No, sorry for all at once will not work

The idea of ​​being able to sympathize with the whole world does not take into account the limitations of human psychology


It seems that the world is becoming more sympathetic. Americans make record donations to charity. People feel the pain of suffering in other countries, brought to us by the development of communications and transport. Violence, in comparison with historical data, decreases.

Apparently, the great humanitarian project of expanding the area of ​​our empathy to all of humanity is working. Our group of “our own” (those whom we allow into our inner circle of friends and on whom we spend energy) is growing, while the group of “aliens” (all others) is compressed. But in this ideal picture there is one drawback: it is very difficult to overcome our instinct of dividing the world into “our own” and “alien” . It is in our nature to help the members of a group of “their own”, for example, family, friends, citizens of their country, and ignore, or even punish, non-members. While some moral limits are expanding, others remain stubbornly in place, or even shrink - just imagine Democrats and Republicans, Sunnis and Shiites, fans of Spartacus and CSKA.

Fans of the Duke Blue Devils team try to distract the 2016 North Carolina team player Tar Heels

The ultimate goal of a liberal humanitarian project, universal sympathy, can be called the lack of boundaries between their own and others. In pursuit of this goal, we must fight our instincts. And to some extent it is possible. Research confirms that people can pump their "moral muscles" and blur the line between their own and others. For example, the practice of meditation increases empathy, improving the ability of people to recognize the emotions of others on facial expressions and increasing the likelihood that they will give way to a person with crutches. A mere increase in people's faith in the ability to change morals increases their sympathy toward people from other ideological and racial communities. When nothing helps, people respond to rewards. My co-authors showed that monetary reward for unbiased judgments increases the ability of Democrats and Republicans to understand each other and believe in the possibility of political solutions to conflicts.

But all these exercises will not help us 100%. Moreover, on the assumption that we can completely abandon our local manners, terrible irony is hidden. Sociologists have found that attachment to their own and hatred of strangers work on the same neurobiological basis, reinforce each other and developed together - because loyalty to the members of their group gave an advantage in terms of survival, and helped our ancestors to fight with strangers threatening them. This means that if we completely destroy the hatred of others, we will undermine the love of their own. Empathy is an antagonistic game .

Absolute universality, in the framework of which we could empathize with each individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. For ignoring this fact, we pay dearly: we paralyze ourselves with unrealizable demands, which we impose on ourselves. This can be seen in today's public discussions. Empathy debates range from regrets about the fact that people show not enough sympathy, to irritation about too much sympathy for the wrong people. Both sides of the criticism are based on the prejudice of the endless possibilities of our empathy and on the belief that if we fail to show it, then only we are to blame.

In 2006, Barack Obama, being a senator, spoke at the graduation ceremony at Northwestern University, mourned the "lack of empathy" in the country and urged people to "see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us." Several studies have supported Obama’s concern: people in the 21st century show less sympathy and more narcissism than in previous decades. A large stream of articles complains about the decline of sympathy and states it.

And then the pendulum swung in the other direction. Journalists and commentators in social networks acknowledged that people do not care. But somehow they get it wrong - they grieve over the victims of the Brussels attacks and ignore the victims of the bombing in Yemen; express indignation about ISIL [a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation] and do not worry about the more violent Boko Haram ; grieve over the death of the lion of Cecil in Zimbabwe, but do not notice the many victims of the killings. Some tragedies attract the attention of people, while more serious ones remain in the shadows.

Virtually any attempt to draw attention to some terrible event in the world causes such complaints, as if directed at the address of empathy would be worse than the event itself. If we recognized that we have limited opportunities to sympathize with others, it would help us to get rid of the biliousness and self-flagellation inherent in such discussions. In fact, just as an athlete cannot overcome the physical limitations of the body, we cannot go beyond moral limits. It is necessary to realistically evaluate these limits and build a scientific method for choosing the values ​​closest to us.

We can, and often overcome, our moral instincts, using a more logical way of thinking, so the opposition of ours and those of others cannot be called absolute. But our cognitive resources are limited and end quickly. For example, to keep in mind the 9-digit number of the insurance policy, you need to use the RAM, and this process can prevent us from remembering other information - say, the phone number of the insurance agent. Similar restrictions lead to the so-called. decision-making fatigue - thinking about a certain set of decisions suppresses our ability to make further decisions; this was observed when studying the work of judges who made decisions on whether to release prisoners on bail in the morning and in the afternoon. Similarly, empathy requires controlling one’s own emotions and separating them from the emotions of other people, self-contemplation, focusing on the outside and recognizing the suffering of another person. These abilities are also subject to fatigue.

