Monday, April 19, 2010

Effective Compassion

Each semester in my Economics of Compassion class I teach students about Adam Smith and his two prominent books: Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith was primarily a moral philosopher in case you were unaware. To illustrate Smith's ideas of sympathy and how each of us would react differently I ask the following questions:

1. Do you know someone in need?

2. What do they need? Can you design a plan that would help them?

Then I ask students to contact someone else familiar with the situation and ask them how they would approach helping the person in need. Do they come up with the same plan? Sometimes the plans contain similar ingredients, but, sometimes they are quite different. This is with intimate knowledge of the situation! Now, imagine you had to design a plan to help many many many people, each with unique needs that you don't know very well, and you had to design the plan in a committee. Could you do it?

This is the question: What information and attitude is necessary for effective compassion? Can compassion be produced on a large scale through big plans? Or, does compassion need to be searched out by people with local knowledge?

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