I’ve been following the news out of Japan closely like many people lucky enough to not be there. I have kept an eye on the Facebook status of the exchange student I encouraged (well, pushed, relentlessly) to spend a year abroad there. I talked a little bit about it in my radio monologue last night and have talked a lot about it at home. And, well, I’m out of ideas.
Obviously, there will be charities to donate to, but unlike Haiti, Japan has a strong infrastructure and the financial means to deal with the immediate circumstances. It’s spring break, so I can’t even discuss Japan and its people in my classes. So, really, like most of the world, all I can do is sit back and watch, I fact I find disconcerting. I’d like to be able to do something, to help in some way if I could. But I can’t. Or if there is a way that I can, I don’t know what it is. (Do let me know if you think of something.)
The world goes on. Life goes on. Obligations need to be met and activities, whether urgent or trivial need to be engaged in. Doing all of this stuff is certainly not unethical, but it does feel a bit callous with so many people suffering across the world. Adam Smith, a philosopher I spend a lot of time working on, had this to say in the year 1760, in his second edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (I've kept the original spelling):
“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 connexion 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 tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened” (TMS III.3.4).
Smith describes the circumstance perfectly. A great disaster around the world would cause us to lament, consternate, philosophize, but in the end, we’d move forward with our life, largely in the same mood than we were in before. Is it horrible that we do this, or is this just the human condition? The philosophically frustrating thing is that it is probably the latter. Philosophy has trouble with facts of nature. It likes ought more than is, it likes making things better.
This workaday activity is complicated by the fact that there is constant suffering in the world. I remarked above that it feels callous to go about my life with the drama unfolding overseas, but I worry that it is precisely the drama that I am responding too. People starve, suffer, are abused, live in fear, and lose those dear to them every day. Poverty seems to grow in the world, rather than diminish, and I cannot recall a time when there was no civil war, uprising, genocide, or other horrific nightmare that humanity imposes upon itself. So, what makes Japan special compared to the misery of the worst parts of the world? Is it just the contrast from four days before? We, as observers, are moved by contrast. Smith himself writes:
“We suffer more…when we fall from a better to a worse situation, than we ever enjoy when we rise from a worse to a better” (TMS VI.1.6).
So, again, what do we do? When Smith talks about the imagined earthquake in China, he is doing so to contrast our day-to-day activity with our moral desires and judgments. He continues by explaining that in contrast to the ways in which we unthinkingly move about our days after the eqrthquake:
“The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance [than knowing about China]. 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. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it” (TMS III.3.4).
This is one of the most interesting passages in TMS, although I know the eighteenth century language makes it difficult to follow. Smith is claiming (accurately, I think) that if we lost a finger we would be more disturbed and more vocal in our complaints than we would be in response to losing the Chinese population. But, he adds, we would never trade the population of Chine to save our little finger, “Human nature startles with horror at the thought.” So, he is not writing to condemn what I called my callous action, he is celebrating that fact that human beings, even as they appear so selfish, would not actually be so selfish.
There’s more to the discussion, of course, and Smith investigates why this is, but I'll offer only the shortest version here: duty, for Smith, is what prevents us from being horrible people. But today, in relation to Japan, I have no duty. There is nothing I'm supposed to do because there is nothing I can do. (Philosophers like to remind people that "ought implies can," that we are not morally obligated to do the impossible.) What Smith does is emphasize that which I have been puzzling over – when there’s nothing else to do to help a horrible situation, we just go about our business. This doesn’t make us bad people, it only makes us human, but it also doesn’t mean that it I don't feel like I should be looking for something to do. So, what did I do when I could think of nothing else? I wrote this blog entry. Did it help the Japanese? Not in the slightest. But it made me feel better and I suppose that's something. But now I have nothing else to do again. So, I think I’ll go see if there are any updates on the news. And then, sigh, I’ll finally eat breakfast.