January 12, 2005

The Logic of Not Giving

John Derbyshire, author of books on mathematics, and commentator on the passing scene, explains here why he has donated to causes other than tsunami relief, but not to tsunami relief. Here's an excerpt:

One's fellow-feeling towards remote members of the human race is, in most of us, a feeble thing. Beyond those intimate fellow feelings for family, friends, and so on, our residual loyalties are mainly tribal. We are not supposed to say this nowadays, and I am sure that some proportion of my readers are already swooning with outrage at the suggestion, which I am obviously just about to make, that to an ordinary healthy human being, some groups of his fellow human beings matter more than others. This is, though, perfectly obvious -- look at the European press coverage, which has concentrated on the suffering of European tourists -- and normal. Patriotism, now deeply out of fashion among the over-educated classes of the Western world, but still strong among decent people everywhere, is just one aspect of this. People who look like us, behave like us, and speak our language, are easier for us to engage with in the abstract than people from other groups.

The key phrase there is "in the abstract." I am talking here about our feelings towards large masses of people, which are of a different kind from our feeling for individuals -- though the two kinds of feelings are connected at some level, and are often deliberately confused by political operators for their own fell purposes. I once lived in Thailand, as it happened, and got to know some Thais. My feelings towards those individuals then became of the personal kind, rather as the very abstract wave function of quantum mechanics "collapses" to an actual subatomic particle once an observation has been made.

This calls to mind the old anecdote about the Jewish couple sitting in their parlor. The husband reads a headline: "Train Wreck in Turkey. 1,000 Turks and One Jew Killed." The wife responds, "Poor man! Did he have a family?"

Derb's a very insightful and very honest guy. Everything he writes is worth reading. This piece, too.

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