Posts Tagged ‘adam smith’

The Wealth of Neurons

March 30, 2011

Your thoughts and feelings don’t count for anything.

As social creatures human beings are judged by their actions. The Christians disagree, for our thoughts can also be evil and God may judge us sinners for the crimes of our neurons. But, if you are like me you will agree that what transpires in our brains is our own business (so, not only is there no God, I am also relieved).

“You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 27-28

The distance afforded by social networking is fraught with benefits and danger. On the one hand, the lack of personal touch allows us to minimise the effects of the emotions of others, and to examine dispassionately whatever it might be they are saying. On the other, the lack of body language and other cues can on occasion make it difficult to pick up on jokes, sarcasm, or irony. Then again, it can also inhibit the genuine expression of thoughts for confusing them with said levity.

However, I am morally certain that in the wake of recent tragedy in Japan that the cries of support and venting of personal turmoil were entirely genuine. Sprinkled amidst the feed were also jokes about Mothra and the other ironic parallels playing out in the East Asian catastrophe. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether such jokes are born of cynical indifference, or are a just another means of coping with the horrors of the world.

But but but but… we are defined by our actions. All reasonable people agree. What wells up in me when I see “My heart goes out to the people of Japan” scrawling across my Twitter or Facebook, is not a sense of commiseration or feelings of human solidarity, but thoughts of “Oh yeah? What are you doing about it?”

I don’t mean to be cold or dismissive of people’s feelings. Life in so many respects is about feelings; emotional responses, coping, and revelling. Nor do I think that because someone is coping with a public tragedy with an expression of sorrow that they therefore must follow through with an action – that they have somehow taken on more responsibility than someone who is mute.

However, what does it mean to really care about something? If a mother claims to love her child and yet neglects and abuses the child, does the mother love the child? The mother might express extreme sorrow for having her child taken away, fight to the last to keep her child… but is that love or a response to maternal instincts? I say it isn’t love. We are defined by our actions.

So I am at a loss to reconcile the vast majority of the response to public tragedies with the words “I care.” Tragedy that is so far away as to be but mildly emotionally effective at first, and then an intellectual puzzle second and permanently.

I’ll end with this brilliant quote from Adam Smith:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Robin Lindsay



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