Should we lose sleep over the Japanese earthquake?

How did you sleep last night? Thousands of kilometers away in the cities of Japan, people are trapped under rubble crying out for help. According to recent news reports 1000 people may have died in yesterday’s earthquake and the tsunami that followed.

If 18th century philosopher Adam Smith is right, you probably slept just fine. In his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments he imagined what would happen if the whole nation of China was swallowed up up by an earthquake. How would "a man of humanity" in Europe respond? According to Smith, he might express great sorrow, reflect on the precariousness of human life, speculate how the disaster might affect trade and then go happily about his business:

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.

Smith wasn’t worried about this — in fact he thought it was a good thing. He goes on to complain about whining moralists "who are perpetually reproaching us with our happiness, while so many of our brethren are in misery". This self imposed misery just makes people unpleasant to be around and according to Smith it doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

So is Smith saying it’s OK to just ignore other people’s suffering and do nothing to help? No he isn’t. What he’s arguing is that in situations where there is something practical we can do to help, moral behaviour doesn’t depend on strong feelings of sympathy. We don’t need to respond more strongly to other people’s suffering than we do to our own to do the right thing. If there is something we can do to prevent or ease other people’s suffering, most of us won’t sit by and do nothing.

Most people think of themselves as good. And standing by and doing nothing is not how a good person acts. People not only fear the judgement of others but they feel the pain of self-reproach. Smith writes:

When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many. The man within immediately calls to us, that we value ourselves too much and other people too little, and that, by doing so, we render ourselves the proper object of the contempt and indignation of our brethren. Neither is this sentiment confined to men of extraordinary magnanimity and virtue. It is deeply impressed upon every tolerably good soldier, who feels that he would become the scorn of his companions, if he could be supposed capable of shrinking from danger, or of hesitating, either to expose or to throw away his life, when the good of the service required it.

So according to Smith, we don’t need to be saints to do the right thing. What we need is to be part of a community that constantly reminds us of our own ideals. In Smith’s view, there’s no value in losing sleep over other people’s suffering. But there’s good reason to do what we can to help.

Elsewhere …

In a 2008 post at Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, Gavin Kennedy writes about Smith and earthquakes.

In the Australian last year, Tim Soutphomassane asks: Should we donate more to earthquake victims?

John Quiggin writes that Australia’s recent floods seem minor compared with the devastation in Japan: "And all of these things are insignificant in comparison to the daily toll exacted by poverty and hunger in the world."

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13 years ago

It’s a big misfortune in Japan. Earthquake, tsunami now troubles in nuclear plant and three patients at a hospital tested positive for radiation exposure… I can’t understand why we can’t predict and to resist such a tragedies? We are able to send man to the moon, we are able even to explore Mars, and we can’t protect ourselves on Earth? Japanese, I’m with you.

13 years ago

Incredibly, Quiggin is broadly right – there are indeed a lot of things we should, from a strictly humanist perspective, lose sleep over. Happily, Adam Smith is also right, and since sleep is so critical to retaining our ability to function, including to reproduce, we unsurprisingly evolved to be able to sleep despite all this.

Maybe the problem is more that some people do lose sleep over things that they really shouldn’t, and thus take easy ways out to ‘do what they appear to be able to easily do to help’, but only make things worse?

13 years ago

Except that it does logically make more sense for us to worry more about floods in Queensland over earthquakes in Christchurch over tsunamis or nuclear meltdown in Japan over ongoing poverty and starvation in third world countries, on the obvious basis that each is increasingly less suggestive of immediate risk to our own health. A Queensland-style flood is arguably one of the most likely disasters to affect me directly. A sudden onset of extreme widespread poverty or starvation probably one of the least likely such disasters (I’d allow that starvation is not necessarily vastly unlikely, but it will be a symptom of some other disaster – not just something that becomes the normal state of affairs).

13 years ago

‘Should we lose sleep over the Japanese earthquake?’

We already have with all the post-traumatic stress from our flatscreens and where’s Ken Parish’s mob when you need an international class action?

They’re catching on fast these Chinese Maoists but I’m seriously beginning to doubt that Chinese Tiger paradigm now. Be careful of all the paper tigers you wish for fortune cookies!

13 years ago

They’re catching on fast these Chinese Maoists but I’m seriously beginning to doubt that Chinese Tiger paradigm now. Be careful of all the paper tigers you wish for fortune cookies!

Obby, you’re weird, dude.