Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Book Recommendation: Why Empathy Matters

When I began reading Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment by JD Trout, I wasn't expecting it to be so closely aligned with effective altruist messages because I'd never encountered it on any EA reading lists. I think the book's absence from these lists is a glaring oversight. Below, I've transcribed a nice sample from the first chapter. Hopefully, those that like it decide to check out the book.
Judging by many of the important individual and social choices we make, our concept of a good life is grotesquely imbalanced, even by our own standards. Our empathic organ acts like a switch that turns the emotional heat on or off. It doesn't regulate the temperature of the system. As a result, people display undue concern about events in the present, about people nearby, and about the suffering of those most like us. And this imbalance creates perverse "coincidences." We favour ourselves over others even when we risk nothing by putting others first. We give a lot of resources to people with a name we know, while unfamiliar people much worse off get ignored. 
The normal products of empathy are healthy and effective. Any biases that quiet the impulse to help, any ways of framing poverty that make the problem appear hopeless, any excuses designed to politely silence or deflect charity activists, should be traded for strategies that simply ensure that help will reach the target. We simply overindulge our sloppy responses to human suffering. Like our reaction to other automatic psychological processes, such as intuitive judgment, we just can't believe that our empathic intuitions place our priorities on a crash course.
Our preferences are routinely inconsistent and, when we frame issues in a slightly different way, easily reversible. These phenomena are now well but have not yet fully influenced political action. ... Human empathy evolved to respond to a victim we knew, not to a mass slaughter whose dead equaled in number the entire population of Oslo, or Lisbon, or Oklahoma City.
Genocide notwithstanding, hunger and illness are the most certain routes to misery, and reducing both is the surest path to life satisfaction. If securing a chance at life satisfaction is a social priority, then our resources should be more squarely devoted to eradicating poverty. Economically less productive nations have been able largely to eliminate these problems. Wealthier nations, such as the United Stated, have not been able to generate public support for entitlement programs that would do better than leaving 11 million children impoverished and 43 million people without health insurance. A number of European nations could act as models. If the United States is unwilling to study their lessons, it is only because eliminating the chief sources of human misery is simply not a priority, or because we have turned away from the problem. It is worth at least acknowledging this fact before attempting to tackle the obstacles.
Compared to typical EA reading material, Trout is more optimistic about policy change and less optimistic about charity as a method of reducing poverty.

For those who don't know, Trout co-authored Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment with Michael Bishop.

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