Is it better to help people close to you or strangers far away? Is it better to help someone yourself, in person, or does it not matter who helps and how, so long as help is given?
Peter Singer and effective altruists believe altruism at a distance is usually better, for practical reasons. They believe you should do the most good you can, measured in years of healthy life or some similar metric, and if you live in a rich country, this usually means donating money to an international charity rather than helping people yourself. If emotion points one way (you feel an empathic connection to people in your own community) and logic the other (money goes further in poorer countries, and people there are worse off), you should choose logic. Emotion, they believe, tends to misdirect help to dramatic crises and heart-tugging victims rather than those who need it most.
Are they right? It is illuminating to compare giving to killing. Is it worse to kill people close to you or strangers far away? Is it worse to kill someone yourself, in person, or does it not matter who kills and how, so long as it ends in death?
Advocating altruism at a distance need not require choosing logic over empathy.
Consider the notorious trolley problem. If a runaway trolley isn’t stopped it will kill five people. By throwing a switch you can divert it to another track where it will kill one person. But what if the only way to stop it is to push a fat man onto the track? Many feel that throwing the switch—killing one person indirectly but saving five—is the right thing to do, while pushing the fat man—killing one person directly and brutally, though still saving five—is wrong.
But what about drones? Killing at a distance, indirectly, with a drone, seems more sinister than killing directly, in combat. That is partly because it is so dishonorably unequal: the killer kills without risk, and the target has no chance to defend himself. But there is a sense, too, that the distance itself is sinister because it reduces the targets to abstractions. Though it may be less crudely brutal than killing in person, it is more brutal in a deeper way—less bestial, but more satanic. Drone strikes can seem more disturbing than ordinary warfare, even if they cause less harm.
This sense—that it is disturbing to act upon people at such a distance that they become abstractions, even if the consequences are better—explains something many find off-putting about Singer’s movement: it is the drone program of altruism. Most effective altruists think it is better, say, for a first-world doctor to donate his salary, thus bankrolling several doctors in a poorer country, than to practice there himself. Effective altruists know people crave the “warm glow” of helping, but to them this feeling has no value in itself—it is just fuel for the altruism machine. They might tell a person whose child died of leukemia that he shouldn’t give to cancer research but to a deworming charity that saves more lives per dollar. They don’t always understand that, to many people, to suppress emotional connection to make way for a more rational altruism is to crush their moral roots.
Then again, intuitions about altruism at a distance are as conflicted as intuitions about killing. Take people who donate a kidney to a stranger. Some donors want to select and meet the person who gets their kidney because they want to feel an emotional connection to him. But others think it is better to donate blindly and anonymously—to permit a transplant center to assign the kidney to whomever is most in need. To pick your recipient, they feel, is to play God; and to start a relationship with the recipient is to burden him with a debt of gratitude he can never repay.
And there is something important to understand about effective altruists. When they advocate altruism at a distance, some of them are not choosing logic over empathy, because the misery of distant strangers moves as much as the misery of those nearby. One effective altruist I interviewed began to cry when he thought about the suffering of anonymous people long ago; another cried at the thought of suffering as such. I don’t know if such abstract grieving can be called empathy, or whether it is something stranger and rarer than that, but it is a moral emotion just as powerful.