“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
In other words, however individually successful you are, there is some part of you that will not allow you true happiness if you see that other people are suffering, especially if they are suffering as a side-effect or ‘collateral damage’ of your success.
I believe this is part of being human. We are not just individuals; we are social animals, and to an extent are ‘hardwired’ to take an interest in the wellbeing of people around us. Cooperating in groups enabled us to hunt better, to develop agriculture, and to build civilisations. Some of our self-image is bound up in being part of something larger than ourselves, and in our interactions with people around us.
This sense of identity evolved in small groups of related individuals, where if we saw others suffering we had the opportunity to try to do something about it. Nowadays, when TV gives us footage of human suffering beamed into our living rooms from around the globe, the sense of needing to help others that our compassion excites may far exceed our ability to help – if we allow it to.
Our expanded awareness of the plight of others can have unfortunate consequences. I have a friend who, deep down, believes that she does not deserve to be successful unless every other person on earth is successful first. As a formula for blocking your own success, this could hardly be bettered. And, of course, by keeping her in a low-powered, inactive loop of struggling, it ensures that she is much less able to help others than she would be if she had the money, energy and security that comes with success.
I once heard a Buddhist (I think) parable which went along the lines of:
“The road you have to travel is covered in broken glass. You have a small piece of leather. Do you try to cover the road, or do you make yourself a pair of shoes?”
Or, more often heard on modern training courses, that part of the safety briefing that you hear on every plane trip which tells you to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others.
There are two situations I can think of where Adam Smith’s ‘principles in human nature’ which make you concerned for the happiness of others don’t operate. One is in the case of the psychopath who simply doesn’t have any empathy for other people. Incidentally, I came across the Adam Smith quote in an interesting critique in Forbes magazine of Ayn Rand’s ‘Objectivist’ philosophy (which if it had to be summed up in one word would arguably be ‘psychopathy’) from a free-marketeer point of view.
The other is the case where people have the full range of emotional responses, including empathy and compassion, but they are not aware of the suffering or happiness of others because they don’t see them – “out of sight, out of mind”.
This is the example I have in mind: while researching their book Unjust Rewards (about inequality in the UK), Polly Toynbee and David Walker interviewed high-earning bankers and lawyers about their perceptions of how less wealthy people lived. The interviewees showed very little awareness of the realities of life for most people; for example, when asked to identify the poverty threshold, they put it at around £22,000, which was in fact just below the median income in the UK. Living in gated communities, concierged luxury flats or lavish houses in ‘good’ areas, they had very little contact with people outside their own income and social strata.
Out of sight, out of mind. If Toynbee and Walker’s interviewees thought of less wealthy people at all, they imagined them as much better off than was actually the case, and also attributed poverty mostly to the moral failings of the poor.
In order to be fully human, we need our moral sentiments to flourish. So in terms of practical recommendations, I would say:
- If you find thinking about human suffering is draining your energy, remember to ‘fit your own mask first’.
- Instead of focusing on human suffering, focus on how to increase human flourishing. What do are you already doing that is working? What can you do more of to increase human flourishing?
- Look at the consequences of your actions – the decisions you make in your business, the way you live, the things you buy – for others. If you are not sure what these are, investigate further.
- Remember that the ‘fortunes of others’ can also make you more motivated. For example, research suggests that people feel more motivated when they get to see the difference they make to customers and end-users. So what could you do to find out the difference you are making to other people?