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Are empathy and rationality necessarily opposed? This question is at the core of many debates about ethical action, including the recent Boston Review forum "Against Empathy." Some participants, such as Barbara H. Fried, see empathy as a danger for policy-making, leading to a “fixation on proximate and emotionally salient consequences” rather than a careful accounting of positives and negatives. Others, particularly Simon Baron-Cohen, argue that rationality divorced from empathy is a tremendous force for evil, responsible for some of the world’s greatest atrocities. Still others suggest that forces other than empathy should supplement rationality and motivate us to act; Jesse Prinz, for example, nominates righteous anger.
A similar debate about the role of rationality has characterized the recent controversy over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. As many critics have noted, the Challenge’s participants—who either dump a bucket of ice over their heads or donate $100 to the ALS Association, then challenge friends to do the same—hardly seem motivated by a rational calculation of the benefits of ALS research; few of those who do donate presumably spent much time considering whether their charitable dollar might be put to more effective use elsewhere. The response has generally been to stress the importance of doing thoughtful research before making a donation, as Vox’s Julia Belluz does, or to urge individuals to undertake rationally motivated “structural changes to how you live your life” rather than making a one-time donation on impulse, as non-profit founder William MacAskill writes for Quartz.
The interesting thing about the Challenge is that most of the participants do not seem particularly motivated by empathy, either. Few seem to imagine the suffering of an ALS patient or try to experience it alongside them. For Vice’s Arielle Pardes, a particularly caustic critic, this reveals that the Challenge-takers are motivated by “narcissism masked as altruism.” But it also means that the Challenge is not subject to some of the downsides of empathy that Paul Bloom cites in his essay, such as the potential for burnout or exhaustion.
Philosophical arguments that only address motivations for individual behavior, rather than the bases of social movements and large-scale activism, leave out some of the most important ethical questions in a democratic society. In fact, once we start to look at instances of collective action like the Challenge rather than either individual behavior or disinterested policymaking, I would argue that neither empathy nor rationality has much explanatory power on its own. Instead, people tend to participate in activism of any kind out of habit, in response to social pressure, or because it seems exciting—exactly the reasons (at least the last two) that people undertake the Challenge.
This is certainly the case for the archetypal form of collective action, voting. Even controlling for factors like age and education that correlate with turnout, the simple act of having voted in the past is a very strong predictor of future voting, and showing people that their turnout history is not on par with their neighbors’ is a great way to get them to the polls—although, like the Challenge, it also produces some backlash from people who dislike being pressured. Finally, there is a strong case that Americans used to vote at much higher rates precisely because voting used to be a celebratory, social activity rather than the dour act of personal responsibility that Pardes seems to think activism is supposed to be.
Viewed this way, viral campaigns are not different in kind than other forms of activism; they simply take certain facets of collective action to an extreme. Criticisms like Belluz’s and MacAskill’s are correct as far as they go—I am also a strong believer in directing charitable dollars to the most effective, evidence-backed causes—but every form of large-scale activism contains a healthy dose of non-rational motives. Just as a one-off viral campaign is not a systemic solution to inadequate funding for health research, simply exhorting individuals to behave more rationally is not a systemic solution to inadequate willingness to undertake collective action for important causes.
Of course, viral activism can have bad effects when put to use in misleading fashion for a problematic cause, such as the Kony 2012 effort, but the same is true of any tactic for motivating collective action. Efforts to make people more prone to rational deliberation are valuable, but causes also need to “meet people where they’re at” (to use a phrase familiar to professional activists). For better or worse, most people, even civic-minded ones, are not like the “effective altruists” described in Peter Singer’s piece, who rely solely on their “capacities for rational deliberation to decide what they actually do.”
The ALS Foundation is not responsible for that aspect of human nature; they just found a particularly good way to exploit, or rather harness it. We should spend as much time debating whether their choice of fundraising tactics was ethical as we do the actions and motivations of the individual Challenge-takers—both are morally and practically significant. By the same token, arguments about the value of empathy should address its role in collective action, as well as individual behavior and policy-making. Empathy on a personal level does have important political implications, especially in the philanthropic sphere where a handful of rich individuals direct huge sums to causes close to their heart. As flawed as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was, it represents a very different model for charity and is worth debating seriously for that reason alone. The Challenge may or may not be an example of effective, ethical collective action—but it should be evaluated with the understanding that those examples can be hard to come by.
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