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Roger’s Rules

Myanmar and telescopic philanthropy

May 13th, 2008 - 5:13 am

Here’s a shocking admission: I haven’t given a moment’s thought to the carnage in Myanmar (or “Burma,” as I continue to call that far-off place). Should I berate myself for this cold-heartedness? After all, everywhere you turn you find people loudly declaring their solidarity with the unfortunate victims of the cyclone there. The death toll mounts day by day: 10,000, 50,000–I even saw a headline that speculated 1,000,000 might die if nothing were done.

The numbers, of course, are pure fabrications, so let me speculate that 10,000,000 will die unless you wring your hands and loudly tell the world how much you care–before, of course, you sit down for dinner tonight with the wife and kids and talk about your plans for the weekend.

I’ve always found such abstract benevolence a bit sick-making. It’s what Dickens, in Bleak House, described as “telescopic philanthropy,” the fervent pretense of concern for others, the farther away and less connected with you, the more fervent–and more empty, of course. John Stuart Mill specialized in a particularly unctuous form of this deformation. In Utilitarianism, Mill argued that “as between his own happiness and that of others, justice requires [everyone] to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” Do you believe that? No, I don’t either. As Mill’s great critic, James Fitzjames Stephen noted in his classic polemic Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (if you haven’t read it, you should), if Mill was right about being “strictly impartial” about one’s own happiness and that of others, then “I can only say that nearly the whole of nearly every human creature is one continued course of injustice, for nearly everyone passes his life in providing the means of happiness for himself and those who are closely connected with him, leaving others all but entirely out of account.”

Yes, but isn’t this a bad thing? Not at all. Such selfishness–if “selfishness” is the correct word–is not only proper, it actually conduces to more happiness than the opposite–the pretense of universal benevolence. Stephen explains:

The man who works from himself outwards, whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others . . . than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbors. On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race–that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind–is an unaccountable person . . . who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular. The real truth is that the human race is so big, so various, so little known, that no one can really love it.

The moral? It is easy but fundamentally hypocritical to pretend to care about 10,000 (or 50,000 or 1,000,000) strangers. It is harder, and also more beneficial to the world, to care about oneself and one’s family and friends.

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