Sunday, June 1, 2008


"One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic."
-Josef Stalin

It is often assumed that in order to be rational, a person must repress their emotions. Although our initial impulses will often lead us to unwise actions, in many situations we are actually unable to feel to a degree that is appropriate to the scale of a circumstance. Our emotions basically arise from a complex mixture of neurotransmitters in our brains, of which there are only a fixed amount available at any time. For example, the death of a loved one can cause deep and lasting pain, but a person's response to hearing of the deaths of ten thousand in a distant country is usually transitive, if they respond at all. We are physically unable to scale up our emotions to that level, to even glimpse what means for ten thousand people to lose their best friends, compared to what we would feel if we lost ours. This limitation also robs us of the ability to appreciate much of the beauty around us. The motions of the planets through the sky once mystified humanity for millenia, and now we have the explanation for this and many other phenomena at our local libraries, if not at our fingertips. Throughout history this property of our minds has been adaptive as people would simply go insane if their emotions could accurately reflect the magnitude of such events. Also, it was often beyond human power to do anything about tragedies like disease and starvation until recent times. Today, we are at the threshold of developing technologies that could alleviate so much of the suffering in the world. We have to rely on our intellects to develop these technologies quickly and safely without motivation appropriate to the scale of what's at stake from our emotions. I can not feel what the fact that 150,000 people die every day really means. It's not my fault that I can't, yet it bothers me anyway.

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