Sympathy for undocumented immigrants crowds out sympathy for neighbors?

A Hillary Clinton supporter here in Cambridge hosted a party for a friend who landed a new job. The Hillary supporter is in her 70s and rich and connected enough to have met Hillary on numerous occasions. At the party she expressed criticisms of Donald Trump, and her fellow citizens who had voted for him, pretty much nonstop. This was not out of hatred for the Mr. Trump so much as due to her bighearted sympathy for the vulnerable, most of whom she had never met and would never meet (Zillow estimates the value of her home, which is typical of the neighborhood, at $3.6 million).

She learned that an immigrant guest was heading out to Logan Airport to pick up a family member coming in with a visa obtained at a U.S. consulate (not in any of the countries that have been the subject of Donald Trump’s attempted executive orders restricting travel). She was effusive in her concern that the Trumpenfuhrer’s border thugs might obstruct this elderly traveler’s entry into the U.S.

Shortly after this discussion about a hypothetical problem we learned that a different guest was dealing with a real problem: her husband wanted to leave her and their two young children. The wife/mother said that she wanted to stay married and was trying everything within her power to persuade the husband to honor his promise. The kids were plainly at risk (see “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” for links to some of the research; plus, under Massachusetts family law they were sure to lose their college funds and inheritance to legal fees in the event of a typical non-mediated divorce). After the potential unwilling divorcee had left, the hostess was asked if she was concerned about the husband/father breaking his promise. She framed the issue entirely in terms of the man’s happiness: “Maybe he hadn’t found the right person [in the current wife].” The welfare of the children, who seemed to be solidly on track to losing their two-parent home, was not mentioned. Readers would be disappointed in me if I hadn’t asked “So you’re saying that if the guy found a 22-year-old off Craigslist you might not be able to support his decision, but if he has found two 22-year-olds and they are both super hot then, of course, he has no choice but to leave the wife and mother?” The Hillary supporter’s evaluation process turned out not to involve 22-year-old women, but it was essentially the same: she would approve of the husband’s decision to leave the wife/mother if he had found some way to make himself a lot happier. There were no circumstances under which the children’s welfare, suffering inflicted on the wife, or marriage vows would be a consideration.

Within our social circle, the folks who are not active opponents of Donald Trump and the Republicans (e.g., people who did not attend the Women’s March and who do not post virtuous and/or outraged political content on Facebook) are much more sympathetic to the wife/mother and are deeply concerned about the children.

Does it make sense to think of human sympathy and attention as a scarce resource? If so, can we infer that people who occupy their minds with concern regarding the ability of people they’ve never met to become undocumented immigrants will be therefore less sympathetic to suffering among people they encounter face-to-face?

19 thoughts on “Sympathy for undocumented immigrants crowds out sympathy for neighbors?

  1. 1) the woman is working to keep the husband instead of working for alimony + child care? is she mad? did you talk to her? 2) is having poorly matched parents who biker or have a generally unhappy relationship the best for children? 3) if the future money for the kids is a stake surely both parties can agree in an amicable divorce with minimal expenses?

    The old lady is not offering to pay for the legal fees J Random Immigrant would face to avoid deportation, she is throwing around some free effusion towards someone who most likely does not need it anyway: I presume the immigrant guest is not an illegal from Latin America, but a highly educated and paid person whose relative was most likely enjoying visa free travel (like I do!). She is not sympathetic, she is using a no problem to make her own political point.

  2. Federico: Is it heroic to save children from seeing parents disagree? Of course! What better justification for having sex with a 22-year-old? “I’m doing it for the kids so that they don’t see me arguing with their 40-year-old mom.” A slightly more altruistic/heroic dad might even be willing to have sex with two 22-year-olds. (Take Two for the Team!)

    (Research psychologists say that the children are actually better off when parents separate if the parents are physically hitting each other.)

    “surely both parties can agree in an amicable divorce with minimal expenses”? There is no need to conjecture regarding Americans’ propensity to settle disputes amicable in the winner-take-all states. We have the statistics. shows that it happens about 17 percent of the time in Massachusetts. See for why each parent may perceive litigation as rational even when it consumes 100 percent of the family’s assets.

    [To your question “the woman is working to keep the husband instead of working for alimony + child care? is she mad? did you talk to her?” As you point out, she is not acting rationally from an economic point of view. Under Massachusetts law she might be able to get the house and 80 percent of the current husband’s income going forward. So if she can find a new partner with a comparable salary (or get pregnant after a brief encounter with a high-income man and thus build a diversified portfolio of cash-yielding children), she can enjoy a higher spending power. But apparently she has goals other than maximizing her personal spending ability. That’s not necessarily irrational if, for example, she cares about her children’s welfare.]

