Are There Limits To Compassion?

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

This is a question that’s been on my mind lately. I heard somewhere that people can only maintain a certain number of healthy, close interpersonal relationships at any given time. Outside of that limit, people fall to the level of acquaintance or vaguely recognized person. If that’s true, does this mean there’s a limit on compassion?

People make moral decisions more often than they might realize. Going to the store, I could buy a cheap orange for a few cents. That orange had to get put on the shelf, taken from a truck, hauled from a warehouse, picked from a tree, and the tree needed planting. All of that requires people to get paid for that time and effort. Paying people less than they can live on can reduce costs to the point where the orange I buy is cheaper than the orange I don’t buy. In a way, I’m supporting keeping people in poverty. But that’s not what I see on the shelf. I just see an orange.

It’s hard for me to recognize and care about all the people I might hurt indirectly. On a long enough timeline, perhaps anything could hurt anyone else. There isn’t enough time to weigh all the consequences. If everyone did that, we’d all be paralyzed by indecision. So, in order to just keep moving forward in time, everyone makes decisions with incomplete reflection and in varying degrees of ignorance.

Is there any way to overcome this? I used to think that expanding access to information might help, but I’m beginning to doubt that. Take a look at Twitter. People can get condemned for anything these days, or celebrated for anything. Human attention appears to be so fickle. We’re these apes with machine guns, able to end lives far more efficiently than improving them. Everyone can get into an argument over the color of a fucking dress; nobody can form a consensus on how we should help people who are homeless and starving.

Is this because we have physical limits on treating people well? Is that limitation an excuse or something that can be overcome? The answer I want isn’t the answer I’m getting.