The Walls Between Us: How We Limit Our Compassion


A man is woken by the heavy engines and slamming doors of delivery trucks. It is a frosty morning in a wintertime city somewhere. The clothes he has on are the same he has been wearing for months, and he hasn’t been able to safely bathe in over a week. There is a place that provides hot meals a few blocks away, but it won’t open its doors until late this afternoon. More than the cold and hunger, it is the loneliness that gets to him. He wishes he hadn’t woken up.

A girl arises before the rest of her family in a mud hut in a hot, dry place. She has a long day ahead of her, so she must begin early and with haste. There is water to fetch, and animals to tend to, and when her father and brothers wake up, they will expect a meal to be prepared for them. Her brothers will go to school and play with their friends on the way home. If she works hard and her father is in a good mood, she will not be beaten today. If she has company on her walk to the well, she may not be ambushed and raped. She can’t imagine a very different life for a woman. She only wishes she weren’t treated with such contempt and could go to school like the others. Then she could imagine a better life.

Out into the calamitous environment he had only been able to hear before, a newborn struggles to his feet among the crowd – a miniature crowd, all chirping for someone who should be there but isn’t. They are all suddenly pitched about inside their plastic tray as they are carried to and deposited on a conveyor belt of rollers with gaps between them. The chick is terrified as his feet slip down between two metal rollers and he calls out, repeatedly, for the presence that hasn’t shown itself yet. Onto another conveyor belt below, he drops onto several others chicks and tries to right himself. He barely has time to focus his new but well-developed senses on anything, before hands much bigger than him maul him, checking feather lengths, and tossing him down into the oblivion of a dark shoot. He is gliding down polished metal, buffeted off other chicks, rivets, and the sides of the shoot. He cries out in vain. The presence he is calling for isn’t there. He has barely hatched and started his little life before consciousness will be put out painfully in the grinder, or less mercifully, in a skip of other dying and dead chicks. He is the waste by-product of a global, industrial food system.

The first story is easily recognisable to many of us, especially those who live in a big city. It may be that they stand out for not moving in the midst of ever-moving human traffic. Although they may be dressed in ordinary clothes, there may be a defeated anguish in their faces, or humiliation, as they hold up a container, hoping for a trickle of other people’s shame or pity, the compromise we make that we know isn’t enough. Not everyone does feel compassion for the homeless person they see on the street. Some are completely cut off from their plight, even disdainful. Some people tell themselves that you get to where you are on your own steam alone, so that your misfortune, too, can only be attributed to your own lack. Whether that is also a mechanism to shield ourselves from guilt or of the dissonance that doing nothing causes for those of us with a nice self-identity is another question, but I will assume that most people have at least some compassion in the face of homeless people’s proximity and a sense of our own potential vulnerability to homelessness.

The second story stars a child in a poor community where there is a large gap between the rights of women and men and many parents don’t allow their girls to attend school, believing the role of women is to stay at home and serve the family. Hers may not be as familiar as the story of the hungry or ill child that you have probably seen many times on television around an appeal for donations to organisations like Concern or Sightsavers (which, incidentally, it is all too easy for us to ignore as well). She may not be hungry, but for that, she has gone unseen for a longer time. Her plight is often presented in the form of statistics. Her life is very different from yours, perhaps. To relate to her condition, probably requires a force of will that wouldn’t be required for someone who looks, thinks, and lives near you. Or maybe you are a very empathic person and it isn’t hard at all.

