My cliff notes for “On caring“:
Due to the way our brains (fail to) process large numbers, it is possible for us to theoretically care about “all people” but also for us to only be moved to act out of care for very small numbers of imperiled people. We recognize the difference between 2 and 4, but at a certain point, large numbers lose their impact on the way we compute scale. This is a problem.
Caring for the world requires acting as though we felt the suffering of the many in proportion to the suffering for the few, even though we don’t. The stakes are high: All of the future of humanity — which is a potential number of individuals far beyond our own capacity to grok — is potentially impacted by us, now, and how we act. If we save one, or save the world, it feels about the same. Bt it shouldn’t; our calibration of care is broken. This is scope insensitivity.
The amount we give to charity — a proxy for the good we try to do in the world, to avert suffering — is generally driven more by social context than anything. We might give out of pressure, out of guilt, or out of desire to win a charity competition. None of these have to do with the magnitude of suffering in the world, or the value of giving. These factors motivate us to give some of our money when we otherwise wouldn’t give any of our money. Note that the problems in the world are worth a lot more of our money to address, but no one expects anyone else to give all of their money away. Social context matters more than scope.
For a given crisis that needs support, our reaction when approached by a canvaser soliciting donations is one thing; our reaction if we were face to face (or imagined being so) with the effects of the crisis on one individual (depending on the crisis, an animal [e.g. BP oil spill] or a human [e.g. Haiti earthquake]), is another. In the latter, we would generally be moved to help an imperiled individual right in front of us, and moved to pay others some dollar amount to help, as well.
I we further imagine multiplying that dollar amount we would pay others to help a single affect individual, by all affected individuals, that adds up horrifyingly fast, to a very large amount. — And that is just for a single cause. What about all the other crises that also affect animals/humans? If we extend our dollar value for saving an individual to all of those imperiled by all crises everywhere, then we begin to glimpse how bad of a state the world is in, and how much we ought to care.
Paradoxically, you can then realize that we can’t afford to even expend that minimal dollars-per-saved-individual effort, because of the opportunity cost of not saving all the other individuals imperiled (by all crises, the world over). This is independent of the value of their lives — they are worth far more. We come to realize that we cannot possibly do enough!
Originally, we devote our lives to service because no cause seemed pressing enough. Now, we are aware of the pressing importance of acting in service, for so many causes, but we are paralyzed by our inability to make even a dent in any of these problems.
What distinguishes prominent altruists is not that they care more, but that they have learned to distrust how much they care. They have learned that their sense of care is broken, due to scope insensitivity. Our sense of care does not work for large numbers; we feel an inappropriately small amount of care in proportion to all of the world’s problems. But, they also know that feeling care (which they don’t) is not required to acting care (which they do). They’ve switched from being driven automatically to care by their feelings, caring on manual control.
How, then, should we act? Well, it is hard to say. But one answer is that it isn’t enough to think you should do something: You need desperation that comes from realizing the gap between what the world needs and what we can give.
This is NOT about guilt you into giving more money to charity. Philanthropy is harder than we tend to acknowledge: It requires you have a lot of money (hard!), and give most of it away (unnatural!). Plus, guilt isn’t a good long term motivator [hence this whole series]. Try to do good because of intrinsic motivation, instead.