The following type of stories appear repeatedly in the news: A person or family, down on their luck due to unforeseen circumstances, perhaps due to illness or economic downturn. The story airs on national news... and suddenly they become the recipients of a huge outpouring of contributions of money, job offers and scholarships.
For example recently the CBS news show “60 Minutes” ran a story about homeless children in Florida; parents laid off work, living in their car, using a gas station restroom to clean up for school. The story had a huge impact on viewers; so much so that a follow-up story was broadcast about viewers sending in nearly one million dollars in contributions. One of the little girls in the story was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of a university – that particular university offered the girl a full scholarship. 
I see these stories and think: "Great… but what about the hundreds of thousands of other families who weren't lucky enough to appear on '60 Minutes'. What do they get?"
The answer is, they get nothing! People see these stories in the context of an isolated incident. They know that there is widespread poverty and deprivation in the world, in their community. But until it becomes personalized, most people are blind to issue.
Yet oddly we recognize that most humans are generally obsessed with a sense of morality. Granted how we each of us personally defines morality varies widely from individual to individual. But a sense of morality infuses a large percentage of how we interact with others. A number of scientific studies have actually been conducted in an attempt to find a biological basis for our sense of morality. At the biological level, we know that when levels of oxytocin are raised in the blood stream, we feel more magnanimous and interested in moral abstracts.
Interestingly the mere acting or invoking of empathy actually causes the oxytocin; some have begun to call it it the “moral molecule”. But oxytocin has a very short half-life and our ability as humans to summon empathy is equally short lived. Empathy rapidly attenuates as the demand for it becomes more widely spread. A story about four specific homeless children in Florida strongly evokes empathy in a large population of television viewers. But a story instead about the hundreds of nameless, faceless homeless children, often entirely misses the empathy bulls-eye. In fact often the opposite happens; the sense of morality instead generating indignation and the feeling that empathy is undeserved.
I often find myself dealing with negative emotions when, confronted at some check-out counter at a store or restaurant, there is the seemingly ubiquitous slotted can next to the cash register: "Help little Timmy get that liver transplant, his parents have no insurance." I’ve even dropped spare change in such cans myself. But I wonder what would that store would look like if there was a slotted contribution can for every needy Timmy, Johnny, Sally… all the thousands of needy people just in my area alone? Slotted cans would be stacked on every surface up to the ceiling, all over the floor and rolling out the door!
I find outrage in the realization that most people are unable to generate even the remotest sense of empathy, and remote sense of morality, to those they have no way of individually connecting to? Who decides who has earned a donation jar or nightly news story in their name and who will continue to suffer silently in anonymity?
1. Homeless teens on "60 Minutes" get free college, December 3, 2011