I assert in The Philosophy of Childing that based on my experiences holding philosophical inquiries with children and youth in many of the most impoverished parts of the globe that even those children and youth living in the most demeaning circumstances demonstrate a decided capacity for doing so.
And National Book Award-winning journalist Katherine Boo attests to this in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which chronicles the lives of slum-dwellers in Mumbai, India.
Boo relates how she was “continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset.” If such children ostensibly lose this capacity as they grow older, Boo believes it’s because they “have little power to act on those imaginations.” But she stresses that this does not in any way indicate that they have in fact become uncaring. Rather, they still “felt the loss of life acutely…. What appeared to be indifference to other people’s suffering … had a good deal to do with conditions that had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.”
They cannot do what comes naturally to them, cannot reach out to others and alleviate their suffering, any more than they can ease their own. This sense of impotence runs up hard against their inborn desire to be of service.
According to Martha Nussbaum, if we lose our “tragic sense of compassion for people who unequally suffer the misfortunes of life—including both those who remain good and those who turn to the bad—we are in danger of losing our own humanity.”
What the children Katherine Boo encountered show, though, is that those who suffer unequally the misfortunes of life themselves never lose their own tragic sense of compassion for others, no matter how rotten their lives are made by unspeakable wrongs. Yet they refuse to allow their own moral sense to be corrupted or defined by what they witness, or be victimized by the world. They remain good in a world turned, if not altogether bad, then upside down.