The Breadth of Empathy

When Peter Singer describes empathy in his book The Most Good You Can Do, he explains that there are four separate parts that make up empathy, and that those four parts come together to form two separate categories of empathy. The different aspects of empathy manifest in their own way as we react to others and have different experiences related to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.

 

The first of the two larger categories of empathy, according to Singer, is emotional empathy. “Emotional empathy is, in most situations, a good thing, but it is usually at its strongest when we can identify and relate to an individual,” Singer writes.  He describes this type of empathy as our emotional responses to the thoughts and feelings of others. Emotional empathy, he explains, covers empathetic concern and personal distress, two pieces of empathy that mesh our emotional experiences with that of others.  It is our ability to feel compassion and concern for others and their experiences, and our ability to experience the same feelings of unease and discomfort when we are with or speaking to an individual who is going through a challenging period.  It is the mirroring of the emotions of others, and our emotional urge to assist those in need.

 

Our second category of empathy, as explained by Singer, is what he calls cognitive empathy. While emotional empathy involves the way we feel about others, cognitive empathy involves the way we rationally think about the lives, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Wrapped up in cognitive empathy is perspective taking and fantasy, the former referring to our ability to adopt the point of view of others, and the latter referring to our ability to imagine ourselves going through the same experiences of others. Cognitive empathy helps us see the challenges that many people face, but it does not always help us truly feel the urge to act. Singer writes, “We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individuals.” What Singer is explaining is that we may recognize that others do not have water or access to food, but it is hard for us to truly understand what life is like in those circumstances. We may also be dwarfed by the number of individuals who need our assistance, leading us to feel as though we cannot have an impact since we cannot help them all.

 

Throughout his book Singer argues that the world needs to find a better way to make use of cognitive empathy to change the world. Most people tend to be warm glow givers, or those who donate impulsively to causes that are emotionally charged. Few people can truly bring themselves to make a donation or work for a cause that will help unidentifiable individuals in another country.  Unfortunately, it is those who we cannot see who we can often impact the most. Understanding that empathy can manifest in multiple manners will help us understand how to better connect with those around us, and those living in the world beyond the close boarders in which we typically think and interact.  Singer encourages us to recognize and use both types of empathy to have a greater impact on this planet, and to maximize the decisions we make.  Combining our cognitive with our emotional empathy can help us reach a greater level of catharsis by acting deliberately to use our resources and ability to help those who truly need it the most.

A Lack of Empathy

When describing the attitudes of effective altruists in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, author Peter Singer examines empathy, and how empathy affects people within a community.  Singer focuses on what empathy means and how it has become something worth focusing on in our lives today.  In his book, the author uses a quote from President Obama as an example of how many people think about empathy today,

 

“Shortly after he was elected president of the united states, Obama recieved a letter from a young girl suggesting a ban on unneccessary wars.  In response he told the girl, “If you don’t already know what it means, I want you to look up the word empathy in the dictionary. I beleive we don’t have enough empathy in our wold today, and it is up to your generation to change that.”

 

Singer sets up Obama’s quote by defining empathy as the ability to put oneself in the position of others and identify with their feelings or emotions. He also looks at work by Jeremy Rifkin who sees empathy as a force that is spreading broadly within our community and evolving with our society. In Rifkin’s view, empathy is no longer something we restrict to our close group or to those who look and act like us. Empathy is growing and we are beginning to see the importance of sharing empathy with all of those across the planet.  That means that as a culture that is increasingly globalized, we are able to see the points of view and understand the feelings of more and more people.

 

It is this spread of empathy that Singer believes is at the heart of the effective altruist movement. He breaks empathy down and looks at four types of empathy in the sections following Obama’s quote.  While Singer agrees that empathy is spreading and building the effective altruist movement, I believe he would also feel as though it is not as widespread through our country as it should be.  Practicing empathy can be very easy for some people, but a major challenge for others. Everyone within a community will have to look at empathy and build toward a point where they allow empathy to overcome their prejudices if we want to be the generation that President Obama is counting on to change the way we interact with one another.

Evolution and Groups

Looking at how evolution may have contributed to senses and actions of altruism, Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, quotes Frans de Waal, a social scientist, “Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside.” Singer uses this quote to show that we tend to be very generous to those who we perceive as having a level of sameness with ourselves while we separate ourselves from those who do not seem to be like us.  In our small group where we actually live and interact with others who are like us, we can be generous and see the payoff from going out of our way to help those around us.  Singer explains that this does not happen as easily with people outside our group and he quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson who have studied altruism, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.”

