Weak wills and causing people to care.

When I’ve told friends in recent weeks that I’m working on the ethics of climate change at the moment, a common reaction has been for them to confess that they don’t really care, before immediately acknowledging that that is probably bad. I felt and acted similarly for a long time. It is a boring issue, and I have no natural appetite for scientific literature on the effects of carbon and economic articles on externalities. But as is so often the case in the world, things that are really boring often really matter. We need to overcome our instincts.

There’s another sense in which this point is true, and its lesson is even more important. Not only is climate change intellectually dry. Morally, it is difficult to grasp its significance because the impact is so diffused and distant. There’s no doubt that if I handed you a gun and gave you the chance to kill someone now, knowingly depriving them of six months of healthy life which would unfold were you not to shoot – then you wouldn’t shoot. You’d deem shooting this person abhorrent.

And yet your carbon footprint, over your life time, does on the best estimates cause the terminating of six months of healthy life. The difference is only that you do not see it. It doesn’t feel intimately connected to us, so we easily deceive ourselves and rationalise our duties away. Again, we need to fight our instincts and start to care, as most people know deep down that they should.

The exact same issue arises when we deal with global poverty. As Singer famously argued, we wouldn’t hesitate to save a dying child at little cost to ourselves if we walked past him on the way to work one morning. But place him on the other side of the world and we suddenly feel no special duties, even though helping is just as easy. Donating is a click away, and it’s very hard to see why physical distance makes any moral difference.

I’ll take a slight risk and cite the discredited Jonah Lehrer here. The following facts are reported elsewhere too, for the skeptics:

Consider the work of Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. He told undergraduates about a starving child named Rokia — she lived in a crumbling refugee camp in Africa. His students acted with impressive generosity. They saw her emaciated body and haunting brown eyes and they donated, on average, about $2.50 to Save the Children.

However, when a second group of students were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa — like the fact that more than five million children are malnourished — the average donation was 50 percent lower.

At first glance, this makes no sense. We should give away more money when we are informed about the true scope of the problem, not less.

Why do we do this? The depressing statistics leave us cold, even when they are truly terrible. That’s because our emotions can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water.

This explains why the new start-up charity, Watsi, which I criticised earlier this week, is becoming so successful. By offering anecdotes and including photos and encouraging charity for individual persons, it taps into our sentimentality. The narratives attract us, even though for the amount of money it takes to cure one person on that site of a disease, you could do far more good for far more people.

I don’t think correcting our biases here is too tricky. Can we not just use our imaginations? Yes, my donation of $300 to Deworm the World last week doesn’t sound heartwarming in the way sponsoring one child might. But I know that if I were able to follow my money, fly out to see the drugs it paid for and then observe their benefits, then I would see around six hundred children in school, able to focus without all too common intestinal infections, because of my decision. Six hundred children. Why can’t that thought motivate more people? Why can’t we employ similar thought experiments to get ourselves to care more about climate change?

But until we can, perhaps green movements have it all wrong. It’s sadly likely that we could only spur real behavioural change by finding and filming actual kids suffering from droughts. If that’s necessary, it should be done. But it would be far better if it wasn’t needed because we all woke up, and allowed the power of reflection to guide our choices.

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