Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jun/10

24

Caring About Strangers

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Our affinities fade with distance.  Towards our immediate families, they are very strong; towards our extended families, less so; then outward ever more feebly to the broadest kinships (nation, race) and fictive kinships (religion, ideology, language, civilization).  The math must be very complicated — much more so than a simple inverse-square law.  I am sure that affinity can “pick up” strength for a while even as distance increases, just as there will be uphill stretches when walking down a mountain — that there are, for example, people who care more about their co-religionists than about their extended families.  And I’m ready to believe that there are some individuals who honestly feel the same warm affinity for the remotest strangers as they do for their own kin.  You might call those people “saints,” though personally I’d prefer something in the zone “half-crazy misfits.”

In low radius-of-trust societies affinity barely extends beyond kin.  One can only imagine the difficulty Mussolini’s army recruiters had getting Sicilian peasants to fight for their country.   Societies that can afford a more expansive view of the world typically have affinites that go out further.  And of course the individual personality factors in.  Joe may feel genuine distress thinking about the poor brutalized Congolese; Jane may not give a damn, or see why she should; and Joe and Jane might both be stalwart citizens, good spouses & parents, etc., indistinguishable in all the social virtues that matter. 

In the broad generality, though,  human affinities diminish with perceived distance (I don’t, of course, just mean geographical distance).  Most people’s affinities are at effectively zero at some point well short of the Congo, as the Earth’s gravitational field is undetectable well before Alpha Centauri. 

All this seems as obvious to me as 2+2=4.  If there is something obnoxious in saying it aloud, I wish I could understand why.

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26 comments

  • Florida resident · June 24, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Dear Bradlaugh ! Thank you for nice and important post.
    Minor comment about your
    “The math must be very complicated — much more so than a simple inverse-square law.”

    To be able to say that something in the Right-Hand-Side (RHS) of an equation does or does not obey “a simple inverse-square” or any other law,
    you must first define, what is in the Left-Hand-Side (LHS) of the hypothetical equation.

    In case of Newton’s universal gravity law, the force in the LHS can be measured, according to second Newton’s law, via acceleration.
    In the case of Coulomb’s law of charge attraction / repulsion, the force can be (and actually was) measured by Coulomb via torsion balance, calibrated prior to the electrostatic experiments.

    That is exactly what I taught to kids (my and other people’s): if you claim (RHS) that the bandwidth of some device is 3.64 KHz, please describe your LHS: how do you define the bandwidth. It may be FWHM (Full Width at the level of Half of intensity at Maximum), may be HWe^(-2)M (Half Width at the level e^(-2) of intensity at Maximum), etc., etc.

    I conclude (with love): do not claim something about RHS, if you have not told (at least to yourself), what is in the LHS.

    Your always, F. r.

  • Susan · June 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Let’s not forget those professional humanitarians who weep and agonize over the plight of strangers half a world away, but who treat those closest to them like garbage. I’ve worked with some of those.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 24, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    some elitist misanthropes like the idea that their misanthropy is situational, not intrinsic. so i suspect they have this idealized view of people who they don’t know, but really would like (somewhat like proponents of family values like laura schlesinger who have really bad relations with their family).

  • vgk · June 24, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    I’m going to guess that this post about The Congo is in some way related to feedback on your recent article regarding being pro-Israel?

    As to the question of obnoxiousness, of course it’s obnoxious, which is to say nothing more than ‘polite society considers it obnoxious’, and for quite the same reason as it’s considered obnoxious to point out that life is wholly meaningless, ends with finality and that anyone who can of free conscious murder a stranger (and get away with it) for a hundred dollars but doesn’t do so is a fool with no mind of his own.

    These are anti-social truths and therefore rude to mention in public. This isn’t to say that I don’t love you for saying them. In fact my estimation of you increases significantly by the fact that you speak truth to power (inclusive of the fact that you published that philosemitic piece in Takis of all places where you must have known the general feel is quite opposite) but don’t play silly by asking if it’s obnoxious. Disagreeing publicly with friends is obnoxious and disagreeing publicly with the cherished myths of society even more so.

