Does Empathy Cause Us to Care Too Much About the Wrong Things?

And too little about what matters most?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a fascinating short story called, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In it, she describes a utopian city, where life is essentially perfect for all its citizens. They have art and science. Festivals and community. There are no monarchs or slaves. They have an abundance of food and drink. They even have drugs that pleasantly alter your state of mind with no troublesome side-effects.

Le Guin asks the reader to imagine the perfect life. Whatever it is that would make life worth living for you, it is there in Omelas.

So, what’s the twist?

The perfection of Omelas depends on one dark truth. In the basement of a nondescript house, there is a child trapped in a tiny room. The child can’t remember ever having been outside the room, and will never leave it. The child is occasionally fed, but never spoken to or given any sort of comfort.

All the citizens of Omelas know about this child. At some point, each of them is taken there to see the child for themselves. They all know that the perfection of Omelas rests on its endless torture.

We aren’t told why the suffering of this child results in the near-perfection of Omelas. We are asked to simply accept this truth.

At the end of her story, Le Guin tells of some citizens who leave Omelas and never return. She doesn’t state it explicitly, but I think it’s safe to assume it’s because they can’t justify living in a place where their happiness is dependent on the enduring torture of a child.

The question is, would you live in Omelas? Or would you walk away?

What does your empathy tell you?

If you’re like me, you probably had an initial reaction of horror and disgust to this story.

How could people live normal lives, knowing their happiness is entirely dependent on the suffering of a small, innocent child? Wouldn’t you have to be a monster to stay in such a city?

I am no philosopher, but I believe Le Guin’s story describes an extreme form of Utilitarianism. This idea proposes that the morally right action is always the action that produces the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.

I think Le Guin’s intended message is to show how Utilitarianism can easily lead to an “evil” outcome. Do you agree? Is the cost of all those millions of people living fulfilling and meaningful lives simply too high?

Are the people of Omelas evil?

It’s easy to make a snap judgment about the citizens of Omelas. They go about their days seemingly oblivious to the fact that everything they love and value is dependent upon a horrible truth.

Is this despicable?

It’s so easy for our gut reaction to be, Yes! They are disgusting!

Yet, my first thought this morning did not stray to the millions of children needlessly suffering in our world today. My sole and determined aim was to simply make myself a cup of coffee.

Does that make me a monster?

Don’t we all regularly go about our days knowing that an unimaginable amount of suffering is occurring right now on this very planet? In our country? In our city? In our neighborhood?

Don’t we already tacitly accept this suffering by buying many of our goods from countries that have (at best) shady human rights records?

Don’t we live in a version of Omelas already?

“The arithmetic of compassion”

Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.

Mother Theresa once said, If I look at the mass, I will never act.

What these two noticed about our psychology is that, when it comes to empathy and compassion, numbers matter. As studies have shown, the more people that suffer the less we seem to care.

And this makes sense in a way, doesn’t it? If I stopped to really think about the suffering of all of humanity this morning, I would never have made that cup of coffee. I probably would still be lying in bed crying. And I’d probably remain there for quite some time.

But, it goes even deeper than this. According to Paul Slovic, a psychologist who has been studying empathy his entire career, even when we are moved to act by the suffering of one person, if we then discover that he or she is part of a larger problem, we begin to feel like our contribution to the solution is meaningless. As a result, our motivation to help dwindles. This is a false sense of inefficacy.

“It seems that we are psychologically wired to help only one person at a time. And we don’t even care to do that if we sense that there are others we cannot help.”

~Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic, New York Times

Zbigniew Herbert, poet and essayist, called this “the arithmetic of compassion.”

Is the extreme suffering of one child, as in Le Guin’s Omelas, truly a worse state of affairs than the slightly less extreme suffering of millions?

What can we do?

You might be tempted to think that these are different kinds of situations.

In the case of Omelas, there is something simple they can do to alleviate the single-point of suffering. It’s obvious and easy, right?

Well, what if helping the people of our world isn’t as complicated or difficult as we think it is? What if we care too much about this one child and not enough about, as Mother Theresa put it, “the masses”? What if our instincts are backward, and by leaving this unacknowledged we’re allowing a massive amount of suffering to continue?

Won’t future generations judge us in the same way we are judging the people of Omelas? Aren’t we turning a blind eye on the masses because, as Stalin put it, they’re just a statistic?

In some ways, aren’t we worse than the citizens of Omelas? Isn’t the suffering in our world far greater? Don’t we regularly ignore it and forget about it as we sip our lattes and margaritas?

If we don’t begin to recognize the failure of our empathy to properly motivate us to help each other, we may live to deeply regret our lack of action.

Thanks for reading!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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