m literally looking at you, iPad), pushing ourselves to the point of dependence on the emotional chemicals flooding our brains. This serves to make our moral circles, which are an economic advantage, expand ever faster. Once merely a practical trait that enabled freer trade and cultural exchange, our desire to amplify our feelings brought more kinds of people (and non-people) into those circles more quickly.

Forcing us all, then, to contend with the fact that we now all live in one big, crowded circle, and we all have a lot of strong feelings while we’re in there. Fischer’s prescription is to “cultivate” that sympathy, since it is so artificial to begin with. I’m okay with that. That’s why I like things like secular humanism and the idea that we hold certain truths to be self-evident. To me, that means even if the feelings of sympathy are manufactured, we will behave as though they are encoded into our very DNA. It’s good we can choose to do that. So let’s choose to do that.

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