    Don’t worry though, you’re among fellow misanthropic arrogant truth tellers here. Well, at least SOME of us. (See? That’s true, but obnoxious. ;-)

  • Dick · June 25, 2010 at 2:50 am

    Sociobiologists tell us that our concern for others wanes the further the genetic distance between them and us. In other words, the more of our genes another man possesses the more likely we are to care about his welfare. This makes some sense and is certainly consonant with the empirical evidence.

    Whether it’s true or not, though, there are interesting implications for secularists in the question why we should care about strangers. What reason can a secularist give, after all, for arguing that we should?

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 25, 2010 at 3:33 am

    What reason can a secularist give, after all, for arguing that we should?

    you should read more.

  • Snippet · June 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Question: What reason can a secularist give, after all, for arguing that we should (care about strangers)?

    “Answer:” you should read more

    Read what?

    Can you suggest some books? Articles?

    Can you at least offer the most rudimentary outlines of the beginnings of an explanation?

    What exactly is the point of this website if you can’t ADDRESS, rather than DISMISS the very sorts of questions that this website will inevitably attract (sometimes asked in good faith, sometimes – admittedly – not)?

    It is a poorly attended and infrequently updated site, and I think it is at least possible that that could change.

    I have a number of provisional, speculations regarding why seculars “should” (or, more precisely, why they tend to do so up to a point) care about strangers, but I’d love to hear (see) the opinions of those who understand this sort of thing better than I do.

    In short, the answer would being along these lines…

    Those who didn’t care about strangers had fewer kids than those who did … c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y … care about strangers (up to a point).

    Why? I don’t know. Let the curious-onlooker-attracting speculation begin!

    It is also possible that caring about strangers is an evolutionary “mistake,” along the lines of craving fat and sugar long after such cravings serve the once-useful purpose of filling a body up with short-term energy.

    It is possible that it is a “by-product” of caring for kin, tribe, nations, etc… that is useful, or at least not damaging enough to have been (yet) weeded out.

  • Snippet · June 25, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    >>> … that anyone who can of free conscious murder a stranger (and get away with it) for a hundred dollars but doesn’t do so is a fool with no mind of his own.

    Uhm… such a lovely, juicy little worm. I’ll take a bite.

    This is disgusting and shameless.

    A hundred dollars? That just doesn’t go very far these days. Where do you get your groceries?

    Seriously, an aversion to murder (even profitable murder) is not necessarily foolish, even from the standpoint of cold, calculating rationality in a godless universe.

    Murder is by definition antisocial and disruptive to the fabric of society.

    Police are not the primary preventers of murder. What is (maybe) is what is called the ‘conscience’ ie., the little voice inside that says, “This is just bad. Bad. Bad. Bad.”)

    That little voice is not the product of reason, necessarily, but is an emotion that evolved because those who felt intrinsic revulsion at the prospect of killing strangers without very strong reasons (self defense) made better friends, husbands, wives, etc… and had more kids who thrived than those sociopaths who took murder casually.

    “Murderphobia” keeps a lot of us alive, and is one of the lubricants that allows thousands or even millions (billions?) of strangers to live together and pool their resources, rather than spend time protecting themselves and their kin from murder.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    snippet, the short answer is that sociobiological explanations don’t scale as a description of human moral relations necessarily. that’s because their evolutionary context is small family units. therefore there must be more than inclusive fitness at work (an abstraction and extrapolation of inclusive fitness intuitions is probably the biggest variable).

    as for the whole answer, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet. i actually maintain a whole separate weblog at *discover magazine* and don’t have time to elaborate in more detail here because of labor constraint. i assume you know what ‘opportunity cost’ is?

  • Le Mur · June 25, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    What reason can a secularist give, after all, for arguing that we should [care about strangers]?

    Replace “should” with “do” or “tend to” (etc) and it’s because if you’re programmed to be nice to them, then they’re also programmed to be nice to you – tho probably not to the same extent – since being members of the same species means having similar behavior. But there’s nothing magical/moral or even humanistic going on here since all higher species treat other members of their own species quite differently than they treat members of other species – better in some ways and worse in other ways.
    (Imagine quotes around words like “programmed”, “higher” and “nicer” if you feel like it)

  • Dick · June 25, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Me: What reason can a secularist give, after all, for arguing that we should [care about strangers]?

