Inverse-square compassion

This is another of those “long pondered, now blogged” things.

Listening to the news on Minnesota Public Radio this morning. The mix of stories, as usual, ranges from international to local, from “hard news” to human interest. So consider the concept of “local news”.
It seems to me that most people have circles of caring. The highest caring is for self and family, then relatives, friends, neighbors, community, and so on.
Part of this is due to the fact that we can’t pay equal attention to everything. A crying baby in your house gets your attention right away, one in a faraway place goes un-noticed.
So we care a little bit about the problems of individuals in our community. And less about people in other communities. We care hardly at all about individuals’ problems in faraway places. It’s only when the problem of individual hunger becomes famine, or when individual violence becomes genocide, that we sit up and take notice.

Media coverage has a role – starving people on your living room TV are “closer” to you than they were the day before the reporters and camera operators showed up.

The philosopher Peter Singer argued that distance should not be a factor. While I will not try to engage that argument on ethical or philosophical grounds, I’ll just note that it ain’t so, for most people. Family are the people with whom you share your resources freely. And when friends or neighbors have a devastating crisis – a severe illness, or death of a breadwinner, a house fire that destroys all their possessions – we step up with generosity. But people around the country have fires or illnesses all the time. Singer aside, I do not feel the personal obligation to some random unemployed person in San Diego or Detroit that I might to my friends and neighbors. Those people in San Diego and Detroit also have friends and neighbors.

Now, you might say that Detroit is so economically depressed that the friends and neighbors in Detroit are also in need of compassion and help. Sure, yes, I agree. But help at a distance has less claim on me as an individual than help close up. Also, with increasing distance comes increasing numbers of people able to help. Thus, as more individuals are (conceivably) able to help, the claim on any one decreases.

The limiting factor of this comes in the form of governmental aid – when the perceived need is large enough and the distribution of the problem is regional, a governmental solution is pooling the resources of the whole community. Some people object to this on the grounds that government support is no longer giving when it is coerced through taxation.

True. Giving implies a 1:1 relationship between the donor and the recipient. It also implies the choice of where a gift goes or even to no gift at all. This is a double rejection of Singer’s view that giving is (a) a moral obligation and (b) the recipient is dictated by severity of need.

So, to object on the grounds above is to either assert that there isn’t a moral obligation to give, or to assert that severity of need is not an adequate yardstick for evaluating recipients. This is not the same as other objections, such as that the targeting of support is incorrect, or that other needs (besides charitable support) have a greater claim on scarce resources. Also, the absolute level of support is a field for reasonable disagreement.


  1. I care more about people close to me than people far away.
  2. People we see on TV (or similar media) seem closer.
  3. Singer says I ought to (1) care equally about everyone everywhere and (2) give past “till it hurts”.
  4. Tax-supported “giving” is a way of leveling the distance effect.
  5. Some people don’t like the above. Their motivations are suspect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s