Post by Meghan Winsby

As one of the “parents” of the Effective Altruism movement, Peter Singer will speak to Western’s Philosophy department on the subject in two weeks, outlining and defending his views on how to live what he considers a minimally ethical life. To live a fully ethical life, he claims, requires doing “the most good you can do,” and many of us eagerly await what we anticipate to be a lively discussion of exactly what this entails. In practice, Effective Altruism involves—among other things—donating large portions of one’s income (up to 50%, for some) to charities with a proven record of effectiveness.

At the center of some recent debate has been Singer’s deemphasizing of the role of empathy in moral life. Along with Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, Singer advocates detachment from the “warm glow” we feel when we allow emotional empathy to motivate our actions. In his recent book The Most Good You Can Do, Singer cites a study in which two groups were told that a sum of $300,000 was required to administer a life-saving treatment. In one group, subjects were introduced to one child—with her photo, name, and age included—and asked to donate. The $300,000 would be used to save her life. The other group was introduced to eight children, and the $300,000 would save all of their lives. The group shown the single child gave more than the group shown the eight children.

Researchers attributed this “absurd outcome” (Singer) to emotional empathy driving subjects’ actions in the first group more strongly than in the second. If empathy can hinder one from doing as much good as possible with one’s resources, then it is no help to living even a minimally ethical life. The emphasis on empathy as an emotional driver for altruistic living should give way instead to an emphasis on compassion, “a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others” (Bloom).

An important distinction, taken up by members of the “anti-empathy brigade”, is that between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. To use Bloom’s characterization, emotional empathy involves the distress and concern associated with “feeling another’s pain,” while cognitive empathy involves placing oneself in another’s shoes—actively imagining oneself in others’ positions, or taking up their perspectives. Bloom is confident that emotional and cognitive empathy come neatly apart, and arise from different brain processes, and Singer follows this distinction.

Singer includes personal distress and perspective-taking, along with empathic concern to be key components of empathy. Empathic concern involves the “tendency to experience feelings of warmth, compassion, and concern for other people.” Studies involving trolley cases have shown that those who make consistently utilitarian judgements show less empathic concern (though levels of personal distress and perspective-taking remain similar) than those who make more non-utilitarian types of judgements. Given the aims of Effective Altruism, it would seem that empathic concern—or the “warm glow” elements of empathy—are unnecessary and may be in many instances unhelpful.

Is there a role for the emotional side of empathy—or even compassion—in relation to Effective Altruism? How does Singer reconcile his present view with past sentiment?:

“Were we incapable of empathy – of putting ourselves in the position of others and seeing that their suffering is like our own – then ethical reasoning would lead nowhere. If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent.”

–Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (2001)

(Photo credit: Eamonn McCabe for The Guardian)

Peter Singer’s lecture, “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically” will take place on September 17th at 7:00pm at the Great Hall, located in Somerville House here at Western University. To view event details and to register to attend, please see the event page.