 

The perspective that Singer is building helps us understand the base of the movement he has coined as Effective Altruism, a notion where individuals make an effort to do the most good they can do throughout their lifetime by focusing on ways they can impact and improve the world by aiding those who are the most impoverished or those who face the most suffering on a day to day basis.  Those who travel to other countries building wells, administering healthcare, and those who advocate for education and social improvement for groups in the developing world can be effective altruists under Singer’s definition, but the group he focuses on that can have the greatest impact is the group of individuals who shape their life so that the fruits of their labor, the money they earn, can be directed back towards themselves in a small amount so that the bulk of their financial wellbeing, or at least a significant chunk, can be applied toward making the world a better place. Those who volunteer with charities to travel and provide humanitarian aid are using supplies that were purchased through donation, finding connections that were established through financial assistance, and sometimes only investing their time and effort because the monetary needs of a program were met through donation.  Singer believes that effective altruists change their life in an attempt to reduce their needs  so that the financial benefits of their work can be applied toward charities that have the  greatest impact on the planet. They may still make the trips and spend  the time and effort on the ground, but they see that their skills and abilities give them a chance to earn money in the richest countries that can then be re-directed toward the poorest of the poor in other countries, where their money goes further to assist and save lives.

 

Singer’s quotes from de Waal, Sober, and Wilson show how the altruistic impulses of effective altruists may have developed in our ancestors before being passed along to us. We value the act of aiding others because it helps our group or tribe progress. Our small group will be greatly hindered if one person is falling behind, but if those who are successful can help pull that individual along and provide for them so that they can begin to make returns for the group, then everyone rises together.  Effective altruists are able to see this benefit, but they have managed to expand their idea of the group to which they identify to the whole world. They are part of a global group of humans, not just a national, regional, or local group. They defy the ideas of Sober and Wilson by showing that there does not need to be another group against which we should be competing. For Singer, the effective altruists have capitalized on an evolutionary trait, and pragmatically applied it to areas of our life where it can benefit the world the most.

A New Social Responsibility

“A Brookings Institution study has pointed out that millennials are much more concerned about corporate social responsibility than any previous generation, and as employees, they want “their daily work to be part of, and reflect, their societal concerns.””

 

Peter Singer ends one of the chapters in his book The Most Good You Can Do with the previous quote to show the ways in which people’s ideas about social responsibility are changing, especially with younger generations. In The Most Good You Can Do Singer explores the ideas behind the movement he has titled Effective Altruism. The movement involves finding ways to make donations (financial or time) that do the most to help other people and make lasting impacts in the lives of those who need it most.  The movement centers on the philosophy of living modestly and using ones personal resources to assist others. It is a movement away from consumerism, away from self-centered thought, and away from traditional views of leisure and the American Dream.

 

Singer seems to be describing effective altruism throughout his book as a movement that has been sparked and mostly practiced within younger generations.  He has focused on college students (since he is around them at Yale) and young adults who are just starting off or have been on their own for just a short period of time. The people he focuses on, those who can adopt the ideas of effective altruism, are those who want to see themselves make a difference in the world  and want to see the world become a happier and more equal place.  Their focus is generally not contained within the United States, but on the global good, and easing the global suffering of those who are the most disadvantaged.

 

When you look at the new professionals entering the working world with an effective altruism approach to life, the quote above becomes apparent. The mindset and ideas shared by many within the Millennial Generation, the desire to change the world for the good and make a positive impact during our lives, is what has given rise to Effective Altruism, and it is no surprise that those shared ideas are beginning to shape the way that professionals look at the companies they work for.

 

When you are focused on doing the most good you can do, you wont settle in a position where your work actively harms others or where those around you actively exploit others.  When effective altruists and millennials bring their ideas about social responsibility to the workplace they expect the structure around them to respond and move in concert with their beliefs. If the system around them does not, then they will look for new opportunities with socially responsible companies that are moving in a direction that aligns with their beliefs.

