The other day, I mentioned the effort to make SC roads safer in the name of Glenn Forrest Rabon, Jr., a young man who was killed on a road that everyone had known needed an upgrade.
I neither endorsed nor argued against the proposal, because the petition didn’t give me sufficient information to evaluate the proposal. And I wasn’t going to back the idea just because there was a sympathetic story attached.
Doug Ross went further, saying:
There’s something about naming these laws after people that just seems a little too self-centered for me. Calling the report on road conditions the “TRIPP Report” goes even further. Must we make this into an emotional “how can you refuse to support our dead son” campaign?
I wouldn’t put it exactly the way Doug did, but I think he and I had a similar problem with the petition. It’s not a matter of “self-centered,” exactly. But it’s governing by emotion rather than reason, and I see that sort of thing as problematic. At a moment in our history when the country just voted an expression of their viscera into the White House, I suppose that makes me a bit quaint, but…
Anyway, I was reminded of this when I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend headlined, “The Perils of Empathy.” At first I assumed the author was, like Doug, a fan of Ayn Rand, which I most assuredly am not. After all, her followers regularly decry altruism as a bad thing.
But that’s not what the piece was about. It was all for compassion, just not empathy — or at least, not empathy taken to places where it should not go. Here’s what it was saying:
Our empathic responses are not just biased; they prompt us to ignore obvious practical calculations. In studies reported in 2005 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers asked people how much money they would donate to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked other people how much they would give to develop a drug to save eight children. The research participants were oblivious to the numbers—they gave roughly the same in both cases. And when empathy for the single child was triggered by showing a photograph of the child and telling the subjects her name, there were greater donations to the one than to the eight.
Empathy is activated when you think about a specific individual—the so-called “identifiable victim” effect—but it fails to take broader considerations into account. This is nicely illustrated by a classic experiment from 1995, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Subjects were told about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was low on a wait list for treatment that would relieve her pain. When subjects were given the opportunity to give her immediate treatment—putting her ahead of children who had more severe illnesses or who had been waiting longer—they usually said no. But when they were first asked to imagine what she felt, to put themselves in her shoes, they usually said yes.
We see this sort of perverse moral mathematics in the real world. It’s why people’s desire to help abused dogs or oil-drenched penguins can often exceed their interest in alleviating the suffering of millions of people in other countries or minorities in their own country. It’s why governments and individuals sometimes care more about a little girl stuck in a well (to recall the famous 1987 case of Baby Jessica in Midland, Texas) than about crises that affect many more people….
The author goes on to say that “Most people would agree, on reflection, that these empathy-driven judgments are mistaken—one person is not worth more than eight, we shouldn’t stop a vaccine program because of a single sick child if stopping it would lead to the deaths of dozens.”
We don’t have to be hard-hearted. As the piece also notes, “Empathy can be clearly distinguished from concern or compassion—caring about others, valuing their fates.”
But we need to evaluate something called, for instance, “So-and-so’s Law,” where “So-and-so” is an emotionally appealing person who has suffered from the lack of such a law. We must always ask whether what is being proposed would actually help other so-and-sos, and whether it is the best way to help and whether the law does more good in the aggregate than it does harm.
Good points, but ones which may sometimes be counterintuitive…