Faraway Places

When Turkish fans jeered and booed during a minute’s silence held at the start of a football match between Turkey and Greece in November last year, some saw it as support for terrorism and as an insult to those who died or were injured at the hands of terrorists in Paris a few days earlier. More likely it was a protest against unequal and hypocritical treatment, since there were no similar moments of solidarity in Western Europe when more than 100 people were killed by terrorists a month or so earlier in Ankara.

It is a sad fact that all kinds of proximity make a difference to how we feel about events. Geography, family, tribe, culture, language, gender, race, religion – all bring us closer to, or distance us from, others’ suffering and joy.

Though technology has shrunk the world, the emotional impact of events in distant places is still diminished by distance. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain could speak disparagingly of a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. You’d have to travel further from London to be ‘far away’ in today’s world, but clearly what happens in Ankara hurts us less than what happens in Paris, even if it should not. The distance from Number Ten to Prague is still just a thousand miles, but London and Prague are closer than they were, especially since 1989. Indeed, events all over Western Europe are closer than they were, closer not only because physical access is easier but because there are more bases for solidarity – our ‘European’ way of life has converged on a liberal democratic model, we’re all seeking ‘ever closer union’, and we all have a strong shared sense of ‘European values’ (sadly, I am being facetious, but I wish it were so!).

A far away man


I was thinking about all this yesterday when reading an article on the BBC News website by Sarah Dunant about having too much money. The article was inspired by the leaking of the Panama Papers. She was curious about why people with vast amounts of money squirrel it away in far away places. But what interested me was her reference to Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher. He’s most famous for his work on animal rights, but has recently been promoting the idea of ‘effective altruism’, urging the rich to give their money away, but not necessarily to causes that are ‘close’ to them:

Broadly based on utilitarianism – he argues that if our decisions about our behaviour and use of money were based on how to effect the greatest good for the greatest number, then once we had what we needed we would simply give the rest away. But not necessarily to the causes we might naturally feel closest to. His definition of altruism here is not interested in feeling – indeed he argues that empathy can be dangerous simply because it can be manipulated, but rather adherence to a guiding moral principle.

This seems an odd idea to me, or, putting it another way, an unrealistic and unnatural one. Such ‘guiding moral principles’ would surely demand that we give our family and friends no special status, let alone our colleagues, compatriots, or co-religionists . But moral calculation can’t be a cold and technical affair, the application of principles from a distance. The basis for morality, to my mind, lies in ‘feeling’, our instinctive identification with others and with their pleasures and suffering. It’s this that also makes us hear noise as speech and meaning, and makes the brain the mind. ‘Effective altruism’ could have no underlying ‘engine’ if it must be separate from these feelings, and these feelings are inevitably stronger when identification is made easier by proximity in one form or another. That’s not to say that equal moral weight should not be given to Ankara and to Paris, but it is to understand why it doesn’t happen and never will unless the far away places come yet closer.


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