How Effective Altruists Capitalize on Capitalism

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains the way he thinks about economic objectives, equality, and how capitalism affects the American public.  Singer is globally focused on reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty and what he explains in his book is that the levels of extreme poverty seen in the united states are far lower than levels seen in other countries. He also explores the idea that to be poor in the United States is better than to be poor in developing countries where there is not a structure of assistance and where there are not wealthy people who are able to make donations to help others.
Singer focuses on the idea of the wealthy helping those who are not as fortunate in his book, but his ideas of wealthy might not align with ours. With his global focus he sees ways in which the average American is vastly more wealthy than most people living throughout the world. Even though we may not consider ourselves wealthy, we are often much better off in the United States, and we often have a much greater opportunity to help others through doing good.
Capitalism in The Most Good You Can Do is explored as the source for both the great wealth in the United States even though it is also a source for great inequality within the our country and the global community. Interestingly, Singer views equality as a secondary goal or a useful byproduct of a society focused on doing good. He writes, “effective altruists typically value equality not for its own sake but only because of its consequences.” I would argue that Singer greatly values political equality and social equality since somewhere at the base of effective altruism one must believe that those who they are helping are equals because we are all human. However, the idea of everyone being on equal footing socially and economically is not a key aspect of effective altruism.  Effective altruists are not driving for more wealth and more things, but may drive toward greater salaries because it means they will have a chance to do more and provide more for those who are in the most unfortunate of situations.
“No doubt capitalism does drive some people into extreme poverty — it is such a vast system that it would be surprising if it did not — but it has also lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty.  It would not be easy to demonstrate that capitalism has driven more people into extreme poverty than it has lifted out of it; indeed there are good grounds for thinking that the opposite is the case.”
Singer’s quote shows that our economic system cannot be blamed for the greatness of our society nor for its shortfalls. People within the same system experience greatly different pressures and outcomes, but what determines the overall health of our society is how we use the system in place. In capitalism the very wealthy have taken advantage of the system to benefit themselves, which is a side effect of the system that does deserve criticism.  I would argue that on the other end of the system, thinking of a socialist or communist society, we would fear that those who are the most disadvantaged would find ways to take advantage of the system as opposed to those who are the most wealthy.
The argument that I believe Singer would make, in regards to capitalism, is that those who do become super wealthy, or even moderately wealthy (which may mean the average American when we adopt a global perspective), can do the most good by choosing to redirect their resources to causes that they can meaningfully impact and that will meaningfully impact the lives of those who suffer the most.  Without a capitalistic system that allows us all to obtain the most wealth possible, we lose the opportunity to do the most good possible. A focus on social responsibility within a capitalistic society, Singer would argue, is the greatest change and source of positivity the world can provide.

How Being Outraged Can Boost Our Self-esteem

Throughout his book Considerations, author Colin Wright reflects ideas that align with stoicism, turning Considerations into a collection of essays on varying topics to slightly mirror Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  A common theme between the two works is the focus on ideas of self awareness, self-control, and accepting that you do not understand everyone’s perspectives and thoughts.  Commenting on ideas of self-awareness and self-control, Wright introduces an interesting idea about the way we think during times of passionate anger,

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior.  By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue.  We’re saying, “How horrible this situation is, and how capable I am of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!””

 

Wright continues to explain that this type of outrage is nothing more than a self-esteem boost for ourselves because it raises us along a slope of moral righteousness from which we are able to display and pronounce our superiority over those in the “wrong” camp. Our ranting and explosive attitudes release energy and captivate the attention of others, giving us an additional boost by holding people’s attention.  As this continues, being right or wrong does not matter, and we simply become outraged on moral issues so that we can continue to hold people’s attention and flatter ourselves. The more people pay attention to an outraged individual, whether they agree with them or just want to see someone exploding their beliefs, the more that individual feels supported. We reinforce our ideas and beliefs and risk polarizing ourselves through our thought process by creating an identity for ourselves that is holy and pure, while demonizing those with whom we disagree and view as being wrong.

 

I think that both Aurelius and Wright would argue that it is better to turn inside ourselves and reflect on that which drives us irate before making a public display of our feelings. By better understanding whatever it is, we can better react to it, and perhaps understand other perspectives surrounding that which angered us. Aurelius would certainly argue that nothing should push an individual to the point of outrage, since it is likely outside our control and influence, and since the thing itself likely does not make us any worse off, but rather our reactions to that thing makes us angry. Both authors would also argue that it is important to be able to understand why others think or behave in a way to us that seems completely backward and wrong.  When we can focus and explore the behaviors and thoughts of others from their perspective we are able to grow as individuals and better connect with them.  By connecting and sharing perspectives we are able to grow as individuals and as groups as opposed to creating divides within society that entrench us behind a personal moral facade of correctness.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.