On morality and indifference

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That’s the essence of inhumanity” -George Bernard Shaw

At first glance, it is tempting to agree with Shaw’s statement. Though it is not a recent argument, it is a timely one: Generation Y – my generation – is also called the Apathy Generation (among many nicknames) which I will elaborate upon. However, I must first point out that the premise, if taken literally, is flawed; I find it hard to defend the statement that indifference is worse than tangible, voluntarily harmful actions.

The Adolph Hitlers and Joseph Konys of the world are not indifferent, they are passionate about their causes. Without that passion, they would barely show up on anyone’s radar. If you were to stand by them in utter indifference, without taking part in the atrocities, you would indeed be a sociopath. However, one cannot argue that you are worse than the aforementioned genocidal maniacs.

That being said, I don’t believe Shaw meant it literally. The fact is there are truly evil men, as well as atrocities and injustices happening throughout the world. I believe Shaw’s goal was to inspire people to feel responsible about such issues. Otherwise, no problem would ever be solved.

In defense of apathy

And indeed, how could they be solved? As each individual beholds, from the comfort of his sofa, watching the evening news, the unfathomable scale of injustices happening throughout the world, it is both easy and convenient to feel powerless. The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon where, when witnessing an injustice, the chances of anyone taking action decreases with the number of bystanders. When world news reaches a global audience, the bystander effect occurs on a planetary scale.

Furthermore, among its many faults, my dear generation is known for its short attention span and commitment issues. This is at least partly due to the constant bombardment of information that we are subjected to. More distractions than ever compete for our attention. According to a 2009 study published by Roger Bohn, entitled How Much Information, our brains overload everyday with more information than a laptop can handle.

Our brain’s ability to phase out background noise is essential to our sanity. Given that each new generation is born into a denser flood of information – hence awareness of injustice – the growing apathy among younger generations isn’t surprising.

Beware of ‘slacktivism’

As a conclusion, I’d like to contrast Shaw’s statement with another quote. Edmund Burke said: “Evil prevails when good men fail to act.” While Shaw focuses on concern, Burke focuses on actions. Caring about a cause does not help it. If action is needed, one must choose the battles that matter the most. If one gets involved in too many causes in hopes of solving every problem, it may result in chronic slacktivism.

If you are trying your best to make a positive difference in the world, there is nothing inhuman about closing your eyes to problems you cannot solve. For what good would it do to subject yourself to depression?