Who should know about suffering?

“How big do the numbers have to be for insensitivity to begin? Not very, it turns out.”

 

“Consider the recent death of the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi when his family braved the choppy seas off the coast of Turkey. The image of Aylan lying face down on the beach captivated the world’s attention and even, in short order, resulted in refugee policy changes in countries as far away as the United States. But 14 Syrian children drowned in the Aegean Sea the next day. Did you notice? Did you care?”

 

“And even 14 is much higher than necessary to desensitize us. In studies published last year in the journal PLOS One, one of us, Paul Slovic, and colleagues demonstrated that “compassion fade” can occur when an incident involving a single person expands to as few as two people. Participants were asked, in both hypothetical and real situations, to make donations, and to report how they felt about donating, to either a single needy child or two needy children, each of whom was identified with a photograph, name and age. We found that people’s positive feelings about donating declined substantially when the group size was two, and that this decrease was related to lower levels of donations.”

 

The Arithmetic of Compassion

 

Some cognitive biases have ethically disastrous consequences. One of such  biases is scope neglect, and the psychological numbing with which this is implemented.

I find it hard to decide whether it is a good idea to help people realize the magnitude of the problem of suffering.

It’s a catch-22:

(1) Let them remain blissfully ignorant, and they’ll live life focused on immediate surroundings and on comforting sentimentality.

(2) Let them see the horror of reality, and they will either become Effective Altruists (with a small probability), or end up with a broken mind for years until they forget the reality of suffering. Then they’ll end up like (1) again. “After the war, he decided all he cared about was dog figurines. He now collects all sorts of dog figurines… that’s all he ever does!”

Who should, if anyone, be allowed to grasp the problem? Arguably, people who are extremely smart, extremely psychologically robust and highly compassionate. Maybe this should be the genetic target for the next generation of humans…

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