Elly McDonald

Writer

Limits of compassion (2 June 2014)

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Paul Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon whose experiments explore the limits of human empathy. He might, for example, show his subjects pictures of a starving African child, a child given a name, photographed gazing straight to camera with huge pleading eyes. The experiment subjects are asked how much they’d be willing to donate to, say, Save The Children. With this experiment, the average hypothetical donation was US$2.50. Slovic might provide a different set of subjects with facts about starvation and child mortality in Africa: how many million are malnourished, how many need immediate food assistance, prevalence of death by diseases linked to malnutrition. In this case, the pledged donations drop by 50%, to an average of $1.25 per experiment subject.

I read this in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. Lehrer was subsequently discredited in a plagiarism scandal, but his account of Paul Slovic’s work is unproblematic:

“According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. That is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water […] As Mother Theresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’”

Other obstacles to empathy? Relative power. Lehrer quotes UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner: “’The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour. You become very impulsive and insensitive […]’.”

Keltner bases this conclusion on the outcomes of his experiments including the so-called ‘dictator game’, in which designated subjects are given hypothetical ‘money’ and instructed to distribute it (or not), as they choose, to a fellow subject within the experiment. Most ‘dictators’ in these experiments are surprisingly benign, choosing to gift about a third of ‘their’ money to the person they’ve been paired with. But if you put the two participants in separate rooms, so the dictator cannot see the penniless person, generosity dries up. Social isolation has this effect. (I wonder, too, whether being paired with a direct counterpart encourages giving. Would the dictators give away as much if the pool of supplicants dependent on their largesse was larger, a “mass” even, in Mother Theresa’s words?)

We live in a world of creation and delight and simultaneously a world of pain. In our daily encounters, and on social media, we are constantly confronted by suffering. Sometimes we choose to harden our hearts and other times we let it bleed.

Oh, the bleeding hearts!

We are sick at heart for the loss of a little girl named Madeleine. For what her loss has done to her parents. We are sick at heart for that dog pictured in a Facebook post, the canine equivalent of Paul Slovic’s starving African orphan. We are sick at heart over young women emerging from years imprisoned in basements, subjected to sex slavery. For the children working as indentured labour, or slaves, in countries far from ours. For the people closer to home who sleep rough. Or stay in unsafe domestic arrangements out of fear. For the people derided, abused, injured and killed for being conspicuously different. For the victims of others’ explosive rage.

I have very little education in ethics. Or politics. I have not followed closely debate over the efficacy of international aid (whatever forms it takes). I am not skilful in how I express myself exploring these matters.

What I do know is it does matter.

It matters that we care, and that we express our caring, even if clumsily.

Currently I am reading, belatedly, Martin Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I didn’t get hooked by the first 100 pages. The sequences describing Australian servicemen in combat in Syria in WW2 then as POWs working on the Burma Railroad were gripping but I found the romantic backstory tedious. I thought much of the writing was overly literary.

Then the romantic subplot took an unforeseen turn and it seemed Flanagan was saying, “This, too, is tragic. This too is pain and loss that asks to be acknowledged.”

This interests me, as, through his central character, Flanagan repeatedly reflects on sentimentality, the expression of emotion, the centrality (or otherwise) of emotion, and the cultural significance of strategies such as optimism, magical thinking, fatalism and stoicism. And also, it seems to me our culture offers a hierarchy of compassion, with some forms of suffering ‘privileged’ over others, and some categories of victim accorded more sympathy than others.

With the romance, Flanagan seems to suggest that domestic tragedies can have similar weight to historical atrocities. Or I as reader am inferring that.

So what causes us to care, and what is ‘worthy” of concern?

It’s a truism to suggest we are most likely to care if the issue as it presents touches on something in our personal experience. My father supports Seeing Eye Dogs and Guide Dogs organisations. He does this because his father and his grandfather both became completely blind. But recently I was with a man whose face screwed up at the sight of a guide dog with owner. This man explained that he despises the entire concept of a seeing eye dog, precisely because his grandfather was completely blind. His grandfather felt strongly that it was ethically wrong to train a dog in such a way that it lost autonomy as a being in its own right, to reduce it to a functionary, an extension of a human. Similar starting point: blind grandfather. Different expressions of compassion.

The other thing that strikes me about the “I can relate” aspect of compassion is that our personal experience might bear only the most tenuous relationship to the event or circumstance that pricks our heart on behalf of another. There are issues – deprivation, catastrophic loss, abuse, exploitation, helplessness – that we identify in someone else’s situation, that we feel we share. But frankly, the gap between my experience of that issue and the situation I see playing out on the TV news might stretch any relationship to the point of metaphor. Is it the case that I feel deprived, abused, exploited, helpless, whatever … whereas what I see and respond to elsewhere is “real” deprivation, abuse and so forth?

This brings us back to the hierarchy of compassion. And the primacy – or otherwise – of feeling.

My position at this moment is that exercising compassion has value almost regardless of what prompts it. If, as is increasingly argued, what we understand as our ‘Self’ is an ever-changing complex of neural networks that reinforces the pathways most used, then I’d prefer the street named Compassion to be well-trod.

In the play A Streetcar Named Desire, a fragile woman confides she has always depended on the kindness of strangers. She is not an entirely sympathetic victim. She is not Weary Dunlop, not a war hero. She is not Malala. And her faith in kindness is abused.

But I think she has, essentially, the right idea. And I think there are worse things than to be a “bleeding heart”.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Du Bois

Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and companion animals. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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