My Little Finger

Adam Smith:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Last night my father died. And I am sad. This wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things. But, you see, this was MY little finger. And more.

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  • Francisco

    My Condolences.

  • HarryGillen

    I first read this passage in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions a number of years back, which is a great book about the origins of our perceptions of the world. Your little finger has been severed; I actually lost my grandmother yesterday. This was a wonderful passage to kind of put some context into my emotions, as I’m sure the same has gone for you. I will wish you well, even though I don’t know you, only because I’ve been reading this blog for years and you’ve provided me with so much great content.

  • Alex Flint

    I’m sorry for your loss Robin. I realize that your post was meant to call out the emptiness of such platitudes as I have just expressed. But you’re wrong. Expressing sympathy is a signaling mechanism par excellence, but it is also something that makes us all feel better. And feeling better is important at times like this.

  • lump1

    I’m very sorry, Robin.

  • Left Outside

    Very sorry Robin. My deepest sympathies.

  • Gary Franczyk

    I’m sorry for your loss.

  • John

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Robin. You have my sincere condolences.

  • John Salvatier

    I hear your sadness.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” — David Hume

    I’m sad that Robin Hanson is sad.

  • Garrett Lisi

    Sorry to hear this, Robin. Perspective is a mysterious and important thing.

  • Murali Vajapeyam

    No matter how cynical economics makes us (and I am no economist, I only have a minor in it, no major)…to quote Walter White from Breaking Bad, you can never give up on family. My parents are both still alive, and I shiver to think what would happen if either were to pass away.

  • eggman

    It seems like the typical manner of condoling a friend, or acquaintance, upon receiving the news of the death of one of their loved ones is to share stories of our own experiences, and how upset we are. This is to signify our caring for the dead, their mourning loved ones, and humanity. I’m confident that many readers of this blog have read this before, but, nevertheless, here is a list of condolences Eliezer Yudkowsky received on the SL4 mailing list upon broadcasting his lament and rage at his brother’s death:

    It seems relevant to link to these transhumanist cries here.

  • Albert Ling

    My condolences Robin…

  • efalken

    First, my condolences. I hope he had a good life and death.

    Secondly, I notice that no one is a strict utilitarian that equally weights individuals in society, everyone values their direct family more than others. This is usually excused via discounting of ‘households,’ which makes sense and seems innocuous, comports with data on ‘family incomes’, etc. Yet, it makes no sense for this effect to stop right at direct relations, so cousins, second-cousins, co-ethnics, colleagues, all are valued higher than random people. If people have gradients of weights towards people near to them in some social/genetic space, it sure complicates exercises is social welfare. Worse still for neighbors who compete, because there they aren’t indifferent, they enjoy each others pains.

  • Matthew Hammer

    My condolences Robin.
    And though none of us can feel but the tiniest fraction of of the loss you feel, I hope that the summation of the concern in all of us that you have influenced can provide some measure of support in what is a very difficult personal time.

  • blogospheroid

    My condolences, Prof Hanson. Was he cryopreserved?

  • VV


  • Eric Fisher

    “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
    Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
    even though he die.
    And everyone who has life,
    and has committed himself to me in faith,
    shall not die for ever.”

  • Telnar

    My condolences, Robin.

    As an aside, the Smith quote doesn’t fully apply because the distance criterion (“but, provided he never saw them,”) isn’t met. In the modern world, it’s possible for many people who don’t know you personally to benefit from your writing and get to know an aspect of you in the process.

    Smith’s point about caring less with emotional distance still holds. It’s just that the distance between you and your readers isn’t as large as it might have been between two people in Edinburgh and Shanghai in Smith’s day.


    What a cruel way to experience the extremes of near/far differences, but we all have to go through it at one point. In far mode we want to treat all persons equally and we will lament the death of a Chinese peasant (and we would offer our little finger to save the population of China), in near mode we will feel the loss of someone we’ve known as a greater loss, that is the only way we can ever mourn our loved ones while not being crushed by the unbearable burden that would be mourning every death in the world as if they were a loved one.

    I offer my condolences, not to signal anything, but knowing that that too works on near mode and can relief sadness, even if it’s just by a tiny bit. I guess some would say I do that because it makes me feel better to make you feel better but really what does that matter if the condolences of the people here do make you feel a little better?

  • Jared

    I am sorry for your and your family’s loss, Prof Hanson.

  • Joachim Schipper

    I am sorry for your loss, and wish you and yours the best.

  • I’m sorry for your loss. The world is permanently lessened by one more irreplaceable soul.

  • MarkBahner

    Hi Robin,
    I’m very sorry about your father’s death. I hope it’s at least some consolation that I’m sure it made him very happy to get to see you grow up, and he must have been very proud of all your accomplishments.

  • Ben Southwood

    🙁 sorry Robin

  • arch1

    I’m sorry for your losing your Dad, Robin. It’s pretty clear he influenced you so he had lots to be proud of on that count alone. I’m sure you’ll continue to do him proud.

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  • Kitty_T

    My condolences – you and your family are in my thoughts.

  • Berna

    I am sorry for your loss.

  • I’d imagine that your experience of your father’s death would depend utterly on the sense that this death (given your appraisal of cryonics technology) was unnecessary. This surely overshadows any sadness about losing a little finger.