On Radio 4’s humorous programme Have I Got News for You! I once heard a piece in which the participants were challenged to invent a headline for the Great Fire of London in 1666, as reported by their chosen newspaper. One of them came up with “The Yorkshire Post – Leeds Man’s Jacket Badly Singed.”
The lack of empathy for the plight of those outside one’s immediate circle is both the joke and the tragedy. What prompted its recall was the media coverage of the destruction caused by hurricanes in the Americas and the monsoons in the Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The tepidity of my sympathy for the victims of those events made me feel somewhat ashamed. What little empathy I did manage to summon was, in any case, overshadowed by my outrage that the coverage of the Atlantic storms was far more extensive than that of the Asian floods, despite the latter having affected millions more people and much weaker economies. And my outrage was further stoked by the sight of President Trump, Climate-Change-Denier-in-Chief, professing sympathy with his electorate’s problems while, in practical terms, conspiring with industrial leaders to exacerbate them.
However, just as I was lamenting (and making excuses for) my empathy- deficit, I heard a news item that helped me feel a little better about myself. It concerned a child who has total lack of empathy. The ensuing discussion concerned the causes of such a condition, social and/or hereditary, and the extent to which it can be rectified. The hereditary cause is not so common, which is fortunate for all of us as it is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse and sociopaths are not nice people to live with. Extreme cases, such as the one featured, do not care whether their condition is fixed and may, therefore, undergo years of ineffective psychoanalysis, or end up incarcerated as criminals – or both. Social causes are easier to reverse.
Most of us, however, are socialised to the extent that we can agree to get along together most of the time. We have learned to appreciate the concept of humanity and we are, therefore, susceptible to modifying selfish behaviours accordingly. Humanity may be defined as the quality of compassion or consideration for others, but what that encompasses is not straightforward. The boundaries of your humanity depend on which moral code you are signed up for – or are co-opted into. If, for example, your ethical code is defined by adherence to a religious creed that will not countenance homosexuality as normal human behaviour, it is unlikely that you will be compassionate towards homosexuals who are ostracised.
For those whose values are secular, there is the notion of a social contract – an arrangement whereby society attempts to form a consensual agreement on what does and does not constitute behaviour that is compassionate and considerate of all its members. However, since so many diverse and evolving ideas, beliefs and biases have to be added into such an equation, this is necessarily a constant work-in-progress.
The hope of the secularist-humanitarian is that the evolution of the social contract will progress towards eliminating bias, prejudice and injustice in the interest of fostering humane systems of governance. Optimistically, one can point to the spread of these ideals – the United Nations embraces them and has four agencies devoted to delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by both man-made and natural disasters (though it is often hindered by international politics). However, institutional altruism such as this originates in the hearts of humans and, while it is said that charity begins at home, we must all be thankful that it does not always stop there. The Leeds Man story reminded me of that.