Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Measurement of Misfortunes Revisited

A few days after posting Mark Twain and the Measurement of Misfortunes, I realized something obvious that I’d overlooked for years: The bad habit of seeking an external yardstick by which to measure, compare and disregard human pain and suffering—well examined by Twain in that quoted material—is the basis for a reductio ad absurdum.

The reduction is straightforward: If the pain or suffering of any person can be denied significance because someone else (call them person two) is suffering, or has suffered, more as measured by some external metric, then it follows that if anyone can be found who has suffered more than person two, then person two’s suffering is also of no significance. Repeat this process with that external metric long enough and, given a sufficiently broad knowledge of human misfortune, in principle one person (whether actual or archetypal) can always be plausibly identified as having suffered worse than any other human being. Thus, through this process, and by the logic of the external metric (whatever it happens to be), the pain or suffering of only one person in the entire world matters, and the experiences of the remainder of humanity have no significance.

It’s an obvious absurdity, but a convenient one for anyone disinclined to empathy: by defining a metric—any metric—to judge the relative importance of anyone’s pain or suffering, their empathy can be reserved for just one person in the entire world, who they’ll probably never meet. Thus the wielders of such metrics may, in practice, forever absolve themselves of the exercise of empathy.

(Admittedly, few people employ any idea with absolute consistency, so I’ve constructed a scenario that is, by and large, artificial in its purity, but I believe my critique of this mode of thought is correct – the fact that its adherents will tend to apply it inconsistently is good [the less it is applied, the better], but that in no way diminishes the error inherent in such thinking.)

Any behavior, mental or otherwise, tends to serve some purpose for the person employing it. In this case, that raises the disturbing question: what purposes might be served by, or benefits derived from, an individual’s elimination of empathy? I leave that to the contemplation of the reader.

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