I was recently having a conversation with people about a photograph which was posted depicting a dead man lying on the streets and a queue of people running up to a financial institution right beside him. The picture was captioned somewhat as the people have become so desensitized due to the overwhelming desperation and frustration that they can stand in a queue running up to a bank....

I argued that people were not desensitized to the corpse but were already desensitized beforehand....and this is a result of today's cosmopolitan society....I also argued that if people were empathetic then an event such as the one which made people queue up before banks would not polarize them towards the opposite end....at which point I was told I know nothing about human behavior....

So I decided what I was arguing about was about collectivism individualism how empathy relates to either of the two and how external pressure can have a polarizing effect....

Also I do not have a background in psychology...so I may be wrong in my argument...can someone please suggest some reading material and/or provide their comments?

  • If you follow the basic thread in Kant's ethics, I think it takes the position that empathy is an automatic effect of collectivism that makes us defend individualism. Within the bounds of his own assumptions he basically finds "Act according to what everyone could theoretically agree upon" equivalent to "Respect autonomy implicitly."
    – user9166
    Dec 4, 2016 at 23:50

1 Answer 1


Second guessing your question away, I think this is not about collectivism or individualism, it is about sense and sentimentalism. The most collectivist thing one might be able to do in a world where everyone encounters the dying might be to tone down your reaction to death, so that fewer of those around you feel guilty about it. This may not be individualism, and in fact, expecting others to care about your dead may simply be selfish, if there is no chance that all the dead can be adequately considered.

You might want to look at this from a sort of 'Desmond Morris' point of view. What is the cultural and biological message sent by sensitivity to the dead and dying. I would suggest that it is a sign that one's lineage has the luxury of demanding unnecessary actions of individuals to protect the group. We carefully process the dead and dying because they are a public health risk. But sending that signal is unwise when it stops being true. At that point, it is equally collectivist to require this natural impulse be suppressed.

We like to think of the harshness of traditional masculinity as a form of individualism, if not outright selfishness. But from a point of view put forward by pacifist feminists like Starhawk, it arises most clearly in the context of the service of war, which is a gift of oneself to an extraordinary level of collectivism.

Putting these two (who would probably never agree) together, sentimentalism has a social purpose, and so does resisting it. The former sends the message "We have resources that will go to waste unless we share them", the latter sends the message "We need to ration logically, even if that logic is somewhat inhumane." They are both empathic, one directly and the other less so. But both are collectivist impulses, and both limit genuine individualism.

Returning to the original perspective, modern cosmopolitan society is, from Starhawk's point of view, brainwashed into an impending feeling that scarcity lurks around every corner, and efficiency is therefore required for the common good. So it chooses the path of limiting oneself prematurely, chooses rights over responsibilities, and delays attending to broader shared needs. But that is a communal position. It presses those with more idiosyncratic individual impulses to deny them.

These people are in line to get money, they have resources, they could spend those resources on removing the obstacles presented to those who are more subject to their externalizing impulses. But they don't -- it would not be efficient, there will just be more dead bodies tomorrow -- and they have the right to pursue their chosen responsibilities first. They are communally choosing to make a space where that right is honored. If one of them broke from the mold, they would all be less stable.

So I would argue that we are not already desensitized, or that everyone is, and the choice indicates something different.

As the documentary 'Cowspiracy' demonstrates graphically, those in prior eras would expect any grown man to be able to behead a chicken without a second thought. And most of our modern, cosmopolitan peers just can't.

At the same time, most ancient folks would never sacrifice their religious solidarity and walk past a dead body just to get something practical, unless under severe duress. Their shared responsibility to God trumps efficiency, the same way our shared responsibility to efficiency makes us explain away our natural revulsion as superstitious.

  • Thank you for the answer..This presented me with a fresh perspective and indeed a more rational one/ Would you be able to suggest some reading material where I can follow up on the same? Kant's ethics? Dec 5, 2016 at 15:38
  • The comment above and the answer are unrelated, one addresses the heading, the other the content -- obviously, given that the answer deconstructs your example instead of answering your question, I didn't see where the two fit together.
    – user9166
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:49
  • I found myself writing several long comments, so I put their content into the answer. Kant (in the short form or second-hand), Morris and Starhawk are all great folks to read in general. But this case is a very tiny part of any of their main arguments.
    – user9166
    Dec 5, 2016 at 18:22

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