    Hume: you should read more.

    This isn’t even clever. The fact of the matter is that there may be pragmatic reasons why we should care about strangers – we may get some reward of some kind – but there are, in a Godless universe, no moral reasons. Hume’s reply pretty much confirms the suspicion that he, at least, can’t think of any.

    The fact that we often find that we do care about others is, of course, not a reason why we should care about them.

    So my question, really, is why would a secularist be wrong to simply ignore the plight of the poor and oppressed and tend solely to his own garden? And please don’t tell me I should read more. Such a reply only makes you sound as if you have no answer.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 25, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    dick, there’s no ultimate reason in a godless or god-filled world. period. i reject your premise that there’s anything to explain. all the real action is in the elucidation in the proximate mechanisms.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 25, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    dick, more to the point, asking “why should i not do X if god does not exist” when couched in an ultimate sense (i.e., at the idealistic root) has as much fruit as asking the question “why do i exist as opposed to not exist.” i suppose it’s philosophically deep when viewed from some angles, but operationally it’s vacuous. and yes, i think theists who think that god solves their problem of morality haven’t solved anything, but are offering empty definitions in lieu of substance.

  • Dick · June 25, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Hume: dick, there’s no ultimate reason in a godless or god-filled world. period. i reject your premise that there’s anything to explain. all the real action is in the elucidation in the proximate mechanisms.

    Perhaps this is correct, though I don’t think so, but if it is then I misunderstood the original post. I thought it was intended as a lament that our concern for strangers is inversely related to our distance from them when in fact it was merely an observation that this is so. I agree that this is the way things are, and, on secularist assumptions, see no reason why they should be otherwise.

    Unless it is somehow in our self-interest to rescue the starving or the sick of the world, why should we?

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 25, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Unless it is somehow in our self-interest to rescue the starving or the sick of the world, why should we?

    i think reciprocal altruism/golden rule suffices if you need a deep self-interested rational motive. granted, if you are omniscient then this wouldn’t work, but that seems a ridiculous premise to begin with (though i know the philosophically inclined would disagree). i don’t think that reciprocal altruism, kin selection or group selection really explains the actions of most humans though. it’s a complex of various parameters. which is why i am not inclined to tackle this in detail, because it would be a major time investment to address each parameter and weight it.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 25, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    also dick, here’s a thought experiment. assume that i encounter an infant. a screaming infant. also assume that i could kill the infant and no one would punish me. in fact, no one would know. assume that i have children of my own who satisfy that urge. would it be rational for me for kill the infant so as to stop the screaming?

    at this point some people are going to wonder “what kind of psychopath would even envision such a thought experiment!” which is the point. a philosopher might, but the reality is that rational calculation is besides the point. we’re not blank slates, and we have deep seated moral intuitions.

    are those moral intuitions true? they’re as true the approximately circular orbit of the earth around the sun.

    i know that some thinkers believe that they have found a reasoned grounding of ultimate morality. theists will claim that their god is the ground of all being and truth and all that. obviously that’s persuasive to them, but if you don’t agree that god exists it isn’t, and is nothing more creating an answer by adding an entry into the definition.

    no one has ultimate moral explanations, and very few people are committing suicide. hope exists. perhaps it’s all a miracle :-)

    in terms of proximate mechanisms, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong is a place to start. though not to end. i think current theories and models leave a lot be desired in explanatory power.

  • Dick · June 26, 2010 at 1:35 am

    Hume: also dick, here’s a thought experiment. assume that i encounter an infant. a screaming infant. also assume that i could kill the infant and no one would punish me. in fact, no one would know. assume that i have children of my own who satisfy that urge. would it be rational for me for kill the infant so as to stop the screaming?

    Interesting question. Assuming there is no divinely ordained moral law then it is always rational to act in one’s own self-interest. If killing the child is in one’s self-interest then it would be rational to kill it.

