by Ryan Streeter on August 28, 2013. Follow Ryan on Twitter.
Ever wondered why you feel great pain when a friend suffers but you hardly flinch when you hear of some great tragedy overseas? The Scottish moral and economic philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith figured out in the 18th century that our moral judgments and habits are formed largely through the sympathy we feel with others.
Their work was not only important in shaping the political economy we Americans live in today, it has been validated over and again. My favorite modern distillation of this view is J.Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense.
The study finds:
that our brains don’t differentiate between what happens to someone emotionally close to us and ourselves, and also that we seem neurally incapable of generating anything close to that level of empathy for strangers.
This is why having people of noble character around us while we’re growing up matters so much. We start to associate with them. And they help us broaden out our sense of sympathy beyond what is natural to us.