Do we still need to have in-person, flesh-and-blood meetings? Is there a point to such meetings when we can now see and hear a client or colleague in another part of the country — or the world — as if they were seated across from us? Is the belief that being there in-person still matters just a pre-technological bias that will pass as technology makes remote communication even more accessible? My work in ethics tells me that in-person meetings do make a difference – and I can point directly to the reason why.
Let me explain.
The traits of sympathy and empathy make humans capable of ethical action. Humans are unique in their abilities to put themselves in the positions of others (empathy) and to feel what others in those situations feel (sympathy). These traits are, however, limited. They became part of the human genome when we lived in hunter-gatherer groups requiring cooperation and mutual defense to survive. While it was essential to survival that we bonded with members of our group, we also needed to be willing to do harm to members of competing groups. In this way, sympathy and empathy, the so-called “moral sense,” extend to one’s cohorts, while also excluding “outsiders.” The more distant someone is from us, the easier it is to do them harm.
This is the explanation behind one of the more interesting proposals to reduce the threat of nuclear war. During the height of the Cold War, it was suggested that one way to reduce the risk of mutual destruction was to have the leaders of the United States and the (then) Soviet Union exchange children upon entering office. The idea was that, although these leaders might risk killing millions, they would never annihilate their own children. Their children would have a moral closeness to them that nameless, faceless millions would not have.
The effects of this moral distance are also familiar in everyday circumstances. It is easier to inform someone they have lost their job by delivering the bad news through email, mail, or an HR representative. And every fund-raiser knows that showing someone a person or pet likely to benefit from a donation helps loosen the purse strings. Similarly, having dinner with someone and sharing personal histories often makes it more likely that the individual will act favorably toward you.
Technology tends to make us forgot that the connections we feel with people are dependent on our moral distance from them — and that distance is closely related to being in the physical presence of a person. Even though technology makes it easy to communicate with people without actually connecting with them, our makeup as humans is still biased towards face-to-face interactions. Our moral reach has not grown to match our technological reach.
Understanding where our ethics comes from makes it clear that it is far easier to influence those who are “close” than those who are “distant.” And our DNA says that “close” means physically close. Even though technology has extended our reach, our human nature is the same as when we were hunter-gathers. In other words, when we are trying to influence someone, it may be worth the plane ticket to talk it over up close and personal.