    Taking that further, if killing the child violates no moral law or principles, then it would not be immoral to kill it.

    The reason most blanch at this idea is that they’re still operating on a Judeo-Christian worldview even if they no longer believe there’s an underlying ground for it. Their consciences are shaped by assumptions inculcated by centuries of Christian morality. If, though, we were to put this question to members of some society that practiced child sacrifice or infanticide it would probably not strike them as nearly so outrageous.

    The moral intuitions to which Hume alludes surely exist, but why are we obligated to honor them if they’re just the products of eons of blind, purposeless forces or if they’re the result of enculturation? If that’s all that’s behind our moral sentiments then they’re no more binding than are laws passed by a legislature which carry no penalties or enforcement mechanisms. Our moral sentiments are just arbitrary preferences, like our preference for Coke or Pepsi, and there’s no good reason why anyone should feel bound by them.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 26, 2010 at 1:44 am

    Judeo-Christian worldview

    1) the term judeo-christian is a neologism popularized in the 1950s. use ‘christian.’ there’s no benefit in adding ‘judeo’ (if you add judeo, you should add islamic or just say abrahamic).

    2) there’s nothing particularly christian, as such, about not killing infants because they’re irritations, so you’re talking about more general issues here.

    Assuming there is no divinely ordained moral law then it is always rational to act in one’s own self-interest

    dick, you’re own usage of terms like ‘rational’ and ‘self-interest’ themselves are morally embedded, if you get my drift. they may be such for you, but don’t generalize about other people’s psychological states. i believe that most humans actually get utils out of altruism…which is not always good for those who are objects of altruism (e.g., aid workers). this may be totally irrational to you, but you’re personality may be more self-centered than normal (i’m pretty sure this is true for most libertarian males for example).

    deep discussions of rationality often become tautological. what is self-evidently rational or utility-maximizing to you may not be to others (implicit premises you take for granted may not be taken for granted by others).

    , but why are we obligated to honor them if they’re just the products of eons of blind, purposeless forces or if they’re the result of enculturation?

    this is an interesting philosophical question, but it has pretty much zero real-world relevance. and theism is no solution either, i’m sure you know about the debates in regards to predestination, free will, etc. there’s no good answers for the questions you’re asking (in my opinion). but even with that, i doubt you’re going to kill yourself in the near future because of hopelessness.

    granted, there are people who actually take the questions you’re asking to heart and live their lives by them. they’re called psychopaths, and there’s good evidence that many of them are neurologically abnormal. of course they think the rest of us are freaks. i guess it comes down to an animal battle where we outnumber them, label them psychopaths, and put them in cages :-)

  • RickRussellTX · June 26, 2010 at 5:51 am

    I think that when Mr. Hume suggests that you should read more, he’s simply pointing out that there is already a large body of work on secular and humanist bases for social behavior, and that this is hardly a forum to re-hash a couple of centuries of scholarship on the subject.

    Start with infidels.org and drill down, if you want:

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/morality-and-atheism.html

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/non.shtml

    Rick R.

  • Dick · June 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Hume: dick, you’re own usage of terms like ‘rational’ and ‘self-interest’ themselves are morally embedded, if you get my drift. they may be such for you, but don’t generalize about other people’s psychological states.

    This is an interesting thought, but, unless I misunderstand, it comes parlously close to subjectivizing language to the point where one must ask why anyone who holds the view that is expressed above would even bother to put up posts on a public blog. If the meanings of even common words are so psychologically privatized that we cannot assume that our readers understand what we mean by them then there’s not much point in talking to anyone but ourselves.

    Hume: i believe that most humans actually get utils out of altruism…which is not always good for those who are objects of altruism (e.g., aid workers). this may be totally irrational to you, but you’re personality may be more self-centered than normal…

    No doubt this is true, but it doesn’t offer an answer to the question why it would be wrong for the aid worker to continue doing what he’s doing if it makes him happy even if it produces harm to the recipients. In other words, if it is rational to always act in one’s self-interest (and on atheism it surely is) then the aid worker may be acting in a morally rational fashion by reaping the utils even if his behavior seems contradictory to the stated goals of the aid organization.

