We’ve the seemingly odd news that Princess Diana is regarded as a better mother than the Virgin Mary. Something about which a number of points can be made, the most obvious being that this was a survey of members of the Church of England, none of whom are likely to believe in, even be sure about, the existence of Mary in the first place. We might also observer that at 35 William’s a bit passed the being nailed to a tree bit.
The important point to make though is about what we might call proximity bias:
You might think that in a Church survey about the “ideal mother”, the Virgin Mary would be an obvious winner.
But the Church of England’s own Mothering Sunday poll has thrown up a surprising result.
Princess Diana beat the mother of Jesus Christ to the top spot, and was named the ideal mother by five per cent of respondents – the most popular single choice.
The Virgin Mary only made eighth place, behind both the Queen and Michelle Obama.
“My own mother” was the second-most popular choice, followed by Mother Theresa, with the Queen coming fourth.
Well, yes, My Mum always was going to do well but Mother Theresa wasn’t in fact a mother at all. As with so many other things Adam Smith did get there first. As all too many reach for in Theory of Moral Sentiments:
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 connexion 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 befal 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. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them?
Whence the little finger as opposed to hundreds of millions of people thought. As Gavin Kennedy points out this isn’t really quite Smith’s point:
Most commentators stop there and do not read on, and thereby jump to the wrong conclusions. Smith, they conclude asks: “if ‘the man of humanity’, obsessed with saving his ‘paltry’ finger, of which he is highly emotional about, could save ‘his brethren’ in China from the earthquake disaster, but only at the cost of losing his little finger, what would he do?”
Well, if he rolls over and snores after dreadful news of an earthquake it’s obvious: he keeps his little finger! But does he?
Read on and I think you will agree that what Smith says next turns the whole, somewhat cynical, assertion he begins with on its head, and treats us to one of his thunderous affirmations of the moral spirit, which he finds in human kind when exposed to the society of his fellows.
The point being that we are all subject to that proximity bias. Thus the rather more recent Princess Diana and the somewhat more distant Virgin Mary. A proximity bias that we can and often do rise above with a little thought and moral concern. Things apparently in short supply in the CoE but then as a Papist in bad standing I would say that, wouldn’t I?