  3. Note that in the no-fault American system you don’t need any reason to file and win a divorce lawsuit so “I want to have sex with 22-year-olds” would be as good an answer as any in court (if indeed the question of “why?” were ever asked). Where people tend to get into elaborate narratives about how suing their co-parent was done out of an altruistic or kid-oriented motive is with friends, family, and neighbors. It sounds better to say “I was protecting my children” than it does to say “I wanted to have sex with younger/more attractive people” or “I found someone with a higher income than my former spouse.”

    As noted in , a profitable psychology industry sprang up starting in the 1970s that, in exchange for fees, gave divorce plaintiffs a way to feel that the benefit to themselves was far greater than the harm inflicted on their children (or even, as you suggest, that the children had benefited from the divorce, so it was a win-win).

  4. I don’t think this is about a limited amount of sympathy that can be apportioned. Rather, her views on divorce are consistent with her “left-wing” (I hate to use the term “liberal” as such persons are usually the most illiberal people around) political philosophy, where instant gratification for the individual is more important than ‘religious/family’ values (such as putting the kids before personal ‘fulfilment’), which are perceived as being ‘conservative’. I do credit her though for being consistent, for such views arose to support the ‘rights’ of women to escape the ‘patriarchal’ oppression of marriage, and instead be fulfilled as women in their own right. Only today, such easy divorce and arguments are being used by men to leave middle-aged ‘boring’ wives for Phil’s proverbial ’23 year old hotties from Craig-list’.
    As aside, its also possible that in this particular case,

  5. Sorry message cut-off:

    there is a pre-nuptial, or he is a layabout in terms of career/income, or the woman is independently rich due to having rich parents etc., i.e. she may not be so altruistic in wanting to stay married, as she has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

  6. Phil, daddy could be sleeping around without seeking divorce, so I presume the situation at home is unlikely to be that rosy to start with. Plenty of kids have married parents who do not reside in the same abode for work, and see daddy or mummy only once in a while or at regular intervals. There is no reason for divorce to kill daddy off if mummy plays ball. Daddy’s decision might be the best for the kids for all we know.

  7. Maybe the hostess does not really like immigrants but wants them to have a chance to go through Massachusetts divorce system. Maybe she is just plain bad.

  8. I see that no one has answered the question that you needed to be answered. The answer is no, sympathy is not a limited resource. Also, the point that you mentioned in the first paragraph, that your hostess had not met most of the vulnerable people in the country or the world is odd. No one has. It sounds like you would think that this woman should be admired for having sympathy for people that she hasn’t met. Maybe it’s a talent that is unusual and rare in your view of the world.

    This whole divorce issue concluded a few decades ago. There was a time in America when the law and the culture tried to keep people married after the love was gone. It was essentially decided at the time that it’s pointless to try to compel someone to stay in a marriage that he wants to get out of.

    Also, in this lengthy discussion, did the woman facing divorce actually mention anything about young girls on Craigslist?

  9. Vince: “did the woman facing divorce actually mention anything about young girls on Craigslist?” No. She had departed by the time the discussion of the hostess’s views had begun.

    “it’s pointless to try to compel someone to stay in a marriage that he wants to get out of.” Let’s suppose that this is the hostess’s point of view. She could still have expressed some concern regarding the welfare of the wife/mother or children. Yet she was far more concerned about abstract undocumented immigrants and the party guest’s relative.

  10. Interesting anecdote – I would have assumed the hostess would take the female’s side. Maybe she didn’t like the divorcee and had a moment of schadenfreude.

    Trading in a 40 year old woman for two 20 years olds was the husband’s joke in the documentary “The Queen of Versailles”.

    But women these days seem to be doing much better monetarily than men on average. Regarding the rich hostess in her 70’s, was she a happy widow? Assuming her liberal agenda, I’d assume she’s into saving the planet from climate change as well.

    The “She-conomy” marketing page says women are headed to own most of the wealth in the US:

    Some extracts:
    ” Affluent women juggle demands of career and family, are concerned about the environment and are discriminating shoppers. ” Which matches the pew research that women are more concerned about the environment than men (

    The irony about this, is that being concerned for the environment more than men would mean women more conscientious consumers, right? however:
    “Women account for 85% of all consumer purchases including everything from autos to health care”. I guess being the most voracious consumers on the planet would make them worry more about the planet.

    “Once the college bills are out of the way and children launch their own households, the discretionary spending power of 50-plus women soars. They spend 2.5 times what the average person spends. ”

    “Over the next decade, women will control two thirds of consumer wealth in the United States and be the beneficiaries of the largest transference of wealth in our country’s history. Estimates range from $12 to $40 trillion. Many Boomer women will experience a double inheritance windfall, from both parents and husband.”

    I wonder if the hostess would be willing to tune down her consumption to save the planet?

  11. Btw Philg, I was in Cambridge UK last week and was leafing through The Cambridge Magazine in my hotel room. I found a funny divorce lawyer advertisement:

    Think you need a strong partner when your marriage ends? I do.

