Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times columnist who writes the most about issues of global poverty and disease, has a discussion today of some of the recent work by psychologists and philosophers about empathy and its limits.
Kristof has done his homework, and he cites some of the most important thinkers in these fields. It is astonishing and dispiriting to read this:
…in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.
Perhaps this is because, as some research suggests, people give in large part to feel good inside. That works best when you write a check and the problem is solved. If instead you’re reminded of larger problems that you can never solve, the feel-good rewards diminish.
I hope that people who give to causes that relieve hunger, for example, ‘feel good’ when they do so. But Kristof rightly notes that if this is the reason why they give to these causes, then we will get less famine relief than if they give for other reasons. I take Peter Singer, one of the important writers Kristof mentions, to be saying that a better reason to give is that this will relieve suffering. If you think about it that way, then the more suffering you help to relieve, the better your action—even if you haven’t relieved all the suffering that there is.