Awhile back, a number of my effective altruist friends were sharing articles online about how empathy is a bad thing–because leads to people not making moral decisions with their heads. This struck me as wrong-headed. I think a better approach is to say that people need to learn to extend their empathy beyond their immediate circle of friends and family, to people they’re unlikely to ever meet in person.
I remember when I was very young, in grade school I think, and seeing a book that talked about extreme poverty. The number of people living on $1 or $2 per day. (I don’t remember what the statistic was then, but in 2013 it was over a billion people living on less than $1.25.) The book was one of those books with very thick (cardboard?) pages, so it had little bags of rice inside showing how much rice $1 or $2 would buy you.
In retrospect, the amounts of rice used might not have been quite accurate (or might have been per-meal rather than per-day), but I remember looking at the bags and thinking there was no way you could live on that little food. Maybe it would just barely keep you alive, but that was it. I could see that living in that kind of poverty wouldn’t be fun, and that at that level, just a little extra money each day could make your life a lot better.
Another example: one of the main reasons I’m vegan is that I’ve made the effort to try and imagine what it would be like to spend your entire life confined in a space too small for you to even turn around (as many farmed animals are). I can see that that would be horrible, not a fate I’d wish on anyone.
This is something I got thinking about again reading a recent post by Robin Hanson about criticisms of effective altruism. He notices that a lot of criticisms apply to charity generally, but only get trotted out when the topic is effective altruism. Therefore, he suspects something else is at work:
I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.
This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.
Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.
These complaints may, to some extent, point to a way effective altruism could improve its PR. At the same time, many common criticisms of effective altruism look bizarre from the point of view of showing empathy. Critics of effective altruism would never treat a friend or family member the way they treat the people they allegedly want to help through their charitable activities and activism.
Imagine: if your family desperately needed money, would you refuse to try to find a good job, on the grounds that worrying about money is venal? Or if a friend needed help getting treatment for a life-threatening illness, would you avoid trying to find the most effective treatment, because that would be cold and calculating. If a friend got evicted and needed a place to stay, would you refuse to help because you couldn’t also give her a job, or because that would just be ameliorating the injustices of capitalism?
Robert Wiblin just wrote a post titled, Effective altruists love systematic change. But to the extent I’m pessimistic about systematic change, it’s because I see most people unwilling to widen their circle of empathy far enough. They care too little for the plight of distant strangers, and get upset about the Chinese dog meat festival while eating pigs. But if you want systematic change, maybe you should start trying to get people to feel ashamed at those failures of empathy.