Compassion as Luxury II

ColourOfParadise 225Yesterday I posted on Compassion as Luxury.

As a physician and a biologist, as well as a guy who is improvising his way through life like everyone else, I have come to believe we don’t pay enough attention to the animal, visceral motors that drive us. Those biological drivers, and our ignorance of them, cause unending problems.  There are, of course, those who insist that we are entirely logical animals, that we are John Locke’s pure tabulae rasae, all nurture, no nature.

We’ll talk about that as we go.

But to my point on compassion, I find it interesting that fundamentalists excoriate Charles Darwin.  Because to my mind, the real villain — if we are to blame the messenger — is one Thomas Malthus.  As an English cleric, Malthus would have probably rejected Darwinism as heresy even though he proved essential to it.

In Malthus’s Essay on the Principal of Population* he points out that animals, including people, eventually reproduce beyond their resources.  For humans, that means expanding our numbers beyond the food that the Earth can possibly produce.  It doesn’t matter how much land we farm, it doesn’t matter how efficiently we produce food.  It doesn’t matter if we colonize the whole universe.  If something does not restrain us, we will reproduce more people — more children — than food.  Which creates a very ugly game of musical chairs.

I was thinking about this in the clinic the other day, when a profoundly handicapped man came in with one of his two full-time caretakers.  Government pays for his caretakers; for his food, clothing, necessities and perhaps a small amount for entertainment; for his sizeable medical and other therapy bills; and for the bureaucracy that manages all of it.  And of course, because Medicare doesn’t pay the full medical sticker price, some  of the cost is padded on to everyone else’s bill.  The total amount would probably support two or more families comfortably.  Or to put it another way, since the average household pays about 20-25% of its income in taxes, supporting that one man requires all of the taxes from 8 or 10 households.

I’m not  complaining.  I, like most people, don’t want to consider any other option.  But it doesn’t matter; Malthus is sitting in the background, and if our system fails, he steps in.  Most scholars curse Social Darwinism, which is the idea that the poor and the weak should be allowed to die.  But ironically Social Darwinism didn’t need Darwin.  It could have been Social Malthusianism.

What would happen to that handicapped man if our country weren’t so incredibly wealthy?  I remember a film that came out years ago, The Colour of Paradise.  I think anyone concerned about the human condition should have to watch it.

But only once.  It is beautiful, but heart-breaking.

It takes place in Iran, which is also the home of the nomads  in my previous post.  The story revolves around Mohammed, a blind boy whose mother dies.  He is adored by his sisters and grandmother, but his father sees him as an obstacle to obtaining a good marriage.  The boy wonders why God does not love him and made him blind, and he constantly searches the plants and nature around him, trying to find the Braille message God might have left for him.  Finally while traveling with his father, the boy falls into a rapid river — another similarity with the story of the nomads — and for a few moments his father simply watches, relieved to be free of his burden.  He eventually jumps in the water to save the boy, but he is too late.

Most of us would never watch a child, even one with a profound handicap, drowning without jumping in to save him.  I could not.  But as a biologist let me ask an ugly question:  Did the father make the right decision?  If you find that repulsive,  let me change it.  What about the nomads in the previous post?  Should they let a blind child drown?

Most of us could never consider such a thing.  But for people living hand-to-mouth, with absolutely no luxury, would the sin be in letting the child die?

Or if the cost of supporting a child who cannot contribute threatens a tribe surviving at the fringes, is the sin in saving him?

There is a reason economics is called ‘The Dismal Science.’  Animals, including humans, who do not make tough economic decisions perish.  It is only in the last few decades that we have had sufficient luxury to escape ugly realities.  But the instincts, and the traditions, are still with us.  That is why we need to consider those hard realities, so that we might design strategies around them, and address human  suffering.

*The full title is “Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, Printed for J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1798.”  St. Paul’s Church-yard, London.  Not exactly a model of brevity. The complete essay can be read at

Picture is of Mohsen Ramezani, playing Mohammed in The Colour of Paradise.  © 1999, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.


  1. Durl

    Your post brings to mind these lines that were near the end of “Three Days of The Condor”. “Higgins” was played by Cliff Robertson, “Joe Turner” was played by Robert Redford:

    Higgins: It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
    Joe Turner: Ask them?
    Higgins: Not now – then! Ask ’em when they’re running out. Ask ’em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ’em when their engines stop. Ask ’em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ’em. They’ll just want us to get it for ’em!

    Higgins was right. When the population of the Earth causes a tipping point in one of our critical resources (food, water, power, …), citizens won't care about the residents of other countries or continents.

    Food or fresh water seem to be the most likely essentials that an overpopulated planet will fight over.

    • Bookscrounger

      I’m not sure we even have to go that far. Your comment gave me an idea for a post, I’ve added it to my list of upcoming entries. Thanks, Darrell.

      • Durl

        As you know, lack of resources will not follow a linear decline. It will be a sharp curve at some point, and that’s when true panic will ensue.

  2. Charlie Beckett

    Compassion is always a luxury. To believe otherwise is folly. A man or a family or a clan or a nation can only be compassionate to the extent that its own survival is not at stake. Most are not compassionate beyond the point at which their own comfort is at stake. The most compassionate people are almost universally far removed from any real strife. Only the deluded or foolish will give away resources necessary to their own survival.

    • Bookscrounger

      I agree, with one proviso: there are those altruists who will sacrifice their own lives in compassion for others. Which brings up two interesting questions:
      1) Are those people crazy, are they aberrations?
      2) If so, why do we build monuments to — and even religions around — crazy people?
      It’s an interesting consideration.

      • collin237

        A more important question is why would it even be suggested that they’re aberrations? All the major religions would agree that such people are heros, performing the ultimate human achievement.

        Are you worried about what science would say? Science has nothing to say either way about what’s good or bad. That’s a question that only religion can answer.

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