    To Rick: Thanks for the links. I browsed through them but didn’t find anything there particularly definitive or helpful in addressing the question of whether, on atheism, we can have a moral obligation to care for others. Perhaps I should read Michael Martin more thoroughly, but his argument seems to be similar to that of people like John Arthur and Kai Nielson, neither of whom really answer the question what obligates us to care about strangers and why it would be wrong to adopt a “might-makes-right” ethic vis a vis others.

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the dialogue but don’t want to drag it out beyond what has already been said. People lose interest.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 26, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    This is an interesting thought, but, unless I misunderstand, it comes parlously close to subjectivizing language to the point where one must ask why anyone who holds the view that is expressed above would even bother to put up posts on a public blog. If the meanings of even common words are so psychologically privatized that we cannot assume that our readers understand what we mean by them then there’s not much point in talking to anyone but ourselves

    because subjective words don’t always exhibit a uniform distribution. e.g., there are different ideas of what ‘god’ means to different people, but there’s a modal viewpoint. when it comes to discussions about ultimate ethics i think we’re usually going into the ‘shallow end of the pool’ in terms of definitions. this is why introspective philosophy has had problems getting anywhere; it doesn’t describe normal human experience.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    If the meanings of even common words are so psychologically privatized that we cannot assume that our readers understand what we mean by them then there’s not much point in talking to anyone but ourselves.

    by the way, this seems to come pretty close to conceding to the post-modern temptation; because some subjectivity is granted all objectivity is illusory. in any case, i don’t grant that what we’re talking about are ‘common words.’ rationality in a common sense is basically just logical inferences from axioms. you aren’t discussing anything so prosaic or general, but rationality as applied to ultimate ethics or morality. the confusion is due to the intersection between rationality and the second issues, not rationality itself. basically i feel you’re presupposing agreements on the nature of what you’re attempting to flesh out (ultimate ethics).

  • Miles · June 27, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    We moderns have the distinct problem of too much access to problems outside of our immediate affinities. Modern media, technology and publication portray tragedies occurring half-way ’round the world as though they were next-door.

    When consuming such media, I often find myself agonising for groups of people well beyond my practical affinities. I believe this agony is contributive to our modern state of depression and anxiety : where we were biologically built to withstand only limited empathy, we are now called to feel the pain of the world.

    Thus, while I may naturally begin to descend into empathy for strangers across the world, my rational mind demands that I not. This does not mean, however, that I cannot decide to participate in world-betterment projects whose scope is well beyond my neighbourhood ; I just cannot allow myself to feel too deeply for too many people, or joy becomes increasingly elusive.

    And from another direction : Ayn Rand defined love as value, and insisted quite rightly that universal love is meaningless. A scenario in which value is applied equally universally, value becomes meaningless.

    This doesn’t mean we can’t apply a universal sense of decency, good manners and even regard for all mankind, but it does mean that we cannot *love* everyone — certainly not equally — without forfeiting love all-together.

  • Miles · June 27, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Hume: Your offhand jab at Laura Schlesinger is a low blow. What does it mean to have “bad relations with your family”? Laura Schlesinger has excellent relations with some members of her family ; are we to believe that because she purports to be an expert on family matters then she can unilaterally regulate behaviours within her nucleus?

    I don’t disagree, generally, with what is being said about some “philanthropists”, but it is a tragic truism that professional competence does not equal personal mastery. Doctors may still smoke, janitors may have filthy homes, child psychologists may (and often do, it seems) have maladjusted children.

    Your underhanded suggestion that Schlesinger is a hypocrite is unfounded and out of place ; at least, without a good deal more explanation than a parenthetical affords.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 27, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    miles, nice to know you’ve appointed yourself editor :-)

  • Snippet · June 30, 2010 at 1:54 am

    >>> i assume you know what ‘opportunity cost’ is?

    Sorry, but I really have better things to do than answer this rhetorical question.

    Gotta say, though, that your response to my question was about a gajillion time better than, “You should read more.”

    At least that part of it that I think I understood was.

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