Thursday, March 15, 2007
Yes. The title of this post is a play on that of Ayn Rand's essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies", which appears in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness. The word play is deliberate, because the article I am writing about remarkably takes exactly the opposite of Ayn Rand's philosophical approach as it addresses an interesting question.
In "Numbed by Numbers " (via Arts and Letters Daily), author Paul Slovic considers the fact that people are generally moved to pity (and aid) individuals who are unfortunate in the present, but less so groups, and less so over protracted periods of time. In attempting to explain why this might be so, he cites some interesting research, but because his approach is philosophically flawed, he draws exactly the opposite conclusion about what could be done to alleviate (or avert altogether) such calamities as the genocide in Darfur!
Very briefly, let us consider the essence of the conventional approach to the field of ethics. Most will claim that ethics is a set of arbitrary commands (e.g. meaningless social conventions or divine edicts) which may or may not happen to provide any practical guidance to an individual for furthering his own life. This is reflected in the fact that so many people face ethical dilemmas when what they regard as the moral conflicts with what they regard as the practical.
The reason for this common problem is that most ethical systems are formulated without regard to what man actually is or why he might need an ethical system to survive. Quite frequently, when man's nature is considered at all, it is man who is found wanting when his nature conflicts with the ethical system, rather than the validity of the ethical system coming into question. But then, when one accepts the arbitrary, one has placed it outside of rational consideration.
By contrast, Ayn Rand begins by asking what man is, and why he needs a code of morality. Using this approach, she sees right away that man, a rational animal possessed of free will, is a living being and as such must perform certain actions in order to survive. Because man does not have instincts, he must learn everything, including what these actions are.
And because reason allows man to keep track of countless individual concretes efficiently (as well as any important similarities) by means of concepts, it allows him to essentialize the countless similar existents he will face as he goes through life. In particular, man can evaluate various situations (and his actions) conceptually. The science of making such evaluations (and guiding them by considering the evidence for what he needs to live (and flourish) is ethics, or morality.
Bearing this very brief comparison in mind, it is interesting to consider Slovic's analysis of the limits of human compassion and what ought to be done about it.
Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue "the one" whose plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of "the one" who is "one of many" in a much greater problem. It's happening right now in regards to Darfur, where over 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the past four years and at least another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. Why aren't these horrific statistics sparking us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide?The best point here indirectly mirrors one brought up in discussions of epistemology in Objectivist circles all the time: Man's mind can not deal with limitless amounts of perceptual data. This phenomenon, because it was first observed in experiments that showed that crows could not distinguish numbers of groups above something like three, is often called the "crow epistemology". To a degree, this "blurring" certainly can be accounted for by this limitation of the human mind.
The answer may lie in human psychology. Specifically, it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act.
The psychological mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes in which mass murder is neglected involves what’s known as the "dance of affect and reason" in decision-making. Affect is our ability to sense immediately whether something is good or bad. But the problem of numbing arises when these positive and negative feelings combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocide -- no matter how large the numbers—do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not "feel" that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.
When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, "At what number do other individuals blur for me?" In other words, when does "compassion fatigue" set in? Our research suggests that the "blurring" of individuals may begin as early as the number two.
However, the crow epistemology cannot account for all of this "blurring", nor can it account for "compassion fatigue" over time. This is borne out by the fact that it is through such shorthand as numbers (e.g., in the form of statistics) that man can keep track of many instances of a given particular. Slovic grasps this implicitly when he asks, "Why aren't these horrific statistics sparking us to action?"
Now this is an interesting question, and in order to understand what is wrong with Slovic's explanation, the "dance of affect and reason", it is necessary to consider Ayn Rand's insight into the relationship between reason and emotion, which I once summarized (and applied) as follows:
According to Ayn Rand, emotions are instantaneous, subconsciously-made evaluations of what one is experiencing or thinking about at any given moment. Emotions are also experienced, much like percepts. However, what one feels about something will ultimately be based on one's philosophical premises. The concept of rationality doesn't apply to emotions as such, although it certainly does to the thought processes that led someone to adopt the premises underlying the emotion. This is a profound and very important insight ... Let's explore [the implications of] this a bit....While I cannot read Slovic's mind, I think he would agree that whether one actually does something in response to news of suffering (be it in the form of a moving film clip or a report tallying a staggering number of unfortunates) would have to be motivated at least in some way by the person's emotional response. Using behavior as a gauge, then, it is fair to say that Slovic himself was moved by reports of genocide in Darfur sufficiently to ask why more people are not similarly moved, write about what he found, and advocate using the findings he reported.
