The Collapse of Compassion

Dec 6, 2013

We’ve seen the fateful video many times.  Dallas, November 22, 1963.  You see the turning of his head, a wave of the hand, that big smile erupting under bright eyes, and that broad shock of hair parted right to left.  At that moment, he doesn’t know that it is the last time he will ever smile.  And that unknowing, in that smiling moment, of what will happen next . . . is haunting.  It looms over the unfolding scene like an angel of death.  And as we watch the film again, we wish we could just yell out, tell him to duck.  We wish we could go back in time and do something to make that next horrible moment not happen.  But we can’t.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, for many, meant the end of idealism for our country.  It meant that even the young and powerful were vulnerable.  It meant Jackie losing a husband.  But perhaps most powerfully for those of us who had no connection to the Kennedys, the scene depicted in that primitive film was a reminder of death itself—the transition from the vitality of life to its irreversible loss.

Most of us have faced that reality much more personally—a loved one who smiles at one moment is gone the next—the irreducible power of the life of a person and their utter irreplaceability.

It strikes me that a central moral challenge for humanity is revealed in something called the “collapse of compassion.”  It is the inability to sense with anything close to that same power the tragedy of the deaths of groups of human beings with whom we have no connection:  the roughly 11,000 Americans who have died from gun violence since last year’s Newtown shooting, or the 45,000 Americans who die each year from lack of health care.  We don’t feel the reality of their deaths in our guts the same way.

But they, like Kennedy, are individuals too.  Columnist Nicholas Kristof writes of a truck driver named Richard Streeter, who, for lack of affordable health insurance, put off visiting his doctor until it was too late to treat what he discovered was advanced colon cancer.  Unlike watching the Kennedy assassination, we can only imagine the look on Mr. Streeter’s face the moment just before his doctor told him he had a disease that would likely kill him, as well as the moment just after.  We don’t see images of him with his family.  To many, he is a member of that impersonal mass of people whose death moves us not.

During the time you’ve listened to this commentary, fifteen people like Mr. Streeter will have died for lack of health care.  For each one of these victims—each and every single one—the irreducible power of the life of a person is likewise gone irreversibly.  So why are we not just clamoring, Republicans and Democrats alike, to rescue and improve the Affordable Care Act, end gun violence, or eliminate poverty rather than let one more person suffer the same death?  Why is there a collapse of compassion?

One big reason is this.  Research shows that compassion for groups collapses when we are actually expected to help many people, like through donations.  We restrain our emotional responses to the tragedy of many when we consider how helping them might adversely affect us.  Instead, if we first choose to desire to help, compassion may follow.  That’s why we need to address issues like health care through the powerful feelings evoked when we consider what is at stake for those like Mr. Streeter.  Then we need to do something, like contacting our congressmen—make that next horrible moment not happen for someone else, or for ourselves.

The irony is that Kennedy represented a hopeful idealism for so many people:  the idea that America had passed a torch to a new generation to sacrifice and serve for a greater good, the idea that justice meant rights for all, and not just for the white and wealthy.  His death inspired many to work for a stronger social safety net.  Many now try to kill this idealism with words like costs, taxes, socialism—all aimed at winning political victories while collapsing your compassion for those who will die.

So now, as the commemoration of Kennedy’s death fades, as the days grow dark and the cold of winter encroaches, we enter a season in which many of us believe that when darkness is longest, new light is born again.  In that conviction, perhaps we can once again grasp the reality that the death of many unknown to us is as much of a tragedy to prevent as the death of a man who tried to help us see that.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.