- What is empathy? What is compassion? When have you felt empathy and/or compassion for something or someone? What provoked this feeling in you? Did you do anything as a result?
- What does “universe of responsibility” mean? What individuals and groups do you include in your universe of responsibility? Why? How does your universe of responsibility influence the choices you make about how to treat others?
- Philosopher John Ruskin said, "What we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do." How might Nicholas Kristof respond to Ruskin’s argument? What do you think of this statement?
- Historian Leni Yahil divides knowledge into three parts: receipt of information, acknowledgment of information, and action based on that information. How does Yahil's division of knowledge apply to the way people have responded to more recent humanitarian crises, such as the genocide in Darfur? What do they think can be done, if anything, to move people from receiving information to acting on that information? How would Nicholas Kristof and Paul Slovic answer this question?
- What is psychic numbing? Under what conditions is psychic numbing helpful? Under what conditions is psychic numbing harmful? Identify a time when you may have experienced psychic numbing—when you may have felt numb to disturbing information and images. Why do you think you felt numb to this information? What could have been done, if anything, to get you to pay thoughtful attention to this information?
- According to researcher Paul Slovic, studies show that people are more likely to help one person than many people. How do your observations and experiences support and/or refute Slovic’s findings? According to Paul Slovic and Nicholas Kristof, what galvanizes people to take action on behalf of others? Think about a time when you were motivated to help someone else. What inspired these actions? Based on your own experiences and on research about human behavior, what are five possible ways to galvanize the public to take action on behalf of others?
- When suggesting what is needed to prevent genocide and mass murder, Nicholas Kristof writes, “Maybe what we need isn’t better laws but more troubled consciences.” On the other hand, Paul Slovic argues that “we cannot depend only upon our moral feelings to motivate us to take proper actions against genocide.” He recommends stronger international laws to prevent and stop large-scale acts of violence. What is the relationship between compassion and law? How can empathy (“moral feelings”) and laws be used together to prevent genocide?
What has motivated you to feel empathy or compassion for others? In her book High Tide in Tucson (1996), Barbara Kingsolver highlights how art, especially storytelling, can be used to get people to care about others. She writes:
The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else's point of view. . . . A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, "How very sad," then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter's cheek. You could taste that person's breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine. . . . Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another.1
To what extent do you agree with Kingsolver’s statement? When has art—a movie, play, story, song, painting, etc.—ever motivated you to feel compassion for someone else? Why do you think this piece had this effect on you?
- 1 : Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, (New York, Harper Perennial, 1996), 232.