Thursday, 11 February 2010

How our Compassion Reveals a Moral Abyss

Yesterday, BBC reported that the official death toll of the Haiti disaster is now 230 000, thus approaching the sum of lives claimed by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Just as with the Tsunami, people and nations all over the world have reacted as we all expect from a standard of minimal decency: with horror and compassion put into action. Massive support programs have been set in motion to come to aid in the face of the unspeakable suffering and large numbers of voluntary individuals with useful skills have devoted time, resources and energy to the same end. Let it be that some of the initiatives have seen a bit odd, like the fixation of the US on tools of violence as the top priority when sending over 10 000 troops, or the outright bizarre, like this case that I covered in a former posting.

All of this is in line with the complex model of the human cognitive, emotional and motivational apparatus so famously sketched by David Hume in the 18th century: Besides experiencing and caring for ourselves, we have the evident natural ability to know the plight of others and the innate drive to be motivated by this knowledge. This picture still holds in most respects as modern psychological research and cognitive science advances - in fact, most of what is done in these fields build essentially on the basic psychological models of Hume. Similarly, modern science debunks the simplistic picture of human nature as essentially self-centered and egoistic in much the same way as Hume and his approximate contemporary Bishop Joseph Butler did: All of the tricks employed by advocates of psychological egoism to explain away evidence of non-selfish human motivation rests on a faulty picture of the human cognitive and motivational apparatus. What the psychological egoist would claim about our compassion and willingness to help in the face of the Haiti tragedy is that these things are mere side-effects of our striving for an emotional or material reward. Obviously, we may forget the material side - no one expects anything back from Haiti or its people; we even tolerate and understand that they are many times angry and disappointed at the result of the aid efforts when these fall short of meeting the needs. But the egoist has one more card up his sleeve, namely, the conjecture that we help because we strive for the feeling of satisfaction that being helpful provides. This argument, however, as Butler and Hume pointed out, puts the carriage in front of the horse, since it fails to take into account the source of the feeling of satisfaction: the fact that we need or want to come to aid. This is what motivates us - the emotional reward comes afterward. Modern cognitive science confirms this picture in terms of the biochemistry involved in motivation, emotion and feeling. The role of the neurological reward system is to uphold a system of motivation that in itself is not directed at achieving rewards or avoiding punishment, but at doing whatever it is one strives or wants to do. Only in special circumstances will our motivational attention be directed at the effects of the reward system (such as when we push ourselves to do something that we have a strong motivation not to do).

However, as Hume noted, our motivational capacities are at the same time rather arbitrary when it comes to our relations to other people, depending in turn on what associations between ourselves and others that are present in the mind. So, although we have that natural capacity for perceiving the emotional states of others that Hume called sympathy, and that enables us to identify the feelings, moods and affective states of others in terms of similarity and closeness to our own mental states, what we do in response to such perceptions is a rather open question. Moral reasoning, therefore, has to be about making such responses systematic and coherent, or at least to formulate an ideal pattern of motivational responses that we accept as desirable - the virtues in terms of prudence, benevolence and justice.

Since Hume's days, further factors influencing how we react to the plight of others have been mapped in psychological research, besides associations of similarity and closeness. For instance, various situational factors such as present mood is clearly influential and likewise regarding our sense of certainty with regard to our belief in our perception. Therefore, if I'm really pissed off when being asked to contribute to the Haitian cause I may end up not contributing just because of that, not because I fail to empathize with the victims. Or, if I doubt that my donation will really help these victims or that the situation is really as bad, this may counteract my willingness to give. Other well-known factors are assembled under the headline of framing; properties of the circumstances we are in that influence either our motivation or our tendency to act on it, such as threats or manipulations from other people. Moral thinking, ethical theory and our normative societal institutions (such as the legal system) have found various ways to get around all of these potential hurdles for moral reason to be able flourish. However, there is a further much more disturbing factor, having to do with the spatial-temporal denseness or concentration, and perhaps contrast to what one is accustomed to, of the perceived need.

Already during the aftermath of the Tsunami, UN aid officials pointed out that these sort of death numbers is what is ordinary due to poverty and starvation even in the absence of disastrous events such as storms or earthquakes. Rejoicing the willingness of people to give at the time, they expressed the hope that this willingness would continue in the face of this fact. This did not happen. Similarly, the Haitian death toll equals the number of children that die due to poverty every 10 days! Very many people are perfectly aware of this and there is no government anywhere that does not know these facts. But do they react proportionally to the way they react in the face of the Tsunami or Haiti tragedies? Of course not.

The explanation seems plain and straightforward. Our motivational system makes us prone to respond even to vast needs of many others when this collection of needs is experienced as spatio-temporarily concentrated and salient. Thus our admirable compassion for the victims of the Haitian disaster. But the flip side to that coin is that this property of our motivational system steers our motivation clear of being influenced by clear and certain knowledge of much much larger disasters when these are stretched out over larger portions of space-time and experienced as part of the ordinary. This is what makes us tolerate the ongoing processes that create this situation, some of which have been so well described by Thomas Pogge, rather than respond in a way similar to particular disasters such as the Tsunami or the Haiti earthquake.

Thus, the very source in human nature of the compassion that forms the root of our notion of morality is also the source of a virtual moral abyss. The challenge then seems to be: how do we get around this obvious lack of moral rationality without thereby sacrificing the sort of compassion we are already equipped with?


  1. Isn't there a kind of logic of the media that focuses on disasters and the like by putting on fundraising spectacles on TV etc. Perhaps TV could awaken our compassion for the constant everyday sufferings of the poor by getting our attention in a similar way. But I guess there isn't enough air time, and besides there is probably a risk that people will get "bored" with the suffering (so it would be quite counter-productive). Maybe there is a limit to how much compassion a person can feel, even though one is very aware of the sufferings. In that case we have to, as you say, make people think more rationally in most cases. Of course we may try to get people to read and discuss ethics more, but that seems to be a difficult path. Religion, on the other hand, has traditionally been a source for moral duties that go beyond immediate compassion, but we all know the negative aspects of religion too.

  2. I would say that the media, rather than being a causal factor here, works exactly according to that apparent part of human nature I tried to highlight. And to no surprise, since human's make media :-) Also, note, that the way that religion's so far have managed to have us systematize our mix of prudence and benevolence seem to be inferior to what (some) states (not being extensions of religions) have managed. But both religions and states have achieved their results by not upsetting the hardwired moral psychological tendencies of humans too much...