The Economist on "extreme altruism"

post by Pablo_Stafforini · 2014-09-18T19:53:52.287Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · 8 comments

This is a link post for

Extreme altruism: right on!, The Economist, September 20th, 2014. An excerpt:

Flyers at petrol stations do not normally ask for someone to donate a kidney to an unrelated stranger. That such a poster, in a garage in Indiana, actually did persuade a donor to come forward might seem extraordinary. But extraordinary people such as the respondent to this appeal (those who volunteer to deliver aid by truck in Syria at the moment might also qualify) are sufficiently common to be worth investigating. And in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University and her colleagues do just that. Their conclusion is that extreme altruists are at one end of a “caring continuum” which exists in human populations—a continuum that has psychopaths at the other end. [...]

She and her team used two brain-scanning techniques, structural and functional magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI), to study the amygdalas of 39 volunteers, 19 of whom were altruistic kidney donors. (The amygdalas, of which brains have two, one in each hemisphere, are areas of tissue central to the processing of emotion and empathy.) Structural MRI showed that the right amygdalas of altruists were 8.1% larger, on average, than those of people in the control group, though everyone’s left amygdalas were about the same size. That is, indeed, the obverse of what pertains in psychopaths, whose right amygdalas, previous studies have shown, are smaller than those of controls.

Whether this applies to EAs, however, is unclear. Compare Peter Singer's recent remarks in a panel discussion about empathy:

My admittedly impressionistic observation is that effective altruists are not especially empathetic—at least, not in the sense of emotional empathy. They do have what is sometimes called “cognitive empathy” or “perspective taking” capacity—that is, the ability to see what life is like for someone else.


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comment by MasonHartman · 2014-09-19T08:55:19.992Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I worry a bit that the way EAs communicate/market their ideas might be putting off a much larger segment of the population that relies largely on what Singer calls "emotional empathy" when making altruistic decisions.

I think it would be worthwhile to:

(1) look very carefully at the anti-EA hit pieces that occasionally pop up and try to understand the motivations/concerns behind the (usually not very well-argued) criticisms of EA;

(2) experiment with pitches similar to those employed by very popular and well-funded mainstream charities.

Speaking very broadly, EAs seem to have two main goals: getting more people to redirect their donations to more effective charities, and getting more people to donate more of their resources to charity. I think pushing both goals simultaneously is likely making EA unpalatable to most typical people, who might be receptive to moving their $20-50/month elsewhere but don't want to be measured against someone who's donating 10% of their earnings.

Meanwhile, we should be able to appeal to the high-empathy people who are probably feeling fairly lonely in their conviction. When I've mentioned my intention to go forward with a non-directed kidney donation, more people have questioned my sanity than have reacted positively.

comment by cflexman · 2014-09-27T01:00:51.337Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've heard from several of my friends that EA is frequently introduced to them in a way that seems elitist and moralizing. I was wondering if there was any data on how many people learned about it through which sources. One possibility that came up was running tv/radio/internet ads for it (in a more gentle, non-elitist manner), in the hopes that the outreach and potentially recruited donors would more than pay back the original cost. Thoughts?

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2014-09-19T16:30:31.212Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with what you say, except for this:

Speaking very broadly, EAs seem to have two main goals: getting more people to redirect their donations to more effective charities, and getting more people to donate more of their resources to charity.

There are multiple effective paths to impact, and only some of these involve making or giving money. I think it's important to be clear about this: there are already critiques of the EA movement out there which foster this misconception (see e.g. the RationalWiki entry on EA), and this may be turning away people that would otherwise be receptive to our ideas.

comment by MasonHartman · 2014-09-19T17:04:36.674Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

That's a good point. I don't just think in terms of money when I talk about "donations" and "resources," but there's not really a very concise or clear way to talk about the very broad array of actions people can take that are consistent with EA goals.

comment by Diego_Caleiro · 2014-09-19T05:54:20.931Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The very ability of considering what one's position would be in a scenario very different from the one in which one finds oneself is prefaced by controlling the impulse to react to the immediate environment.

The common feature between, say, Nick Bostrom's PHD, Nick Beckstead's PHD and Paul Christiano's blog Rational Altruist, is a capacity to hold even fewer particularities of one's environment as true come what may.

Empathy is just the opposite of that, empathy is frequently seen as the immediate, system 1, uncontrollable emotion that one experiences when someone else in the local immediacies undergoes distress.

I've argued in the past, and would continue to argue, that the moral obligation is higher, not lower, for people with less empathy. I'm much more forgiving of people who give locally and thereby fail to save globally if they do it to avoid feeling the sadness of empathy.

comment by Dale · 2014-09-19T01:19:51.778Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, my personal impression of many EAs I've met in person, and from talking to people online, is that EAs are more likely to suffer from Memetic Immune Disorder than to be unusually empathetic in the conventional terms. I think people who are very empathetic often have trouble with trolley-style scenarios.

comment by Marcus_A_Davis · 2014-09-19T00:40:22.049Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting piece. However, the article conflates psychopathy meaning "people with smaller amygdalas" and psychopathy meaning "people with smaller amygdalas who display anti-social behavior". The former group is not necessarily in the latter group. For example, you may have a smaller than average amygdala and genuinely respond less to the fear and distress of others but not become a social predator that manipulates people.

And as you point out, it's not clear how this study relates to EAs. It could be that EAs have relatively normal amygdala size but are disproportionately interested in rationality and ethics and hence recognize the good they can and should be doing in the world.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2014-09-19T01:11:49.260Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree. It would be interesting to know how EAs score on standard measures of empathy, relative to the general population or to other relevant subpopulations (such as psychopaths or hyper-empathetic folk).