Chris Dillow – On unequal sympathy

There is, therefore, a hierarchy of concern, with the rich, powerful and well-known at the top and the poor and obscure at the bottom

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.

Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling


It’s easy to see why so many people accuse the west of hypocrisy. Joe Biden’s condemnation of the murder of Alexei Navalny whilst bombing Yemen, Syria and Iraq and condoning Israel’s attacks on Gaza suggests that he – like many western politicians – regards some lives as more worthy than others.

This apparent inconsistency recalls Adam Smith’s idea of sympathy. “The source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others,” he wrote, is our imagination; it arises “by changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”

Our imagination, however, is limited. It is easier to put ourselves in the shoes of some people than others, and so our sympathy is spread unevenly.

One source of this difference is simply that it’s easier to “change places in fancy” with people like ourselves. Politicians find it easier to imagine themselves in the place of another politician than in that of a young Muslim in a poor country – hence their greater sympathy for Navalny than for the victims of Israel’s attacks or western bombing raids. This tendency isn’t always malign: it can be a reason for class-consciousness.

This helps explain why opinion about the Israeli government’s attack on Gaza is dividing Jews and Muslims even thousands of miles away: Jews are more able to sympathize with other Jews facing antisemitic attacks, whilst Muslims are more able to sympathize with Muslims. Yes, there might be antisemitism on one side and Islamophobia on the other, but even if there were not we would still see this division.

There’s another source of unequal sympathy. It’s what Thomas Schelling called the identifiable victim effect. The death of a known person, he wrote, invokes “anxiety and sentiment, guilt and awe, responsibility and religion” but, he added, “most of this awesomeness disappears when we deal with statistical death.” As Dan Ariely wrote, “once we have a face, a picture, and details about a person, we feel for them.” (The Upside of Irrationality, p 241).

We have scientific evidence for this. Deborah Small and George Loewenstein gave (pdf) people $10 and offered them the chance to pass some of it onto someone else. When they were told that other person would be drawn randomly from a list, they gave an average of $2.12. But when they were told that the person had already been chosen they gave an average of $3.42 – more than half as much again even though they knew nothing else about the person. Which shows how statistical people are morally discounted.

In similar experiments James Andreoni and Justin Rao found (pdf) that when potential recipients could speak to the potential donor, the donor gave an average of 24% of the money compared to only 15% when neither party spoke. “Communication dramatically influences altruistic behaviour, and appears to largely work by heightening empathy.”

Stalin might not have actually said “if only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”, but if he did he was uttering a truth. We knew Navalny as an identifiable person, and this alone generates sympathy for him. By contrast the 29,000+ killed in Gaza are statistical deaths. This is why opponents of Israel’s attacks want to put names and faces to the victims – because it humanizes them and so generates sympathy.

This same thing helps explain why MPs who were so relaxed about deaths caused by austerity are so agitated by death threats (assuming this to be what they are) against their colleagues. Not only are their colleagues like them and therefore easy to sympathize with, but also they are identifiable victims, whereas the victims of austerity are mere statistics: this asymmetry is reinforced by the fact that our political system actually selects for psychopathic traits.

The victims of austerity, like those of the Israeli attacks, are poor and obscure. Which was Smith’s point: the rich and powerful are more visible to us, he said, and better known and so we sympathize with them more:

When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it, it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it…Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men….All the innocent blood that was shed in the civil wars, provoked less indignation than the death of Charles I.

The corollary of this, he said, is that:

We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.

There is, therefore, a hierarchy of concern, with the rich, powerful and well-known at the top and the poor and obscure at the bottom. When John Donne wrote “Any man’s death diminishes me Because I am involved in mankind” he might have added that some men’s deaths diminish us more than others.

You might say all this is natural, even obvious. Maybe. But natural does not mean immutable. If there is an “expanding circle” of concern for others as Peter Singer has claimed, it’s because we have learned to sympathize with more people than we did centuries ago. And our identities – and hence whom we sympathize with – vary with socioeconomic conditions and campaigning: much of bourgeois politics consists of an effort to reduce the salience of class by increasing that of anything else.

Herein lies a problem. D.D. Raphael writes that “Smith thinks of sympathy as the key to understanding moral judgment” (The Impartial Spectator, p 117). It is this that determines what and whom we condemn or condone. And yet sympathy arises from factors which, as he saw, are morally arbitrary: power and fame get more acclaim and sympathy than virtue or obscurity.

Which is why our moral judgments might seem absurd or hypocritical to outsiders.

To some extent, this is inevitable. All codes seem odd from the outside: try explaining to a non-fan why cricketers applaud a bowler aiming a 90mph projectile at a man’s head but find it disgraceful if he scratches the ball.

Few people in politics, however, even try to step outside and question their own moral judgments. Moral claims often owes more to narcissistic self-righteousness than to detached thought. I’ve often criticized unthinking technocrats, but unthinking moralists are at least as detrimental to a healthy politics.

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