effective altruism

On Empathy

Paul Bloom argues that empathy has its drawbacks. It's biased, innumerate, concrete, and myopic. Don't believe it? Consider the reactions to the Newton mass shooting as compared to shootings in Chicago.  It's called the identifiable victim effect. We're drawn to some individuals more than others. We respond more empathetically to people like us. And because empathy is focused on individuals and insensitive to numbers, it's more susceptible to bias.

Okay empathy can be misguided, but isn't it better than nothing? He believes that's mistaken - because he argues that it's focused on current costs at the expense of future costs. 

What's an alternative?  Peter Singer has started a movement called Effective Altruism - it involves both the head and the heart.


Additional reading:

Daniel Batson - Altruism in Humans

Frans De Waal - The Age of Empathy

Simon Baron-Cohen - The Science of Evil


Leslie Jamison - The Empathy Exams







Child in a Lake

Peter Singer is a Yale philosopher with an interesting take on altruism - namely, how to make it effective. He proposes the following scenarios to make his point:

You are walking to a meeting where you will earn $500. On the way to the meeting you pass a child who is drowning. You can rescue the child but lose the $500. Do you rescue the child?

If you do, there's a cost to rescuing the child.

Now consider that immunizations cost $500 in India. Do you feel the same obligation?

Why do you have a different reaction to these two scenarios?

According to Mr. Singer, there is a psychological difference - salience. You can see the child and take direct action and you will get immediate feedback. The organization in India is more abstract - there is no individual, no identifiable victim. This changes then how you think of the scenario.

He points out that there is also some economic difference rooted in uncertainty - knowing something will happen versus how will I know my $500 will be effective if it's given to a immunization organization.

He asserts that uncertainty is not the main reason people have different responses to the two scenarios. True that skepticism causes a delay in decisions and a trend to prove what works is born out of this delay. But he insists that salience and identifiable victims matter for getting people to give, not evidence of what works.