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Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

November 15, 2014

Moral Philosophy, Morality, Philosophy

Indonesian Tsunami

“… one hundred thousand people may have died from yesterday’s tsunami off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia.” “Turn the volume up darling.” “What time do I have to pick up Jennifer?” “Terrible, that earthquake. After 5.” “It was the tsunami, did you see the video?” “Most of it. I feel so sorry for all those people. Don’t forget her music folder.”

“You were tossing and turning all night, were you thinking about your toe?” “Yes, I couldn’t sleep, just ruminating about it all night.” “You’ll just lose the toe, the doctor said it hasn’t spread”.

“Did you read that letter from Jennifer’s school?” “The one about the parishioner needing a bone marrow transplant?” “Yes, I’d be willing to get tested and donate. I’d like to think that if ever I needed a transplant someone would be willing to donate to me.” “I agree, it’s one of those times when you just have to do what you know is right.”

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“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 drives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Adam Smith: ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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36 Comments on “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

  1. rabirius Says:

    Very well observed dialogue.

    Reply

  2. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    You are your brother’s keeper if you decide you are. It’s an individual choice, not a cosmic mandate. Our genes encourage most of us to decide we’re at least our immediate family’s keeper. There’s broad individual variation in how far and deep this reaches, as illustrated in your quotes.

    Thanks, Malcolm, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog post!

    Michael R. Edelstein
    http://www.ThreeMinuteTherapy.com

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Michael. Broad variation indeed. Adam Smith pointed out that generally we feel the loss a finger far more than the loss of a multitude of strangers far away. However, he went on to say that this does not mean that we value our fingers more than the lives of this multitude, because most men would gladly give up their finger to save a multitude of strangers. What overcomes our natural self-interestedness is not any natural benevolence or altruism within us but rather:

      “…reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of a multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.”

      Smith is saying that we imagine being judged not by God, and not by our principles, but by a fellow human being who is looking over our shoulder.

      Reply

  3. cindybruchman Says:

    Interesting post, Malcolm. I may have to disagree with Adam Smith. I think morality ebbs and flows much like one’s relationship with God. Philanthropy and community service ought to be a habit like going to church. The more you give of your time and $ to help others, the more selfless you feel, yes? During some chapters of my life, I have to admit when I’ve done my duty and gave my time and money, I felt nothing inside. Other times I’m overwhelmed with joy. The good works we humans do matter even if our heart’s can’t quite feel it at the moment. It’s like living in a gorgeous place, surrounded by beauty. After awhile, your eyes may see the beauty but you can’t feel the beauty.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Cindy, actually I think you differ less from Smith than you think. Please see my reply to Dr. Michael Edelstein. Smith rejects the idea that we do the right thing because we feel compassionate and care for others in some abstract sense:

      “It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.”

      Reply

  4. surgeryattiffanys Says:

    I feel privileged everyday that this is my job but I struggle with how far should I go and how much of myself I should give before it is enough.

    Reply

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      It’s never enough, Tiffany. Parenting is endless, teaching in the classroom is endless, any line of work where we offer a needed service – esp when you actually care about the people who look to you – is a golden black hole. And we have to remember we can’t save everybody or even our one child, not to the extent we long to. We have to keep our oxygen mask on and remember to live and enjoy the one life we’ve been given.

      We are all dispensable.

      And if we do ourselves in, we’ve really screwed things up for those closest to us who really do need us around. Yes, I just took us around in circles. That’s life.

      Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I agree with Mama D. too. There is also much wisdom in the following parable. I hope it helps.

      “An American businessman was at a pier in a small coastal Mexican village when a boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. Not long, was the reply. The American then asked the Mexican how he spent the rest of his time. “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and talk with my wife. I stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.”

      The American replied, “I have an MBA and can help you. You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from what you could bring in with the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, and eventually open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. “You would need to leave this small village. Move to Mexico City, and then maybe to Los Angeles, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

      The Mexican fisherman asked, “How long will this all take?” The American replied, “Fifteen or twenty years.” “But then what?” asked the Mexican. “That’s the best part! When the time is right, you could go public. You’ll become very rich; you would make millions!” “Millions?” replied the Mexican. “Then what?” the American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, spend time with your wife. In the evenings, you could stroll to the village, where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends . . .”

      Reply

  5. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Eloquent clarity, Malcolm. Smiles.

