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Davis, California

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Cold, calculated morality

Throughout my college career, I have been bombarded by activist groups begging for my support. Most of the time, it’s a perky girl holding a clipboard who runs up to me and explains how the horrors of the world need my minimal contribution.

I usually play along for a bit until I reject the plea – that’s when the guilt kicks in.

I think to myself,Wow, children are being sold as sex slaves in Thailand? That’s pretty shitty, why didn’t I just give the perky girl five bucks?”

In my optimistic opinion, we all wish to stop the child sex trade. For some reason, however, not everyone (including myself) puts effort toward fighting this injustice. This odd behavior appears to be a moral paradox: We want to make people happier yet we chose not to do anything about it.

If you look at my spending history, you would conclude I would rather give five bucks to a hungry friend than to a charity for starving orphans. I am not a bad person; I just haven’t had the emotional pull to go out of my way to donate.

The more I will be exposed to the woe of starving orphans, the more likely I am to donate. I am no exception to this rule; most activists have a strong emotional attachment to their cause. Famous people who catch some debilitating disease leverage their fame and money toward advocating for a treatment. People who lose a loved one realize they should get closer to their family. People who see Schindler’s List suddenly become more sympathetic toward Jews in the Holocaust.

I find it unsettling that our morality is so closely correlated to how emotional we feel about something. This perspective on morality makes it all sound less virtuous and even ignoble. On the other hand, it sheds light onto how we should start looking at morality.

Acting morally only when emotionally stimulated is not always in line with our moral preferences. Only caring about issues that tug at our hearts or acting in ways that make us merely feel righteous may distract us from doing the right thing.

Steven Pinker opened his articleThe Moral Instinct” (for The New York Times) by asking:Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?” Pinker then points out how most people would find Mother Teresa, who’s loved for her charitable work, more admirable than Gates, who’s infamous for the blue screen of death and the dancing paperclip. Gates, however, used his fortune to help a lot more people than Mother Teresa with her primitive medical care. Why does their moral reputation seem out of order?

Pinker’s observation is an example of how people rank moral behaviors by how warm and fuzzy it makes them feel. As a society, I think we’d be better off if our moral acts are chosen by how many lives they save or how much suffering they alleviate, not by how they make us feel. Our emotions are not reliable measurements for how effective a moral act is. They could have been reliable back in the hunter-gatherer days, but modern society has a completely different environment.

Back in the day, 30 to 50 would be a typical size for a cohesive hunter-gatherer band. Our minds haven’t evolved a mechanism that intensifies our grief for deaths greater than the typical size of a hunter-gatherer band. We simply don’t have the neurotransmitters to multiply the grief felt for 10 million deaths to 2 million deaths. When trying to decide which policies we need to administer in order to deter global warming or end poverty, these figures are significant. Bed nets and emission taxes may not make us feel warm and fuzzy, but they may be the right thing to do.

Morality based on emotions also blinds us from things we may care about, but don’t realize yet. One hundred and fifty years ago, we had to convince people that they cared about black slaves – we couldn’t just tell them it was wrong.

In fact, there are many moral issues we care about now, but ignore because we aren’t emotionally motivated. Here are some issues I think we’ve been ignoring: future people having to deal with our problems, abuse of prisoners and the morality of eating animals.

In summary, we should all be more moral, but let’s not be emo about it.

LIOR GOTESMAN wants to know what other moral issues you think we’ve been ignoring. Tell him at liorgott@gmail.com.

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