Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Mass Suffering and Algonomy

Shankar Vedantam wrote an article in the Washington Post of January 5, 2009: Mass Suffering and Why We Look the Other Way. He tells us about psychologist Paul Slovic's work "showing people's tendency to intervene in situations in which they can save all or most of the victims, but to turn away from situations in which they cannot help most of the victims."

Slovic often showed how presenting the case of one single victim tends to elicit much more compassion and rescuing action than presenting the case of one million victims. Various observations, explanations and solutions are explored in relation to that vexing phenomenon. Algonomy offers another point of view. It is impossible for us to care in an organized or systematic way about all those who suffer too much, as long as there is no algonomic framework that allows us to do so. Meanwhile, we can only care for a person that inspires pity, or for a few fellows who need our help to a reasonable extent, or for this or that group of people that happens to fall within our very particular professional or philanthropic concern...

Now, algonomy does offer a framework in which people can care for all those who might suffer too much (including themselves and their loved ones). The only problem, seemingly, is that people are unable until now to acknowledge that there is a clear and present possibility to manage suffering, the whole of suffering, collectively. Why do they seem unable to do so? I suggest it is not a question of numbing numbers in this case, though magnitude may be used as one of many convenient excuses. I suggest that the problem is simply of accepting a new challenging idea.