A plane in Malaysia has gone missing and everyone is presuming…you know. Aside from the obvious tragedy that goes along with the loss of any human life, I always find it interesting that news outlets frame a story like this by how many Americans may or may not have been on board. I don’t fault them for it, it genuinely is what Americans are interested in knowing. I won’t get into a discussion of what’s ethical in how we should care about different peoples. Instead, I think it’s useful to focus on how this phenomenon has broader implications.
David Hume had “Concentric Circles of Loyalty and Empathy” that basically observed this: if I was told my pinky finger was going to be cut off tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to sleep; if I was told five people halfway around the world that I have never met and know nothing about are going to die, I probably wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Then there’s everything in between. Generally speaking, people care about themselves the most. If you want to get annoying about it we can say the first concentric circle is one’s immediate family. After that, you go outward to tribe, village, country, and then all of humanity. Hume observed this centuries ago and I think it’s still largely true.
But there’s a new reality that changes it. Because of globalization, we are more connected to those five people halfway across the world. We might know more about their country, do business with them, or see them on the news. Even the simplest exposure can make us feel more connected and empathetic to them. Jagdish Bhagwati argued in his book In Defense of Globalization that globalization itself fuels most anti-globalization. Globalization has made people empathize more with those starving kids in Africa, so westerners now want to stop a force that allegedly causes those children to starve. If we didn’t feel connected to them, they’d be out in a concentric circle totally irrelevant to us. Today, I think the concentric circles are getting more and more mushed together.
I’ve always found the “buy American” or “buy local” movements to be steeped in a weird nationalism exposing people’s allegiance to group identities. There’s more to these than just “looking out for your people” (people might trust American goods more than Chinese ones or buy local thinking it reduces environmental harm from shipping, for example). But when people tell me they follow these mantras I’m always forced to ask “why should I care more about Americans or people in Austin/Scotland/Chicago?” After all, buying anything is local somewhere. If I buy American for the sake of buying from people whom I share a passport that signifies an arbitrary identity caused by legal borders, I’m just discriminating against people of other nationalities.
As people get richer I think we have less reason to be distrusting. I don’t assume people are going to rob me, the guy I give my credit card to is going to steal my info, or that a product online will show up at my house completely different than the description. It could be that long ago we cared most about our family then tribe then village etc because we knew them best and felt a connection. We felt we could trust them. Perhaps it was a instinctual defense mechanism.
But I don’t think it’s necessary anymore. We do business with people all around the world, we marry people from all around the world, live amongst people from all around the world, experience media from all around the world. It only makes sense that as people feel more connected the concentric circles become blurrier. Humanity is humanity, and hopefully these national borders will become more arbitrary.