A glance at any good newspaper makes it clear that there are many terrible things happening in the world, that millions of people are suffering. Despite this, I find myself quite capable of sleeping at night. This is surely proof that I am an appallingly callous man, and that I fully deserve to be flogged to the parish boundary. Oddly though, I donít think that I am a rare thing.
A degree of callousness is human. I believe that we evolved it. By and large, if we have a word for an emotion or lack of one, it is an evolved thing. Callousness one might say is the lack of disturbing empathy for those who suffer. There are certain behaviours which we are generally agreed are bad. Rape and murder are good examples. These are frowned on all round the world. If someone close to us is the victim of such a behaviour, we feel fury, grief, vengeful, depressed, or whatever. The point is that we feel bad; we feel disturbed from our usual temperate calm, and sleep comes to us less easily.
Many people today do charitable work, and this is a good thing. Some irritating individuals, however, try to turn themselves into saints by going to great lengths to be seen to be so much more caring than the rest of us. ďI just feel so terrible about the troubles in Afghanistan,Ē they say, as they help themselves to more cake. Sometimes it seems that there is a competition to be more upset by things than other people. The winners prove themselves to be better people by being more upset. I really doubt that people suffering in one country are much helped by people the other side of the worldís worrying about them. I have more praise for those who donate some money to the cause, and then happily get on with their lives.
If you read about a grisly murder which happens in some far flung foreign land, do you lose sleep? If not, does this make you a bad person? Iíd say no. Iíd say that evolution has done you and the rest of us a favour, by making you feel upset only by things closer to home. Try as you might to lose sleep over something which doesnít affect you, you will fail. Hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene who were too upset to go hunting, every time they heard a nasty story, didnít do very well. Those who didnít care that the people immediately around them were suffering, didnít do well either. Evolution naturally favoured people who got upset when it was beneficial to them to be upset.
If you read about how some madmen in Distantia killed ten children, then there is some way you can get yourself upset about it. You can do this by relating the event to yourself. You can think to yourself that the world still has nastiness in it, and that perhaps someone where you live might go similarly mad, and threaten your children. You can then think about how dreadful it would be if something were to happen to your children, and by this method you might with some effort manage to upset yourself. Assuming that you are sane, it would be some impressive feat of will power if you really could lose sleep over it. You would be upsetting yourself. The crime did not upset you directly. If you fail to get upset, you should think no less of yourself. Your instincts are functioning correctly if you sleep soundly.
Thatís how Iím able to sleep at night despite reading about rail crashes, hijacking, robbery, and worse. I am biologically incapable of getting very upset over things that donít affect me. This is terribly selfish. You can do what you like as long as you donít affect me personally, and Iíll still snore like a tractor.
But if you rape my sister, I will not sleep until I have killed you.
Written by Nikolas Lloyd