I have sons not too much older than the children killed in Newtown, Conn., on Friday. They go to schools with no metal detectors or armed guards, watched over by teachers who have never seemed more human and fragile. Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few days in a state of semi-shock, crying along with the president and getting angry about guns in America. This is a tragedy every parent — everyone who knows and loves a child — fears above all else. It is intensely personal for me.

This is what it means to be a social animal: We feel for those in whom we see ourselves. It is a response of the gut, not the head, as much biochemical as intellectual. That surge of empathy brings out much that is best in us, as the outpouring of support for Newtown has shown.

Morality begins there, but it cannot end there, as Obama noted in his extraordinary speech at the Newtown vigil:

This passage, especially:

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.

They will suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments, and we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. And we know we can’t do this by ourselves.

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

In his own lyrical way, Obama is talking about a basic shift in moral perspective. We begin with a concern for our own children that is instinctual, biological. And through an act of intellect (“come to realize”) we extend that concern to the larger social ecology in which our children are enmeshed. In that way, our love for our children is “a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger.” They are all our children.

It is not always easy for us to make this kind of transition. As we push our circle of concern outward — from family to community, from community to country, from country to world — we move farther away from the visceral and into the abstract and statistical. It is one thing to realize that children in a different city or country, perhaps of a different race or socioeconomic status, are “our children.” It is another for the love itself, the feeling of love, to follow that realization. By evolutionary design, we respond powerfully to faces, to presence; we care more for a single identifiable victim than we do for large populations.

To draw the distant and universal into our guts, to feel them as we feel our own children’s presence, requires a mix of intellect and will that is not familiar, or easy. For all our love and concern toward those like us, we have an equally strong propensity toward moral disregard, even callousness, toward those outside our circle of empathy. Especially in situations of stress or uncertainty, we tend to pull our circle inward, husbanding our love, concern, and sacrifice for those closest by.

Pushing the circle back outwards, in many ways counter to our instincts, is the essence of moral development, both in individuals and for humanity in general. It has been the best impulse of every religion, spirituality, or moral philosophy throughout history. And it has never been more important. If we are to survive the 21st century, we must learn to, as the hoary old saying goes, “think globally.” Or perhaps more accurately, feel globally.

We’re not actually doing as badly as the shocking images and heated disputes in the media might have you believe. On a global level, things are mostly moving in the right direction. Armed conflict is declining worldwide, as are poverty, hunger, and disease. Life expectancy and literacy are rising. Children still die all over the world from preventable causes, but fewer today than a decade ago. We have built international institutions and a set of universal principles and expectations that are, however fitfully and inconsistently, driving improvement in human welfare.

But now we face an even more difficult moral challenge. We now know — we have “come to realize” — that our actions do not just affect our tribe, our country, and our world. Our interdependence is temporal as well. We are feeling the effects of decisions our grandparents made, and our actions will affect the well-being of our descendants, the children of a world 40, 50, 100 years hence.

child planting seedling in dry earth
Shutterstock

We know that the decisions we are making today are on track to create irreversible and inexorable changes in the global climate that our children and their children will inherit. We know that those changes threaten to slow or reverse our hard-fought gains in peace and health, leaving our descendants a world in violent, unceasing transition, with rising seas, greater droughts, more intense storms, shifting zones of fertility and disease, and waves of climate refugees. We discovered this not through shock or confrontation but through the slow accumulation and careful interpretation of evidence. It is still, to most people, almost entirely an intellectual phenomenon, something they know but do not feel. Relative to the gut-wrenching images out of Newtown, the evidence of the climate threat to children is, by and large, abstract and ethereal. Even those who “know” the extent of climate change find it difficult to feel authentic moral outrage about it.

Yet for every ton of carbon we emit, we are firing a bullet into the air. We may not live to see it, but those bullets will rain down on the children of the future, and they will suffer for it. Obama said of the nation’s young:

We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

He also said, of our efforts to protect them: “Surely we can do better.”

Yes. Surely we can do better in protecting today’s children from random acts of violence. But surely we can also do better in protecting tomorrow’s children from suffering that, however distant and theoretical it may seem to us now, will yield just as many broken lives and broken hearts.