A look at rationality and thought experiments
I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can do good in the world. When I do this, it’s a mainly rational thought process - how could I maximise the resources, skills and opportunities I have access to in order to create the most substantial change possible? But there’s more to doing good than rational calculation, there’s emotion. Whether it’s compassion, sympathy, love maybe even guilt, it’s these feelings that spur us to take action to improve the experiences of others. The thing about emotion is it’s arguably the root of irrationality. In this piece I’m going to explore how irrationality and rationality affect how and why we do good and the effects these types of decisions have on the impact of our good-doing.
Before continuing to read this article, please complete this thought experiment: Peter Singer’s “The Drowning Child”. It’ll only take you 5 mins (you don’t have to read the analysis unless you want to).
Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, is an acclaimed author in the field of moral philosophy. In one of his books, The Life You Can Save, Singer discusses this famous thought experiment of “The Drowning Child”. When I completed the experiment, I felt I had the moral obligation to save the child in every scenario presented. Singer’s view is that we have the moral obligation to save any child (or person or animal) that we are able to. The question of geography showed this key principle -- we should not discriminate between who we help. The child drowning in front of you should be treated no differently to a child suffering from malnutrition in Indonesia or Tuberculosis in Nigeria. Moral obligation to help others is consistent and should be unbiased.
"The Life You Can Save"
The final question of The Drowning Child test asks if we are morally obliged to make a small donation in order to aid others. My answer, as it was to all the previous questions, was yes. But I’m a terrible person because I took this test 2 years ago and still haven’t donated a cent to Oxfam. Basically, I did not act in alignment with my principles. Singer himself says, “More often there's a compromise between ethics and expediency,” and I opted for expediency. I know I am not alone in this tendency.
Peter Singer is a moral philosopher, meaning he spends his time thinking about what we SHOULD do. But now I’d like to introduce you to someone else: Dan Ariely, someone who thinks about what we DO do. Ariely is a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, with a PhD in Cognitive Psychology. His team’s research, along with Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Richard Thaler, in the field of rationality has significantly changed how people think about our decision making, particularly in the field of behavioural economics. In his books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside to Irrationality, Ariely explains his research leading to the conclusion that we most definitely are not rational. He believes that what makes us human is actually our irrationality and presents a case of compassion being a large part of being human, even though it isn’t always rational. Arieli argues that doing good stems more from emotional reactions than the principles we hold.
Here’s a question: Presented with the following scenario, what would you do? A child needs help because she has fallen into a well, but between emergency services and a few previous donations, she will be fine. Would you add to the trust fund that’s just been opened in her name or would you give that money to a project aiming to feed 1 million school children across Sub-Saharan Africa? The first option would be irrational, right? Helping fewer people, who have already received more than enough money to survive.
The funny thing is, in 1987, when 18-month old Jessica McClure fell down a well, thousands of people chose the first option, acting irrationally -- out of emotion. People across the world were captivated and invested in the survival of “Baby Jessica”. Between the sound of her wailing on TV, trapped all alone in the dark, or the images of her parents holding each other hopelessly at the edge of the well, people couldn’t help but grab the nearest pen and write a cheque. Baby Jessica was rescued from the well and 25 years later gained access to her trust fund of donated money worth $800,000. At the current exchange rate (23 april 2020) that’s over R15 million, and that’s without inflation and interest. Basically, it’s a shit ton of money that could feed a lot of children.
When we allow our giving to be determined by emotion, our giving becomes biased and this entrenches inequality. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined how likely people were to give change to someone asking to use a pay phone, depending on the similarity of their physical appearances. They found that people were much more likely to give to someone who looked similar to them. We have a tendency to help people who are similar to us. This is a big problem because those who are able to offer help are most likely to give to people similar to them even though the people who need help are most likely different from them. This is exactly what happened in the case of Jessica McClure. Baby Jessica was a white, middle class american living in Midland Texas. The people similar to her, and therefore most likely to want to help her were able to do so. They opted to help Jessica rather than people who differed from them geographically, racially and socio-economically.
When I read this story it seemed there was a lot to be angry about. $800,000 ripped from the hands of those who needed it to survive and placed in one person’s trust fund because of the privileges she held. However, I realised that it wasn’t that simple. When people reached for their cheque books to donate to Baby Jessica, they weren’t processing a decision of whether to give to her or to another cause. Had they not reacted emotionally to what had happened to McClure, it’s very likely they wouldn’t have given to anyone at all. In his book, The Upside to Irrationality, Ariely discusses people’s willingness to make charitable donations in different circumstances. He shows that people are more willing to donate money to one particular person, rather than a large group of people. Even when the group is experiencing much more suffering and desperation, and even when the money could be used much more effectively and justifiably. Ariely proceeds to explain a study that he ran, showing that our emotions may obstruct our rationality, but that they enable compassion and empathy. When presented with cold statistics and numbers, we are very unlikely to donate money, because we don’t connect with the beneficiaries as people. We turn on the calculating part of our minds, suppressing our emotions. This is a case in which acting rationally means that nobody benefits, not the little girl in a well or the school children in Sub-Saharan Africa. When you simply analyze the facts, you are less likely to give any money at all.
I started writing this to try and come up with a formula to do good. I soon realised it was naive to think such a thing could exist. I am probably more confused than before about how to maximise the good I can do. But I think there is great value in that confusion because I am much more aware of the complexity of these questions. As people who are able to give it’s important that we do so. It’s also important that we constantly question and reevaluate our methods and biases that determine the outcomes of doing so. I think my advice (to myself and you) would be to allow yourself to feel compassion deeply and then use that compassion to maximise the good you can do.