Imagining other lives: the first step towards justice

An ad for the Audi A6 is more insightful than the company realizes. The copy says:

The roads are underfunded by $450 billion.

With the right car, you may never notice.

The ad is a twist on the adage, Out of sight, out of mind. The idea is that if I don’t know about it, who cares? I’ve gotten mine, and that’s all that matters. Many decent people go through life unmoved by conditions around them because they are riding in cars that smooth out the bumps in the road. If others’ cars aren’t as good and the drivers have to deal with rutted roads, well, that’s their problem.

The thinking often continues along these lines: I am entitled to what I have; if others don’t have what I have it is because they aren’t as deserving. Furthermore, more car costs a fortune and other have clunkers. Why should my money go to building good roads?  If those who drive clunkers want smooth rides, no one is stopping them from buying better cars or working harder or saving more so they can afford one, but don’t ask me to underwrite their riding better by raising my taxes.

There is an ancient story that makes the point that only when we confront conditions directly does our sense of compassion expand.  One version of the story goes this way: Siddhartha Gautama was a pampered prince who lived his youth behind the walls of his family palace in India. Siddhartha’s attention was focused on palace life. He married and was destined to inherit his father’s kingdom. But just before turning 30, Siddhartha insisted on seeing what the lives of his subjects was like. Despite efforts to dissuade him from venturing into the streets, Siddhartha set out on a brief journey that changed his life and set the course for one of the world’s great religions, Buddhism.

On his venture, Siddhartha was shocked by what he saw, things that had been kept from his view. First, there was an old man, then a very sick person and finally a corpse. What he saw moved him and he identified with the common plight of humanity. The prince realized that he couldn’t continue to live his life has he had and renounced his royal title and changed his life to live fully with compassion.

In The Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith makes a similar point. “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” Adam exhorts the reader to put himself in another’s place. “By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”

This excerpt may come as a surprise to those who know Smith only as the avatar of capitalism. While he was that, he also knew that capitalism worked only as long as people engaged their moral imaginations.

One of the calamities of modern life is how the widening gap between the wealthy of the world and the rest of humanity is insulating the rich from the lives of the rest of the world. Without fellow-feeling, the accumulation of wealth becomes a selfish pursuit, one that turns its back on those who live on the other side of the gated community, those who drive clunkers or can’t afford cars at all.

As Smith points out, without mutual sympathy there are great injustices in the world. The Audi ad makes that clear enough.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s