By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, May 12, 2008
If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces.
-- William Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice"
A few decades ago, a cyclone similar to the one that ravaged Burma last week struck South Asia. As in the case of Burma, the earlier disaster caused widespread destruction among some of the poorest people on the planet. Britain and Australia were among the most generous of the countries that stepped forward with aid, but the philosopher Peter Singer pointed out that Britain's donation was about one-thirtieth the size of its investment in the Anglo-French Concorde jet project. Australia's contribution, Singer added, was less than one-twelfth the cost of Sydney's famous opera house. Going strictly by the numbers, Singer asked whether Britain valued supersonic jet travel more than 30 times as highly as the lives of 9 million refugees.
Natural disasters such as the one in Burma, where the death toll is expected to cross 100,000, bring to the fore several paradoxes of human behavior. Most people and nations do not follow the tugs of conscience about whether to help others in distress. The paradox is not that people are uncaring. Rather, it is that they fail to act in ways that they themselves know they should.
Hardly anyone would think twice about leaping into a pond to save a drowning child, if the only cost to them was ruining a pair of $200 shoes. But in that case, Singer once asked, why do people hesitate to write a $200 check to a reputable relief agency even when they are certain it would save the life of a child halfway around the world?
Psychological studies suggest the drowning child motivates us to act because a tragedy unfolding before our eyes activates our emotions, whereas abstract statistics about deaths in faraway places fail to engage us viscerally. Another reason we choose to help the child who is nearby is that we feel personally responsible for the drowning child, whereas we feel many other people are potentially responsible for the faraway child.
"We are told there are all these people who need help in Myanmar [Burma], but there are 100 million Americans who are comfortable enough to send money, plus hundreds of millions of Europeans and others, so the responsibility is very diffuse," Singer said.
Singer believes our inconsistencies in moral reasoning highlight the importance of a school of thought called utilitarianism, which suggests we should make moral decisions in a coolly scientific manner, rather than rely on intuitions, laws or religious guidelines. The philosophy is controversial because it suggests people are wrong to put the needs of those from their own countries, their neighborhoods -- or even their own species -- ahead of the needs of others. The only thing that matters, Singer argues, is what causes the largest improvement in overall well-being.
Singer backs up his words with actions: Over several decades, he has contributed a growing share of his income to charitable causes, such as the Oxfam group. He said he now gives about one-third of his income to such causes. And yet, he said, when he passes a homeless person on the street, although he feels drawn to help, he stops himself because it is not in keeping with utilitarian thinking: The same money can produce more well-being overall when channeled through a group such as Oxfam.
"The first donation was the hardest to make," he said. "The first time I wrote a check that had at least a couple of zeroes at the end -- that was the hardest thing."
Fiery Cushman, a graduate student in psychology at Harvard who studies how people's moral intuitions can clash with deliberate reasoning, said the unfolding disaster in Burma highlights another dimension of the warring moral compasses we have within ourselves: People are more willing to help in the case of disasters such as the cyclone than with "mundane" and ongoing problems that are equally deadly, such as malnutrition or malaria in poor countries.
"Our reasoned judgment says people are suffering in both situations," Cushman added. "That is a good example of the mismatch between our emotional responses and rational responses."
Still, Cushman questions Singer's utilitarian approach, because he argues that emotions undergird even our most rational responses. And there is abundant evidence that even though people value reason and rationality, human beings are biologically programmed to react emotionally to visceral moral challenges.
Joshua Greene, a Harvard philosopher and neuroscientist who also studies how people think about moral dilemmas, said: "The difference between Peter Singer and others is not that he does not have normal emotions but that he is able to override his emotions because of his utilitarian values."
In the end, the rules that people choose to motivate their actions might be less important than whether they actually act -- for whatever reason. At the National Press Club last week, for example, Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, was asked whether there was a single rule that guided his grandfather, who was anything but a utilitarian.
Gandhi, a scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has just written a new biography called "Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire," thought a moment and then said simply: "If you see something wrong, do something about it."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.