First, this insight can help us interpret the reactions of others. Did you shout with glee and pass candy around like a savage on September 11, 2001? Or did you cry because you saw fellow human beings jumping out of windows? These differing emotions reveal opposite judgments of that event and of the value of human life. (In many cases, one's own: which philosophy led to nineteen men immolating themselves that day?) Were you angry? At America as the "world aggressor" or at the terrorists? Same emotion, different underlying philosophical premises. ...
To be fair, columns of numbers and graphs are never going to evoke an immediate emotional response, but this is because like words, numbers mean things. Not only do these numbers (highly abstract data) need to be tied to concrete reality in some way, the existents they describe must still be evaluated according to a person's philosophical premises before he will feel an emotional response, if he feels one at all. And furthermore, these premises will determine what that response (and its intensity) will be. (On this score, if anything is deficient, it is not human nature, but how effective our educational system has been in teaching people how the abstract and the concrete are connected in the first place.)
To take myself as an example, I was once moved by a report of genocide to become very angry, but my response was probably different in some ways than Slovic's would have been, given that he regards Mother Teresa as a moral ideal and I do not.
[W]hen one regards individuals as without rights, or as subordinate to the collective at best, and holds uniformity to be an ideal, one becomes blind to the fact that the "smallest minority", as Ayn Rand once put it is "the individual". Viewed in this light, every socialist dictatorship is guilty of "genocide" countless times over!Note my outrage. Note further that it is directed in part against leftists, many of whom claim to act in the name of alleviating human suffering. And note why: Precisely as Slovic himself points out, every instance of mass human suffering is endured by countless individuals. As such, every tyranny is an atrocity of appalling proportions.
Genocide is wrong only because murder is wrong. And oppression of a minority is wrong only because violating the rights of its constituent individuals is wrong. There is no meaningful difference between a government that drives a minority into poverty and oppression and one that does the same thing wholesale to its entire populace. In this respect, leftist condemnations of genocide are missing the big picture at best and constitute dishonest distractions from essential issues at worst.
Robert Mugabe deserves to be deposed, tried as a criminal against humanity, and executed because he is a tyrant. Genocide is only the tip of this iceberg.
I will not elaborate further here on why I do not think that the purpose of my life is to alleviate the suffering of others. I will also not detail why, although I promote the protection of individual rights for purely egoistic reasons, I think doing so would do far more to mitigate atrocities such as those in Darfur and Zimbabwe (if not avert many of them altogether) than any amount of charitable donations made while doing nothing to end such regimes.
What I will do is note that human beings are not incapable of being moved to act by statistical data. That such data is not entirely accessible on the perceptual level would certainly make it less easy to use it stir someone who does not think deeply to action. And furthermore, for any data to cause someone to make a charitable donation even after feeling an emotion like pity, that person must hold appropriate philosophical premises.
And even in this last case, the common "problem" of the moral vs. the practical doubtless contributes. Man simply cannot live by consistently practicing self-sacrifice. Even if he holds that he exists to help others, he must still act to further his own life at some point. He will, sooner or later, if he is to remain alive, have to ignore someone else's problems and attend to his own. And then there are also the interesting questions of whether the emotions Slovic wants us to feel could be sustained over long periods of time and whether, if they could, they would result in mental illness.
There are any number of reasons why statistics do not move people to act to alleviate suffering, but using "reasoned analysis to guide our judgments" is actually not one of them, given what reason is, what statistics are for, and the relationship of reason to emotion (and of both of these to action).
Having said that, it was interesting to see Slovic take altruism as a given, then observe so many of us not living by it to his satisfaction, only to conclude that we have a "fundamental deficiency in our humanity", rather than ask whether it is altruism itself -- as Ayn Rand spent a lifetime arguing -- which is deficient as a guide for human action and which, if overcome, could at least thwart countless thugs and tyrants, thereby putting an end to much of human misery.
There are indeed many humanitarian emergencies in the world, but many are caused or worsened by the notion that man does not exist for his own sake and that it is therefore acceptable to enslave him (or worse) in the name of helping the collective. These are "emergencies of ethics" to the extent that they are caused by altruism.
Today: Several minor edits.
5-16-07: Added a hypertext anchor.