    You’ll want Caroline Watson as yours. Caroline, a leader of the award winning Divorce and Family Team at Slater and Gordon, Cambridge, is one of the most accomplished lawyers in her field. With substantial experience recognised by clients and her peers, she has a track record of success.

    Her cases often involve international issues and she frequently acts for clients with complex financial arrangements, including business, trusts, third party interests and foreign property. She also boasts a wealth of experience advising on pensions, helping you start your next chapter with everything you’re entitled to.

    I was particularly impressed with the handling of ‘complex financial arrangements’ and also the final sentence.. ‘helping you start your next chapter with everything you’re entitled to.’ Good selling point!

    In the rest of the magazine, of course, many pages of advertisements for real estate and primary *boarding* schools. So you can get the house and ship the kids off to boarding school once you’ve shaken down the rich bastard…

  12. That’s awesome, German. Thanks! This circles back to Federico’s point up at the top of why people don’t mediate or just settle amicably in a livingroom lovefest. Ms. Watson counsels her client: “Under the law, you’re entitled to X, Y, and Z.” The other side’s lawyer says “The law doesn’t require you to give up X, Y, and Z.” Now the only person who can say who is right is the judge (by which point it is possible that X, Y, and Z have been sold to pay the lawyers on both sides and therefore the question is moot).

    [Note that both lawyers may be acting in good faith and yet give contradictory answers regarding a divorce plaintiff’s “entitlement.” Even if we ignore variation from judge to judge, which may be substantial, each lawyer initially hears just one side’s version of the story.]

  13. Phil, you see to say ‘if people were not ignorant of attorneys’ fees divorces would all be amicable’. That’s a matter of education, and can be resolved.

  14. Federico: See for a quote from the book Thinking Fast and Slow about why humans may not mediate/settle in high-stakes winner-take-all litigation even when they are fully aware of the cost of legal fees. Certainly my point was not that divorce plaintiffs are unaware that going to trial may cost $1+ million of the assets that they hope to acquire. The government sets up an adversarial complex process (see for why divorce in the U.S. is still in the court system despite the switch to no-fault). Each adversary then hires an expert to guide him or her through the process. Each adversary acts on the information presented by his or her expert. Everyone can behave rationally and the result is still negative for an economy/society (see for an estimate of the total cost).

    As a practical matter, consider the plaintiff whose lawyer says “Based on what you’ve told me about the division of labor in the household, you’re going to get the kids 67 percent of the time. After you get hold of the kids, Massachusetts law entitles you to a free house and 50 percent of your defendant’s after-tax income. Because you didn’t work, you’ll get another 30 percent of your defendant’s after-tax income via alimony or maybe it will all be rolled together as child support. Your defendant’s lawyer will say the same thing and therefore your defendant will agree to a voluntary settlement roughly along these lines. If the defendant refuses, the judges will punish that refusal by making the defendant pay all of your legal fees out of savings so you won’t be any worse off.”

    This plaintiff now has no incentive to settle. The entitlement cash will flow either immediately through settlement or after 3-4 years of litigation and a trial. But consider if the defendant has a different perception of the household division of labor. The defendant thinks that it was a 50/50 split of child-related tasks and therefore hears a different story about what the likely outcome at trial will be. Maybe the defendant knows that legal fees will be costly, but as pointed out in the book Thinking Fast and Slow, losing the kids is a pretty bad outcome that it is rational to try to avoid.

    Given a state government that sets things up as a winner-take-all litigation with children in the middle, the only thing that you need for this battle to be rational on both sides is for two people to have different perceptions of their contributions to the marriage and the kids (a subjective matter and ultimately determined via judicial discretion, therefore a fit topic for attorney persuasion).

  15. (Federico: Are you sure that your predictions about what people would do with more education are right? is a typical example that happens to be newsworthy because the defendant ended up being considered for a political job. The plaintiff admits that she accused the defendant of domestic violence “as a vehicle to gain leverage in our divorce proceedings”. [Now she says that she regrets it, but I would be willing to bet that she didn’t return any of the extra cash that she got as a consequence of her tactic! Note also the language used: “our divorce proceedings”… apparently there is joint ownership of a lawsuit filed by one person against another.]

    Based on our interviews with attorneys and the research literature, this plaintiff’s behavior is fairly typical. Certainly there are at least millions of Americans making false child abuse and domestic violence claims (see ) in order to get cash. If widespread false accusations of criminal conduct have been the result, so far, of education regarding how family courts work, why would more education result in amicable whats-best-for-the-kids behavior?)

  16. she would approve of the husband’s decision to leave the wife/mother if he had found some way to make himself a lot happier.

    Eat, pray, love

  17. @Germaini, #11: “Women account for 85% of all consumer purchases including everything from autos to health care”.

    “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!”

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