October 17, 2014


Now it is perfectly true that it is asking too much of people to suffer in precise proportion to the occasion of their pain. If I break my leg, I can hardly be expected to find much consolation in the fact that I could have broken two, or that worse injuries happen every day, every hour, somewhere in the world. We cannot constantly compare ourselves with the most unfortunate people who have ever lived, the better to tolerate our own misfortunes. Again, it is a lamentable truth that we feel more deeply the late arrival of our train than a flood that washes away a populous town ten thousand miles away. This is just as well, because if we felt everyone’s misfortunes as our own we should have a pretty intolerable existence. We should also be terrible bores. 

But just because we cannot be expected actually to suffer in proportion to the cause of our suffering by comparison with the causes of other people’s suffering, it does not mean that such a comparison should be without any effect whatever. It should at the very least help us to control and limit our public expressions of suffering, which are more directly under our voluntary control than the suffering itself. It is unseemly, revolting in fact, to compare the situation under Sarkozy with that under the occupation, and complain as if the two situations were in any significant way similar or equivalent. A sense of proportion is a moral quality. 

There is another reason why people like to compare their current situation with the catastrophic past, however absurd or demeaning to past sufferings that comparison might be. It gives them license to behave badly within their own little compass. Why should anyone concern himself with my peccadilloes when we are in the midst of a moral catastrophe equivalent to Nazism? To do so is to display moral triviality; it is to fiddle while Rome burns. Therefore, I can behave badly and still think myself a moral man, because I concern myself with the important things, true morality being to have the right opinions about the big questions of the day and not to immerse oneself in the trivia of one’s own individual conduct.  

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