The New York Times reports a view from Jonathan Haidt…

As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.”

One might object to this. After all, none of us “love” English people qua English people. In fact, we dislike a good many of them. But here’s a thought: if a hundred Englishmen were being worked to death wouldn’t you be affected? This could be explained by a desire for self-preservation if they were being killed in England so let’s say it’s abroad. You be angered, horrified and sympathetic, no? I would. Yet in North Korea tens of thousands of people face such hardships every day of every year and have been doing so for decades. Aside from, perhaps, the odd teary moment over Nothing to Envy or Escape From Camp 14 has this knowledge had the slightest impact on your emotional state? Apart from those times I’ve been directly confronted with it I have to admit it’s left mine relatively unaffected. That also applies to massacres in the Congo; disease in Kenya and oppression Zimbabwe.

All people have limited emotional responsiveness. They act according to their membership of communities based on shared experience and ambition, and common humanity is simply not a guarantor of fellow feeling. Even the strongest, broadest concept of tribal allegiance, that of the Muslim Ummah, is nebulous in practice: speaking crudely, Pakistani Muslims tend to be stirred up over Kashmir; Egyptians over Gaza and Kurds over, well, Kurdistan. It needn’t mean we fail to recognise the injustice and suffering faced by others – though, of course, we might – but that our intellectual acknowledgement rarely transcends the cerebrum and manifests itself in empathetic feeling. This is only true, I think, when we have a tribal connection to the victims – be it familial, national or ideological – or heavy exposure to the reality of their suffering.

While this might disincline us from working as hard to ameliorate distress as we might otherwise, it can focus our attention on achievable goals. And, besides, it’s worth remembering that if we truly empathised with all people, let alone creatures, we’d be struck down with an anguish that would make existence Hell.

This does not, of course, mean you have to base your emotions round particular loyalties; only that it should be remembered that most people will.

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