Thursday, July 23, 2009

This blog is now at

Friday, July 3, 2009

Who do we care about?

Humans exercise compassion regarding:

  • family more than anyone
  • people they know more than strangers
  • geographically close people more than distant people
  • Visible people more than not visible people
  • culturally similar people more than culturally different people
  • few people more than many people (even one person more than two people, in total, if I recall)
  • people who can't be helped by others more than people who aren't being helped by others (bystander effect)
  • causing and stopping death more than stopping and causing birth
  • people who exist already more than potential people
  • actions more than inactions
  • those suffering more than those without as much pleasure as they could have
  • people who will recover health or wealth with our help more than those whose suffering will merely be reduced
  • high status people more than low status people
  • big animals more than small animals
  • women more than men
  • children more than adults
  • cute things more than ugly things
  • the innocent more than the guilty
Our moral feelings are not concerned for others' wellbeing per se. They are very contingent. What's the pattern? An obvious contender is whether we can be rewarded or punished by the beneficiary of our 'compassion'. Distant, helpless, non-existent and low status people can't easily return the favour or punish. Inaction and shared blame are hard to punish, as everyone is responsible. There are some things that don't fit this, but most can be explained e.g. children are weak, but if they are ours we genetically benefit by caring and if they are not they probably have someone powerful caring about them for that reason. Got a better explanation?

I don't decide what to do by guessing the pattern behind my moral emotions and trying to follow it better. If you do, perhaps try to care only for the powerful. If you don't, notice that your moral feelings are probably fooling you into what's tantamount to murder.