Of (Empathetic) Mice and Men—With an Observation from Adam Smith


Canadian researchers report that mice who see their cagemates endure a painful procedure feel pain from the same procedure more acutely themselves. On the other hand, mice apparently don't much feel the pain of strange rodents. The researchers interpret this behavior as expressing a kind of empathy.

In a similar vein, acute British philosopher Adam Smith noted in his Theory of Moral Sentiments more than two centuries ago that human empathy also attentuates for strangers. To wit:

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 connexion 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.

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  1. zzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzz zzzzzzz

  2. Ron, the next time I see you, I’m going to cut off your finger and stomp on it.

  3. Since you’ve brought it up, Mr. Bailey, to what extent does the phenomenon as Smith describes it color your take on the Samuelson op-ed you linked to a few posts back?

    Supporting adoption of and compliance with Kyoto either constitutes

    (a) what I’d regard as a “proactionary” stance in that despite being an inadequate solution to global warming, it would slow the rate of warming relative to inaction, possibly buying time for more complete solutions or at the very least extending the period during which Central Asia and equatorial Africa will continue to be inhabitable, or

    (b) what you and Samuelson seem to posit as a waste of capital and a reduction in our generation’s (read: in the developed world) standard of living.

    It depends in part on the value you place on the lives at the margins, i.e. in places that will likely wash away, turn to desert, etc. Nu?

  4. koppelman:

    I think you are first on the hook for demonstrating that Kyoto saves even one life.

  5. SMK: There you go again! As I and Samuelson have more or less tirelessly (and apparently fruitlessly in your case) have pointed out (e.g., here and here), one of our chief concerns about trying to reduce global warming is the effect that dramatically higher energy prices will have on the world’s poor. Evidently you skipped over Samuelson’s comment: “Unless we condemn the world’s poor to their present poverty — and freeze everyone else’s living standards — we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.”

    You also exemplify Samuelson’s final point: “The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it’s really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don’t solve the engineering problem, we’re helpless.”

    Moralize away, but that won’t help the 2 billion people who have no access to electricity.

  6. This is a bad thing?

    I’ve noticed that the folks who agonize over the fates of strangers tend to want to do something about the problem, usually by spending my tax money or restricting my freedom, often for a cure that’s worse than the disease.

  7. I wouldn’t say, though, that empathy for strangers is impossible.

    After the great earthquake in Bam, Iran, there was a news account of a man who’d lost his young daughter in the calamity. He related how his daughter had clutched at him the night before the quake when he put her to bed, not wanting him to leave her alone.

    As the father of young daughters, one who was the same age as this man’s lost child, that story moved me to tears – still does, even as I type this, in fact. I was in no way moved to demand forced contributions to relief efforts; instead, I dug into my own pocket to make a donation to Mercy Corps, which does tremendous work in these situations.

    Empathy for strangers is easy when they’re no longer merely strangers, but we recognize them for the fellow human beings they are.

  8. This probably has something to do with a deep-rooted tribalism in our genes.

    But I really don’t give enough of a damn about you people to take the time to explain it.

  9. Cripes. I wrote up a draft response, walked away, and Windows Update went and rebooted. Damned Interwebs.

    There’s a fallacy to the Samuelson perspective. You and he are both engaging in the time-honored industry-libertarian practice of positing things in black and white.

    Apart from burning forests to create pasture, those two million people without electricity aren’t part of the current emissions problem. The bad-faith assumption is that modernization and economic development in those parts of the world must follow the same path we did: coal-fired electricity before gas, gas before nuclear, nuclear before wind or solar or whatever. Crummy, inefficient, dirty-burning cars before low-emissions, high-efficiency ones, car-centric sprawl development, etc.

    The more advanced technologies have higher costs, but hardly prohibitive. Clean air and water and reduced greenhouse emissions even on the other side of the world are desirable outcomes. They slow global warming and other resource degradation, attenuating the negative effects of it like drought, flooding, tropical storm severity, reduction in drinkable water and arable land, and the refugee problems and war these things trigger. Surely if developed-world taxpayers subsidize the consstruction of “clean” power facilities in places where a dirty coal plant would otherwise be built, the benefits and economic activity in doing so would offset at least part of the costs. Absent climate change and the sorts of agriculture-damaging pollution that accompanied the early coal eras in most of the world, yeah, burning fossil fuels would get those two billion people electricty more quickly and cheaply. But Samuelson would have us believe that following Kyoto and making them do the same would result in none of them getting electricty when the real number might be.. what? 1.8 billion? 1.9? 1.5?

    Similarly, the broader the adoption of Kyoto-triggered regulatory measures, the more individuals and companies — not just governments — will be incentivized to apply themselves to the task of creating the technologies that will reduce the cost of compliance and, one hopes, ultimately “fix” much of what’s going wrong.

    It comes again to the question of whether the technologies that will “solve” detrimental climate change are yet to be devised, or whether the array of existing emissions-reduction technologies and international regulatory and incentivizing regimes like Kyoto are the “proactionary” technologies that will simultaneously buy time and accelerate the development of the better technologies.

    In practice, the “proactionary principle” is sometimes hard to tell apart from making excuses to sit on one’s ass.

  10. Ron,

    You correctly quote the beginning of Smith’s paragraph but you miss the major point of the story by leaving out the rest. Even though we will lose more sleep over the prospect of having a finger amputated than over the death of several hundreds of millions of people on the other side of the world (and, thus, in some sense, care more about one finger of our’s than the entire lives of hundreds of millions of other’s), if we are given the choice of sacrificing that finger in order that those millions would live, most of us would not even hesitate to endure the knife. If we weren’t willing to do it, the world would rightly consider us a villian.

    Lots of people miss this–who reads Smith in the original? But Ronald Coase pointed it out years ago in his essay on Smith and it stuck with me.

    The rest of the paragraph reads:

    Human nature startles with horror at the thought [of not giving up the finger], and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

  11. i guess this is the common human identity,and easy to understand,we have sensitive sentiment t for our surroundings.

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