Writing in 1759, Adam Smith made the observation that we feel worse, much worse, about the prospect of losing our little finger than we do about the death of a multitude strangers far away. That's human nature the same in 1759 as it is today. Television and the Web make far-off tragedies more visceral than in Smith’s time but Smith's insight remains true. He starts by imagining the earthquake.
Let's suppose that the great empire of China, with all of myriad of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe with no sort of connection with that part of the world will be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamityHow would a man of humanity in Europe act?
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 the disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe and the trade and business of the world in general.
So yes, says Smith, we'll make a show of caring and express our sadness and maybe wonder the effects. We’ll make the right noises and the right facial expressions.
But these are fleeting....
For better or worse life goes on...
[T]he most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren, and destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
(Adam Smith quotes from The Theory of Moral Sentiments)