There are a series of disturbing questions, however: Eight years before the Hokget saga began, the same world that showed extraordinary compassion for a dog sat on its hands as hundreds of thousands of human beings were killed in the Rwandan genocide. The 20th century reveals a shockingly long list of similar horrors that have been ignored by the world as they unfolded. Why have successive generations done so little to halt suffering on such a large scale?
The philosopher Peter Singer once devised a dilemma that highlights a central contradiction in our moral reasoning. If you see a child drowning in a pond, and you know you can save the child without any risk to your own life -- but you would ruin a fine pair of shoes worth $200 if you jumped into the water -- would you save the child or save your shoes? Most people react incredulously to the question; obviously, a child's life is worth more than a pair of shoes.
If this is the case, Singer asked, why do large numbers of people hesitate to write a check for $200 to a reputable charity that could save the life of a child halfway around the world -- when there are millions of children who need our help? Even when people are absolutely certain their money will not be wasted and will be used to save a child's life, fewer people are willing to write the check than to leap into the pond.
Our moral responsibilities feel different in these situations; one feels immediate and visceral, the other distant and abstract. We feel personally responsible for one child, whereas the other is one of millions who need help. Our responsibility feels diffused when it comes to children in distant places -- there are many people who could write that check. But distance and diffusion of responsibility do not explain why we step forward in some cases. Why did so many people feel an abandoned dog on a stateless ship in international waters was their problem?
I want to offer a disturbing idea. The reason human beings seem to care so little about mass suffering and death is precisely because the suffering is happening on a mass scale. The brain is simply not very good at grasping the implications of mass suffering. Americans would be far more likely to step forward if only a few people were suffering or a single person were in pain. Hokget did not draw our sympathies because we care more about dogs than people; she drew our sympathies because she was a single dog lost on the biggest ocean in the world. Our hidden brain -- my term for a host of unconscious mental processes that subtly biases our judgment, perceptions and actions -- shapes our compassion into a telescope. We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.
Beyond Comprehension: We know that genocide and famine are greater tragedies than a lost dog. At least, we think we do.
Posted by Shankar Vedantam
, Washington Post Staff Writer on the 2010.01.17, Sunday.