Moral principles cannot be everywhere at the same time - we, the people, have problems with expressing equal sympathy for foreigners affected by the earthquake and the victims of hurricanes in our country. Our ability to empathize and help other people is finite. In addition, one moral principle may limit the other. Even liberals who extol universalism are receding when it comes to the poor. Empathy draws our attention to certain goals, and whether this goal represents disenfranchised people, relatives, refugees from a distant country, or sports team players - this goal makes it difficult for our attention to turn to equivalent (or even more) other groups that deserve it.

This means that we need to abandon idealized cultural sensitivity, which assigns the same importance to all moral values. We must focus our resources on a few select values, and make difficult choices about which of them are more important than others. We all have to decide that such and such actions affect people's happiness more than others, and therefore the first set should be recognized as more moral than the other.

Rejecting the idea of ​​universal empathy, we understand that we need to build a numerical moral number system to help ourselves choose the directions of application of our sympathy. Empathy seems innumerable in nature, but behaviorists have developed techniques that can turn people's hazy instincts into exact numbers. Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School suggested that moral concepts such as honesty and pride can be assessed using the procedure he called break-even analysis. Do people believe that the benefits of a particular action justify the means? If so, then the action is worth taking. For example, we can justify listening to a phone from a moral point of view, if the cost of interference with privacy is justified by the advantages of preventing a terrorist attack with a certain minimum frequency, say, once every five years.

Moreover, data from surveys of people around the world show that people are considered the most important factors affecting their happiness or suffering. The development of a survey methodology that studies the happiness associated with certain events of the day, as well as the use of smartphones to periodically assess happiness over time, has improved earlier simple questionnaires. Hidden measurements, assessing how readily people associate words denoting themselves (“I”) with words denoting happiness (“high spirits”), make it possible to obtain data on happiness not related to direct reports about a person’s mood. And neuroimaging methods identified the characteristic brain features of both hedonic satisfaction (associated with pleasure) and eudemonic satisfaction (associated with the meaning of life).

To base moral criteria on the maximization of happiness is not only a philosophical, but also scientifically motivated choice: experimental data confirm that happiness improves physical health, the immune system, and reduces stress - and all this is related to longevity. Should we not make moral choices to increase collective well-being? The data obtained can give us moral prostheses, and allow us to compare different values ​​- and also help us to discard the smaller values ​​that are closing from us larger ones. The only wrong choice from the point of view of morality is “all and at once.”

Eleanor Roosevelt carefully examines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

These approaches can help us develop a universal moral code - something that can serve as a moral compass in all cases, even if we cannot really apply it to all people in any situation. Indeed, there are many rigorous scientific visual theories about the existence of universal values: the theory of Shalom Schwartz on basic human values , the theory of Jonathan Heidt and his colleagues on moral principles , etc. We tried to create a universal code: in 1946, the UN established a committee of 18 members of different nationalities, designed to formulate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two additional UN committees were assembled to test the draft before the UN General Assembly voted for its adoption in 1948. But it was based on the opinions of the elite, not the wider masses. Today we can adopt a data based approach.

As an example, take the recent argument by Apple and the FBI about unlocking an iPhone that belonged to one of the shooters in San Bernardino. The FBI demanded that Apple bypass encryption that protects users ’personal data (before they did it themselves). Personal security (protection from government surveillance) and national security (determining whether the attack was coordinated with ISIS) came up against the case. It is difficult to draw such a balance, and the management of these disputes has strengthened the differences of opinion.

But we can approach the issue more systematically. We can use a standardized assessment of how personal security and national security violations affect happiness. This may allow us to determine that some values ​​are more universal than others, and therefore more important for human well-being. Such an approach could tell us, for example, that, on average, the excitement felt by people about the possibility that the government would read their correspondence outweighs concern about a possible terrorist attack. If so, then Apple would be “morally right” than the FBI (or vice versa).

The approach to defining and ranking universal values ​​based on data is rather ambitious. But, importantly, it gives us the opportunity to use the moral restrictions inherent in all of us, people, instead of crying about it. These restrictions complicate the concentration of our attention and make us see that not all values ​​are equally important. Instead of endless bickering over compromises of morality for our own and others, we may find that creating a sample of universal values ​​will be more pleasant, effective and unifying - and this in itself will be morality. Instead of the usual concentric circles for our own managers of today (family, friends, neighbors, citizens), we may have tools that allow us to determine exactly who we should empathize with and when.

Think about the progress made by physicists who have recognized the limitations of the physical world - nothing can move faster than light or be precisely localized in the subatomic world. In the same way, we will achieve the greatest moral progress when we accept and begin to work within the limitations of human morality, and give up the unrealistic desire to respect differences and moral diversity at any cost.

Adam Weitz - sociologist, psychologist, professor at Northwestern University at the School of Management. Kellogg It studies the humanization, dehumanization and moral consequences of these processes.


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