The Life You Can Save 2

In part 2 of The Life You Can Save, Singer considers some of the psychological obstacles to giving more, as well as some ways they might be overcome.

Chapter 4 reviews some research that provides a measure of insight into our reluctance to give to strangers living in extreme poverty. For instance, people are less likely to give more generously if they

don’t think it’s going to an identifiable individual;

are being asked to give to foreigners rather than their compatriots, even if, impartially considered, the foreigners are far worse off (Singer compares the response to victims of Hurricane Katrina to the response to victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia; Americans gave $6.5 billion to victims of Katrina, which claimed 1,600 lives and gave $1.54 billion to victims of the tsunami, which killed 220,000 people);

perceive the effort as futile (the “drop in the ocean” effect);

responsibility is diffused–people are less likely to step forward when others are around and not doing anything;

don’t believe that others are giving too–that is, people don’t like to fee like suckers or have their sense of fairness violated; or

associate giving with a monetary reward–studies indicate that a society built around the “cash nexus” reduces people’s sense of connection to others in the community.

Singer then goes on to discuss some recent theorizing about the connection between ethics and evolution and how our evolutionary history might have conditioned us to be less giving to distant strangers. Some of the psychological obstacles to giving discussed above reflect what philosophers sometimes call our moral intuitions–our reflexive judgments about right and wrong. And to some extent, evolutionary theory can shed light on these intuitions. For instance, since for most of history human beings lived in small tight-knit groups, it makes sense that people with an innate preference for the interests of members of the group (versus the interests of outsiders) would flourish.

However, as Singer points out, intuitions that may be the legacy of our evolutionary history are subject to reasoned criticism. Preference for kith and kin and or the sense that I ought only to help those I can individually identify might have served our ancestors well, but they don’t necessarily provide sufficient moral guidance for our very different world:

Patterns of behavior that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce may, in today’s very different circumstances, be of no benefit to us or our descendants. Even if some evolved intuition or way of acting were still conducive to our survival and reproduction, however, that would not, as Darwin himself recognized, make it right. Evolution has no moral direction. An evolutionary understanding of human nature can explain the differing intuitions we have when we are faced with an individual rather than with a mass of people, or with people close to us rather than those far away; but it does not justify those feelings. (pp. 60-61)

But Singer isn’t so naive as to suppose that we are all going to be guided by impartial reason rather than feeling. In fact, following a tradition in moral philosophy that goes back to David Hume (and includes Adam Smith and Darwin himself), Singer sees feelings–or “moral sentiments”–as an important part of ethics. Contrary to some accounts of evolution as producing creatures that are purely egoistic and competitive, a more complex and accurate picture reveals a mix of self-regarding and other-regarding elements in our psychological make up. The trick is to encourage the latter and to try to bring them into closer alignment with an impartial evaluation of the interests of all people.

Creating this “culture of giving” is the topic of chapter 5. Singer explores various ways in which a higher standard for giving away one’s wealth has become a norm in certain communities. For example, a group of philanthropists started a group several years ago called the 50% League, which was dedicated in supporting members in giving away at least half of their wealth. Much of what we consider normal or adequate is defined by our peer group, so changing the expectations of that group (or joining another one) can make a real difference in terms of how much we feel comfortable giving away.

Along the same lines, Singer identifies some other factors that can help people give more, such as (1) being open about what we and others give; if we think others are doing it, we’re more likely to do it too; (2) linking giving with identifiable recipients, as with some programs that ask donors to “sponsor” a child in another country, even if their donations aren’t going exclusively or directly to that child; (3) “nudging” people in the right direction as some corporations have done by making giving to a charitable cause something that employees must opt out of instead of opting in to; and (4) challenging the norm of self-interest.

The last is one of the more interesting discussions in the book so far. Singer argues that we are actually prone to describing our actions in terms of self-interest even when we’re acting generously and to over-estimate the degree to which self-interest motivates other people. One study, for instance, found that people vastly overestimated the extent to which men would oppose increased medical funding for women’s health issues. Singer also discusses an experiment which showed that students were less likely to return a lost envelope containing $100 after taking a semester of economics! Having to some degree internalized the axiom, common to so much economics, that people act purely out of self-interest, they changed their behavior accordingly! Even though there is ample evidence that people often act from motives other than self-interest, we seem intent on unmasking apparent altruism to reveal darker motives beneath. But the evidence seems to be that motives can be encouraged or discouraged, at least to some extent, by social and cultural norms.

However, even if giving is the right thing to do, and psychological obstacles to giving more can be overcome, will it actually do any good? The next part will look at the many questions surrounding the effectiveness of giving to people in extreme poverty.

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