Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Theory of Moral Sentiments

I went to a pretentious liberal arts college. The kind that claims to be teaching you how to be a human being, instead of how to recite facts. I was/am a die-hard believer in the company line, but I never got it. I never knew how much I applied the intellectual BS I learned, until today.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith says "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... 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 paraphrase: You are always going to be more affected by your own pain.

I've always quoted it whenever people complain about how we give more attention to events in our country than to loss of life abroad, but that's not the point of my education. The point is to understand the philosophies, but also to apply and challenge them.

Today, I'm thinking about what Smith left out. What if the tragedy happened near you, within miles of your apartment, but not to you? What if you do have "connexions" in "China"? What if your friends have complex relationships with the event that happened, but your own understanding is empathetic, yet superficial? How does your pain rate?

I believe in not comparing tragedies. I believe that the relativity of pain is how we stop ourselves from being overwhelmed by our own narcissism. It's a direct result of an ability humans lack--the ability to experience someone else's consciousness.

And yet, when I consider my own fear of getting stranded in Dedham yesterday--I didn't--or get upst about our troubles finding a roommate for next year, I feel wrong. I feel like I'm a callous European conceptualized by a dead white man. I don't want to be. There's an in-between that Smith doesn't consider, and I think in coming to grips with that, I am actually utilizing my education.

For an account by someone who is from here, rather than lives here, see Amanda Palmer's post.


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