The economy of ideas #3.
Is there a limit to how much we can care about others? Is it natural that we should care more about those who are closest to us? Is it in our nature to ‘look after our own’ rather than see ourselves as part of a wider humanity?
Clearly, the time and energy available to each one of us is limited. We also know more of the suffering of those who are closest to us. Global communications allows us to learn about any number of human tragedies, conflicts, injustices and disasters which affect people around the world. We may feel for people in distant places but no single person can solve the world’s problems, however deeply they care, just as no one could expect to address all the world’s inequalities by giving all their wealth away.
Nevertheless, once we know about the suffering of others, we start to care about them. We ask ourselves: ‘what could I do to help?’ Faced with the enormity of the various challenges faced by human beings across the globe, one natural response is: ‘I can’t possibly do anything about that’ and to retreat into the ‘closer’ world we know best and to apply our caring resources in our immediate circle.
However, there is no reason for human compassion and solidarity to have fixed or predetermined limits. Given that we know the scale of human suffering, we have to look beyond our immediate surroundings for the solutions and to ask ‘what should be done?’ as well as ‘what can I do?’ This is not to stop caring for the individuals close to us or to abdicate responsibility by outsourcing it to ‘someone else’. It’s an acknowledgement that there are social, economic, political, structural causes for much of human suffering and that these have to be tackled in social, economic, political and structural ways. This requires concerted hard work between people; the kind of hard work which one individual citizen can usefully decide to support, vote for, argue for and contribute to.
Social, political, campaigning and collective community action for greater justice offer us ways of applying our limited ‘caring resources’ as individuals; including to make life better for people we will never meet, who live far away and are very different from us. Some of the effects of this may be almost immediate (eg: transferring wealth or providing accommodation) others may take more time to work through (eg: policy changes or social and political reform).
This kind of organised, collective caring does not undermine the more personal face-to-face caring; it is an extension of it. It is a recognition that to be effective, our capacity for care needs to be supported, organised and professionalised, and that we need national, international, state and non-governmental structures to do this. We also need to be prepared to support the more redistributive taxation which is essential to resource a fairer and more caring global society.
The alternative would be to accept an economy of selfishness which defines us in terms of those we don’t care about; either because they are undeserving, too distant or too different from us. Our caring resources will be of little value if we can’t universalise them, and they will remaining narrow, protective and even xenophobic in their impact. If we are to move forwards as a human society we need to find new ways to draw on our personal response to the suffering of others in order to build a genuine global economy of care.
The economy of ideas
#1 The marketplace of ideas (July 2015)
#2 Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)