But how about the last story? The protagonist is not a “person” in the traditional sense of the word. There is little doubt about the sentience of complex animals like chickens in the world of life sciences [see the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness], and we are learning more and more about the emotions and intelligence of different species with every new paper either asking a question about their nature directly, or using them instrumentally to answer questions that may apply to humans, or brains in general, and discovering more about the experimentee indirectly. Before Descarte and his assertion that nonhumans were automata who felt no pain and whose cries were merely mechanical responses to “stimula”, people widely assumed that nonhuman animals do have feelings and thoughts. They were more inclined to anthropomorphise animals than take them for fleshy robots. Whether Descartes sincerely believe his assertion is irrelevant to the fact that it was immensely influential to how we viewed animals in the occidental tradition from the seventeenth century up until recently, especially among those who fancied themselves hard-nosed scientists and rationalists. But after a revolution in the animal sciences, the expert view has changed. At this time, it appears that consciousness evolved long before humans, dogs, and even animals like vertebrate fish. It may have first arisen in invertebrates, like the insects and cephalopod molluscs.

But accepting that others feel as we do when they are hurt, sad, afraid, or lonely, is insufficient to cause us to act compassionately when prejudice and tribal psychology numb our compassion for anyone who we consider to fall outside the circle of the “deserving”: the ones who we deem to matter, to have rights, to have value. Where we lay down the border between those who we ought to care for and those we ought not, is overwhelmingly determined by the culture we belong to. And generally, the more like us we consider another to be, the easier it is for us to empathise with them. This is not in itself a negative thing, rather, the problem lies in the fallibility of our cultures to judge what the relevant differences and similarities are.

Humans are tribal by nature. We evolved a capacity to behave cooperatively within groups against other groups in competitive environments with limited resources. This tribal tendency afforded us an advantage that let us out-compete non-cooperative individuals, but since the world was always a perilous place where competition was also necessary to survive, we had to have a limit on our instinctive cooperativeness. (For more on the evolution of human tribal thinking, read Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes.) Lines would be drawn where family ties were diluted or where territories met. Nowadays, they are drawn in the same places and many more: where skin tones, cultures, religions, nationalities, languages, ideologies, genders, orientations, abilities, social classes, music tastes, ages, aesthetics, and species differ. But which, if any, of these is related to the moral value of a being? And why?

Most liberal minds don’t have a problem accepting that “doing harm” is a fairly good approximation of immorality (there is more debate over whether doing harm through inaction – such as, not helping the homeless when it’s within your power – can be as immoral as doing harm through action, but that’s for another discussion). However, the vast majority of people would agree with the idea that some forms of harm or killing are not immoral, because the victims of the harm are not in themselves morally relevant, or at the very most, not morally relevant enough to make hurting them or killing them immoral acts. But what part of an individual is hurt or offended in the first place?

The very fact of being human does not necessitate the ability to be hurt or offended. Dead or brain-dead humans, though unquestionably human by definition, nonetheless lack the capacity to experience anything, included pain, suffering, or affront. The goldfish in the tank of the hospital reception room have more sentience than the brain-dead human lain in the ward. Prick them both with a needle, and it is only in the goldfish that there will be an experience of pain, and probably fright and the wish to flee to safety. The colour, shape, sex, and DNA of the goldfish is irrelevant to it in that moment of pain and fear, just as it is irrelevant in that human who has a different set of beliefs, orientation, culture, different physical or intellectual abilities, or any other characteristics peripheral to their abilities to suffer. The experiences of pain and the wish to go on living rather than dying evolved long before humans did, and though everyone experiences and deals with pain in the medium of our distinct bodies and minds, pain is biologically a consistent phenomenon and universally repellent. It is the existence of that capacity in an individual that should be key to distinguishing who is enough like me to be considered morally relevant to me and deserving of compassion (or, at the very least, my respect).

I used the three examples at the beginning of this article to give you a rough idea of a scale where you might delineate the limits to your compassion (alter it according to your current worldview). All of us have limits. Wherever we find we draw the line, with the knowledge of how happenstance our moral thinking can be, and if we care about our morality, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves why we draw the line there and whether or not it could handle a bit of nudging outwards. We have a responsibility not to be too complacent about our current conception of the world, and instead, be sensitively analytical and curiously open-minded about new information which may reveal the plights of beings who have resided, as yet, under out moral radar.


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