“Mikhail, humankind isn’t just some abstraction. To love humanity, you must start by loving individual persons, by fulfilling your responsibility to those you love.

– Cixin Liu, Death’s End

‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,‘he said, ‘I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.’” “But

– Fyodor Dosteyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Can you love humanity and hate individual people? The English language says no: “misanthrope” means someone who hates individuals, and its etymological opposite “philanthrope” means someone who loves humankind enough to do great works on its behalf.

As an economist might frame the question, must the macro rest on microfoundations?

The converse, too, is interesting though very common. Many of us feel love for individuals and remain unmoved by the suffering of the masses. Much hortatory ink has been spilled attempting to convince people of the essential wrongness or hypocrisy of this position.

But we tend to overlook the other direction. Can you be rude to your waiter, indifferent to your children, and still love humanity deeply, still devote yourself to its improvement for unselfish reasons?

I don’t really have much to add here, but was struck by how these two works, with such different subject matters, both consider this a key question.

An interesting set of data points1 comes from Scott Alexander’s gonzo journalism trip to EA Global 2017. One of the deepest strains in the Effective Altruism movement is an attempt to quantify suffering so that it can more effectively be prevented, and Scott relates three anecdotes suggesting that leaders of this movement are actually driven by an almost paralyzing empathy on an individual level: not just to people but to worms, and even, for Derek Parfit, empathy for the very idea of suffering.

I think the effective altruists are genuinely good people.

Over lunch, a friend told me about his meeting with an EA philosopher who hadn’t been able to make it to the conference. This friend had met the philosopher, and as they were walking, the philosopher had stopped to pick up worms writhing on the sidewalk and put them back in the moist dirt.

And this story struck me, because I had taken a walk with one of the speakers earlier, and seen her do the same thing. She had been apologetic, said she knew it was a waste of her time and mine. She’d wondered if it was pathological, whether maybe she needed to be checked for obsessive compulsive disorder. But when I asked her whether she wanted to stop doing it, she’d thought about it a little, and then – finally – saved the worm.

And there was a story about the late great moral philosopher Derek Parfit, himself a member of the effective altruist movement. This is from Larissa MacFarquhar:

As for his various eccentricities, I don’t think they add anything to an understanding of his philosophy, but I find him very moving as a person. When I was interviewing him for the first time, for instance, we were in the middle of a conversation and suddenly he burst into tears. It was completely unexpected, because we were not talking about anything emotional or personal, as I would define those things. I was quite startled, and as he cried I sat there rewinding our conversation in my head, trying to figure out what had upset him. Later, I asked him about it. It turned out that what had made him cry was the idea of suffering. We had been talking about suffering in the abstract. I found that very striking.

Now, I don’t think any professional philosopher is going to make this mistake, but nonprofessionals might think that utilitarianism, for instance (Parfit is a utilitarian), or certain other philosophical ways of think about morality, are quite unemotional, quite calculating, quite cold; and so because as I am writing mostly for nonphilosophers, it seemed like a good corrective to know that for someone like Parfit these issues are extremely emotional, even in the abstract.

The weird thing was that the same thing happened again with a philosophy graduate student whom I was interviewing some months later. Now you’re going to start thinking it’s me, but I was interviewing a philosophy graduate student who, like Parfit, had a very unemotional demeanor; we started talking about suffering in the abstract, and he burst into tears. I don’t quite know what to make of all this but I do think that insofar as one is interested in the relationship of ideas to people who think about them, and not just in the ideas themselves, those small events are moving and important.

I imagine some of those effective altruists, picking up worms, and I can see them here too. I can see them sitting down and crying at the idea of suffering, at allowing it to exist.

Larissa MacFarquhar says she doesn’t know what to make of this. I think I sort of do. I’m not much of an effective altruist – at least, I’ve managed to evade the 80,000 Hours coaches long enough to stay in medicine. But every so often, I can see the world as they have to. Where the very existence of suffering, any suffering at all, is an immense cosmic wrongness, an intolerable gash in the world, distressing and enraging. Where a single human lifetime seems frighteningly inadequate compared to the magnitude of the problem. Where all the normal interpersonal squabbles look trivial in the face of a colossal war against suffering itself, one that requires a soldier’s discipline and a general’s eye for strategy.

  1. Thanks to Gavin Leech for reminding me where I had read about this. The twitter hive mind is amazing.