    Reply

  6. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Actually, I’ve had a similar half-written post in my head all year. A blur of a clip on radio jumping from the report of the death of a famous franchise order to a commercial to something insultingly inane. Thanks for provoking us to thought, MG.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      D, hopefully it was a little more than jumping from one extreme to another. It’s an interesting question why we care so little about distant disasters, whatever the magnitude, while we obsess about relatively small amounts of harm that directly affect us. It cannot be because we are selfish as, given the choice, we would gladly accept, say, the loss of a toe or finger in exchange for saving the lives of distant multitudes. We also frequently find ourselves committing random acts of kindness with little or no chance of reciprocation. Smith tried valiantly to reconcile and explain these different responses.

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        Perhaps it has to do with the particular nature of the disaster or threat, whichever taps the fears or passions we already have from our own history. After all, we filter our experiences and everything we see/hear through our own story.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Well, certainly different people will react differently based on their own story but it is still true that most people will just be momentarily affected by a distant disaster, perhaps making a mental note to send a contribution to the American Red Cross and then will resume their normal lives and sleep well in their beds.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          Indeed. Great post, a convicting reminder to live another way.

  7. sally1137 Says:

    I think it was Teresa of Avila that said, “Jesus has no hands on earth but ours.”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Sally. In a similar vein, Hillel, the great first-century BCE Jewish sage of the Talmud, asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I?”

      Reply

  8. Tahira Says:

    Oh, Malcolm. So much ponder. As a cardiac ICU nurse, and having taken care of people all over the world, I think about this often. Not only in my professional life but in my personal life as well. Random acts of kindness, caring, go out of one’s way, being effected…

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Tahira, I know you have, but explaining random acts of kindness is difficult, so difficult that evolutionary psychologists have spent years investigating the subject without coming up with a satisfactory answer. What possible evolutionary advantage could be conferred upon us by random acts of kindness which we do not expect to be reciprocated? Maybe we should just be happy that there are still unexplained mysteries that continue to baffle scientists and keep us in a state of wonder and awe?

      Reply

  9. D.G.Kaye Says:

    Leaves me much to ponder about people and the world.

    Reply

  10. authorbengarrido Says:

    How much of the vagaries of empathy do you put down to simple distance? I can’t remember the last time I felt bad about someone killed in the Congolese Civil War, but I felt bad for one of my elementary kids yesterday when his friend called him stupid.

    Why?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Evolutionary psychologists have suggested a number of reasons why we feel a stronger affinity for our family, friends and tribe as opposed to, say, people on the other side of the world. For example, it may be that evolution conferred survival benefits on those groups with a stronger affinity for each other thus making cooperation on large-scale projects easier and less costly to enforce. However, the more interesting question is, that if this is true, why is it that most people would still be willing to make a large sacrifice if that would save the lives of multitudes in some far away place. For example, you may not have felt bad about anyone being killed in the Congolese Civil War but what if you could have prevented the 5.4 million deaths in that conflict by sacrificing your finger, your hand and maybe even your life. Would you have chosen to do so? Put that way, it would be a poor human specimen who would not be willing to make some level of sacrifice to save that many lives, even if there was no chance of reciprocity.

      Reply

  11. aFrankAngle Says:

    I must say that reading the comments and your responses have been quite enlightening. Well done at creating a good discussion.

    Reply

  12. Jon Sharp Says:

    Good post – I was intrigued by your conversation extracts. I remember my parents used to say that “charity begins at home” meaning that it is best to help out in your local community first. I wonder if, as a result of economic and social globalisation, that may be changing as the inter-dependencies of far flung communities becomes more apparent.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, it’s good to hear from you again. I think you are correct. Also, the internet and social media enable us to see and identify more quickly with victims of far flung disasters. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that evolution (adaptation) is occurring over periods of even a few hundred years. Possibly, our natural affinity for the local (family, tribe etc.) will evolve at some point into an affinity for ever wider circles of people.

      Reply

  13. swabby429 Says:

    Representative snippets heard around breakfast tables, anywhere…

    Reply

  14. gpcox Says:

    I’m tired of being my brother’s keeper in fighting their wars for them. The natural disasters are becoming more intense and we should concentrate on caring for the people involved in those – we can’t be everywhere at once.

    Reply

  15. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Seems I’ve been a part of similar dialogue in the past, although the one you have written here is quite exceptional ~ and the use of the thoughts of Adam Smith feels good. I am happy about this.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Dalo. So many people have only heard of Adam Smith through his book ‘The Wealth of Nations’, but his ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ was meant as a companion volume and is very under appreciated.

      Reply

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