When your pain becomes our pain

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Odds are…you personally will not suffer any ill effects from the coronavirus. But over 600,000 U.S. families have watched loved ones die, often without the hugs of family who had to say goodbye via FaceTime.

Odds are…you personally will not be killed in a grocery store by a domestic terrorist wielding an AR-style high-lethality weapon. But over 40,000 families lost a loved one to gun violence in 2020.

Odds are…you personally will get home safely tonight after driving under the influence of alcohol. But every year, 10,000 lives are lost to drunk driving and many more are injured.

Now that the Biden Administration has taken hold, the serious policy debates on such critical national priorities as Covid-19 mitigation, immigration logistics at our southern border, and high-lethality weapons [1] have come back to the foreground as the clown show recedes in many places. Let me suggest that the common element of this dialogue is the necessary emotional, ethical, religious, and logical link between the specific you and the generalized us.

Americans generally “get” this link when it comes to fire departments and armies. Because “you” may need a fire department someday, “we” are obligated to pay for it. Europeans tend to “get it” when it comes to healthcare. Americans, to a large extent, do not. Increasingly, we have even made the availability of ambulance services a “you” proposition rather than one for the community “us,” which is why a short, late-night ride to the hospital may cost you $2000 or more. I don’t need an ambulance today, and so you are going to bear a large chunk of the 24/7 fixed costs of that service if you require one today.

This blog talks a lot about the intersection of probability and ethics. In all of the cases that opened this post, the probabilistic odds of “you” being an unfortunate “lottery winner” in the coronavirus, random murder, or drunk driver “lotteries” are all quite small. But because of the mathematical Law of Large Numbers, there will be “winners” in each of these contests each and every day. [2]

Americans generally, and a particular conservative strain of American Christianity more specifically, see moral behavior as an individual choice “between me and God.” Many other societies (and other strains of religion), however, see moral behavior as a “social contract” with the collective of others in their society. My argument has long been that the latter form is how ethics evolved from the earliest days of human society, when survival itself was very much an “us” proposition.

Indeed, that prehistoric urge toward the collective good is often cited as one of the initiating factors for early-human religious expression. The “theory of mind,” where we literally grow into the ability to “feel inside the skin” of another person, is seen by some religious scholars, such as Reza Aslan, as one of “evidences of God” that humans have sought since their earliest religious quests.

Empathy, sympathy, and compassion

There are other biological sources for our moral motivations in addition our brain’s empathetic response system, for instance our logical “rule-making” brain functions. Those overlapping “hard-wired ethics” brain systems may well be at the heart of this failure to connect the “you” to the “us.”

I have described this before as the three overlapping but distinct ethical concepts of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. My preferred semantic distinction among these three words goes like this:

  1. Empathy is an innate human sensation, sometimes close to pain. It is strongly related to that aforementioned “theory of mind,” where I feel that pain because I realize that you, too, are a human like me.
  2. Sympathy is a cognitive function. It typically comes from the rational brain trying to reconcile its “decision rules” with that empathic pain. It may be addressed as simply as publicly acknowledging another’s pain.
  3. Compassion is the human action that may arise from the first two; it does something.

I like to visualize these three via a Venn diagram with three largely overlapping, yet distinct circles. You may personally possess any one, two, or all three of these qualities in differing amounts and at different times in your life:


One can literally be brought to empathetic tears at the news of a mass murder, particularly of children. But that emotion may quickly fade, and life goes on. Or your rational brain might see that news and so you verbally express a sympathetic, but hollow “Thoughts and prayers.” Most of us are at a loss to “do something” effective in compassionate response when that murder happens. We can donate money or time to causes in response, or vote in politicians to “do something” for us by proxy, and maybe shove those nagging feelings of empathy into a corner. If we are, on the other hand, an influential politician who cannot get beyond “thoughts and prayers,” then we are pretty useless.

On the other hand, I have had friends who have dedicated their lives to on-the-ground compassionate outreach to poor communities tell me that they often have to put their “empathy” urge on the shelf, in order to survive emotionally. As one memorably told me, “You realize that you can’t save everybody,” and so you need to develop a harder edge in order to continue your work.

Getting to “us”

Too many American politicians are especially weak at the “you to us/me to we” conversion. I have followed the career of retiring Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who has fashioned a reputation as a moderate conservative, ever since I met him as my new House representative in the mid-1990s in Ohio. Always the loyal Republican with a calm patrician air, he made news in 2013 when he announced his support of same-sex marriage, standing against strong party dogma at the time. His stated reason: His own son “came out” publicly as gay.

Was that a “we” decision or a “me” decision? Portman has, unfortunately, consistently failed to expand his understanding of the larger LGBTQ issues beyond his own family struggle, or perhaps has simply preferred to limit his exposure to the wrath of intolerant party hacks.

When Portman faced a series of morally laden votes during the Trump administration and into the Biden administration, even after announcing his retirement, he consistently failed the “you to us/me to we” test. He could have been an effective voice in the Senate, backing up Wyoming’s Liz Cheney and Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger in their realization that conservative patriotism and Trump authoritarianism are two very different things. But Portman preferred to quietly slink away and vote the party line. Hardly a profile in courage. He knows better.

In likely one of his final acts of Senate leadership, his coalition working on the current infrastructure bill has ruled out providing more funding to the chronically understaffed Internal Revenue Service to help generate more government revenue for building critical infrastructure. By their own studies, the IRS has determined that it under-audits taxpayers with the greatest wealth, freeing them from much of their obligations to the “commonweal.” [3]

The moral failure of our Covid response

One of my earliest memories growing up in the Eisenhower Republican 1950s was lining up with all of my fellow elementary school students to get the Salk polio vaccine injection. The collective response to achieving the “us” herd immunity required to defeat that virus was not a matter for political party arm wrestling.

Future historians will long struggle in trying to explain why, despite a strong collective effort in developing multiple safe and effective vaccines against Covid-19, one political party walked away from pushing its followers for the short cut to herd immunity provided by these vaccines. Hypocritically, this was after virtually all of the Republican politicians and Fox News personalities were personally vaccinated, many in private, including President Trump himself. The political gain of obstructing a new presidential administration by slowing the nation’s recovery was apparently seen as “worth it” to these politicians, even at the likely cost of tens of thousands of unnecessary “vaccine regret” deaths.

But then, as noted at the opening of this post, the odds of you dying of Covid-19 are relatively low. This is a numbers game by South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and others. Over 2000 people in South Dakota have died of Covid, the size of many South Dakota small towns. But the odds are that your family was not affected. Thus, if I can convince you that you were never at risk, I win, and you get to feel superior to those weaklings with masks (until you get very sick).

If you can’t see the societal good in a collective immunity that has been very much made possible by these vaccines, then you pretty much fail Ethics 101. Or even Religion 101.


  1. I prefer the term high-lethality weapons over terms like assault rifles. The latter term gets intentionally muddied in “gun rights” pedantry. The former term could actually be quantified using likely-existing data from gun and ammunition manufacturers regarding the actual “effectiveness” of design features. Some gun and ammunition options are simply (and intentionally) “more efficient” than others in causing great bodily harm.
  2. Including mass shootings, as I have written about several times in the past. Rather than trying to determine “why” any one of these shootings occurred, think of this more like boxes of dynamite with detonators sitting out in public. Does it matter “why” somebody detonated the bomb?
  3. Programs directed at the poor, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, are relatively easy training for new agents, and the government often has better information than the taxpayer does.

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