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Thoughts on EA: Scope Insensitivity vs Empathy Fatigue

By Jolene, Jiankai Gong

As an Economics student, the underlying principle behind everything I learn is the fact that humans are rational. We are assumed to make decisions based on the consequential level of benefit or utility. However, I am sure we all agree that we are much more than cold economic agents that behave according to logical calculations. We care about others around us, we wish to thrive together in flourishing communities. Effective Altruism fellowship discussions made me realize that most of the time, we care more than we think we care.

One important concept that I find particularly interesting is “scope insensitivity” which refers to the fact that people tend to care more about individual cases than they do about larger groups or populations. For example, many people are willing to donate a significant amount of money to save the life of one hundred birds, but the amount does not increase proportionally as the number of birds increases.

People are also keen to save a child in the neighborhood but are much less motivated to help prevent the deaths of thousands of children in Africa. It is a natural human tendency that we are more empathetic toward issues that have a personal link with us. This tendency unfortunately leads to undesired outcomes when it comes to charitable giving, because if we visualize malnourished African children, we usually realize that we want to help them too.

On the other hand, an unintended consequence of trying to empathize on the scale of thousands or millions is probably empathy fatigue. Effective altruists seem to spend the majority of their time researching about the pressing issues, the suffering, and existential risks. The problems seem extremely urgent and important at first, but if we interact with pain and suffering all day, we grow numb at some point. Regular exposure to these issues renders it difficult to stay motivated to do good in the long term although the situations have not ameliorated. I firmly believe that this is something we have to overcome in order to be effective.

It is crucial that we cultivate a sense of empathy that is rooted in reason and evidence, rather than mere emotions. For instance, self-fulfillment and the meaning of life can be at the core of doing good rather than ephemeral feelings of pity, or on the long-term benefits of reducing suffering in the world.


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