Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Paul Bloom concludes his thoughtful comments about empathy by saying that he would not wish for too much of it. What there is should be “modified, shaped, and directed by rational deliberation” and ultimately “subservient to our capacities for rationality and compassion.” That would, he says, make for “a kinder and better world.”

The emerging movement known as effective altruism provides support for this claim. Effective altruists typically donate a percentage of their income—usually at least 10 percent, and in some cases 50 percent or more—to charities that have been demonstrated to be highly effective. Some choose careers that will enable them to earn more not so that they can have more money, but so that they can donate more. Recent Princeton graduate Matt Wage, for example, was offered a place for postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford but instead went to Wall Street, where within a year he had earned enough to donate $100,000 to organizations helping people in extreme poverty.

Effective altruists rely more on reason than emotion.

My admittedly impressionistic observation is that effective altruists are not especially empathetic—at least, not in the sense of emotional empathy. They do have what is sometimes called “cognitive empathy” or “perspective taking” capacity—that is, the ability to see what life is like for someone else. Rachel Maley, a Chicago-based pianist and multidisciplinary artist, makes some of these points in a blog post about her giving:

Numbers turned me into an altruist. When I learned that I could spend my exorbitant monthly gym membership (I don’t even want to tell you how much it cost) on curing blindness instead, the only thought I had was, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this all along?’ That question changed my life forever. . . . I rethought all my financial priorities. Because sentimentalism had ruled my charitable choices up to that point, Effective Altruism was like a beam of clarity.

Note the contrast Maley draws between “sentimentalism” and the “clarity” of effective altruism. Her reference to numbers is also typical of effective altruists. Many of them have backgrounds in math or computing. They are moved by the fact that a relatively modest level of donation can help so many people. Rarely do they mention being emotionally moved.

David Brooks of the New York Times has written a column critical of the idea of trying to earn more money in order to be able to give more away. I don’t find his argument persuasive, but he does notice the extent to which effective altruism is influenced by reason rather than by common emotions:

If you see the world on a strictly intellectual level, then a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child. But not many people actually think this way. Not many people value abstract life perceived as a statistic as much as the actual child being fed, hugged, nurtured and played with.

Exactly—not many people see the world in this way, but those who do are having a disproportionately large impact for good. It is, in any case, perfectly possible to feed, hug, nurture, and play with your own children while understanding that the lives of children in Pakistan or Zambia are, impartially considered, as important as the lives of your own. You may not be as motivated to help save the lives of the children of strangers as you are to help save the lives of your own, but being able to see the world impartially can still provide you with sufficient motivation to do a lot to improve the lives of strangers.

In Bleak House Charles Dickens poked fun at Mrs. Jellyby, who neglected her own children in order to help people in Africa about whom she knew very little. But today it is much easier to know what people living far from us really need and how best to help them get it. There are also many affluent adults who have enough money to provide for the needs of their own children while making a big difference to people living in extreme poverty in developing countries.

Effective altruists who act in this way probably do feel some empathy for others, but—as Bloom recommends—they use their capacities for rational deliberation to decide what they actually do. Unlike the majority of donors to charity, they are not prone to give to local charities, nor to particular children in developing countries who will write them thank-you letters. They do not give to causes that have touched them personally—“my wife/sister/mother died of breast cancer, so I donate to breast cancer research.” They direct the resources they have where they will do the most good. The result is that they are doing much more than most people to make the world a kinder and better place.