Wednesday Weltanschauung: Global Empathy

James Aung advocates for the moral necessity of global empathy

There’s an old phrase: charity begins at home. The intention behind it is kind and benevolent. But it doesn’t make sense anymore.

Back long ago, when some wise person first uttered the phrase, the world looked really quite different. Before the industrial revolution, people rarely ventured further out than their local community. The latest in high-speed transport was a cart and horse, and to travel across water was lengthy and perilous. To be able to send a letter to someone in America was unheard of. We didn’t even know America existed. But today we have Boeing 747s and cars, and the ability to send a GIF to anyone anywhere in the world instantly.

“Charity begins at home” makes sense. We owe things to the people who support us and to those who are in easy reach. If you saw a toddler drowning in a swimming pool, you’d wade in to save it. Our obligations are clear, and they go beyond age, race, or nationality.

Today we live in a more interconnected world than ever before, where physical distance is disregarded. You may not know the person who lives 4 meters above you in your apartment block, but you are reliant on people across the globe for everything from the food you eat to the clothes you wear to the smartphone you’re reading this article on.

So then ask yourself this: why do we stop caring about people when they are far away?

You may not believe it but it’s true. You don’t believe it because it doesn’t make any sense. Why should distance play any part in how much we care about someone? But the sad truth is that millions are killed every year due to the very fact that they live far away from you.

Their suffering is hidden. But nevertheless:

  • 760,000 children die of diarrhoea each year.[1] That’s 10,000 school buses filled with children driving off a cliff.
  • 1,200,000,000 (that’s 8 zeros) people live on up to $1 a day. Most live on less than that.[2]
  • 793,000,000 people don’t have enough food to eat.[3] That’s 1.5 million loaded jumbo-jets of people who are chronically undernourished.
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We have the money, the resources, and the know-how to end all this. Every one of us can save the lives of others who are drowning in these pools of starvation, disease, and poverty. We can save their lives at a small cost to ourselves: a watch, new shirt, a dinner out. Oral re-hydration therapy to treat diarrhoea costs just 10 cents[4]. More money is always needed.

Back in the days of “charity begins at home” we couldn’t help distant people. Space presented an impassable barrier. So we helped those closest to us. But things have changed.

Planes, trains, ships, telephones, data, expert observers, aid agencies. These things have given us long arms. Turn around and you can touch someone 6,700 miles away. We now have the reach to solve problems wherever they are in the world.

But now we have the arms to reach them, isn’t it wrong that we discriminate against them? If we accept the principles of equality and impartiality, it is a crime to discriminate on the basis of distance and borders.

As rich individuals it is our moral obligation to give more to the world’s poorest. But the amount the developed world spends is laughable compared with its wealth; in the UK the sum is only 0.7% of GDP[5]. Compared with the rest of the world we are rich, we are the one percent (if you don’t believe it, see this footnote[6]). The size of the injustice beggars belief and if we are to call ourselves ‘good people’ it is unacceptable that we don’t do more.

When Socrates was questioned where he was from he said “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”. The word he used was ‘Cosmopolitan’ [kosmos – world, polites – citizen]. Let us all be Cosmopolitans and let our concern for others transcend national boundaries. Let us love our neighbours in the new Global Village.

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James Aung is a member of Giving What We Can, and has pledged to live on 90% of his income to give 10% to those who need it the most.

[1] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs330/en/

[2] http://www.who.int/hdp/poverty/en/

[3] http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/

[4] http://rehydrate.org/ors/

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34176846

[6] https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/