Transfer of Feelings; Vaccination as Housefire

October 18th, 2011
I've really enjoyed the discussion here over the past few days. Lots of insightful comments. I was especially moved my two of them, and I wanted to make sure they didn't stay buried in the long discussion threads:

Allison on Giving For Yourself, Giving For Others:

I don't think its hard to feel good about donating money to causes where you can't see the effect. The problem is the magnitude and duration. If you help someone with whom you are in direct contact, the feelings are more intense. Likewise, it usually takes more than a minute to help someone in person, so the feelings last for longer and are easier to remember.

I've tried a method to transfer feelings before, though not on charitable acts. It's worked okay for me in the past. As an example, say I really love my family. I think about how much I love them and why. I think about the quirks they have that make me smile, or even the things that they do that I don't like, but focus on how I love them anyway. Regardless, I cultivate that love. Then, when I encounter someone I have a negative reaction to, I can think about those positive feelings, and I end up reacting more positively to that person, and even can appreciate them.

I think if we take the time to train ourselves to think about why helping strangers feels good: the smiles on people's faces, the sincere gratitude, or whatever other impact we've seen; then it's easier to feel good about a donation does by imagining its impact, which reinforces the optimal act. Without backdrop experiences of local charity work, even a minimal set of experiences, this kind of transfer is harder. In some sense, this exercise would be "selfish" since it would be for the purpose of making the donator feel better about their choices, but if it gets more people to donate more regularly, then it's not really selfish at all.

So, lessening the feelings associated with suboptimal charity isn't bad inherently, but I think it's not good to strip someone of all their warm-fuzzy feelings. It's important to try and replace the feelings with warm-fuzzies from effective charity, even if it's hard to accomplish and results in a net warm-fuzzies loss. To really convince a lot of people about a cause for the long haul requires an emotional component.

Ben on Local Action and Remote Donation:

While I'm generally dubious of utilitarian arguments, I still find your case here entirely persuasive. Saving an infant's life for (an estimated) $500 is an incredible bargain.

Your anonymous friend may be right that local help does a lot of good; Alex Benn may be right that a child's death means slightly different things in different cultural contexts; Tavi may be right that in the long run we'll need to curb population growth, and that the U.S.'s cultural attitude towards death may not be the healthiest one to export (though I highly doubt that we'll inflict our neuroses on other nations merely by vaccinating their children); Andrew might be right that we need to seek structural solutions, and that there are limits on the good that pure monetary charity can do. I'm willing to grant all of those arguments.

But even if I grant all of those, it doesn't change the fact that $500 is an absurdly small cost for saving a child's life. When children aren't receiving $41 of vaccinations that could spare them a short life of physical suffering, and spare their parents the long grief of losing a child, that's not just a tragedy. That's an emergency.

An analogy: Imagine your neighbor's house is on fire, and you have a hose that can put it out. (I don't think this is a stretch at all; preventable infant mortality is quite like a house on fire.)

Will you say, "But I can do so much good with this hose by watering my other neighbor's garden"? It's true, but you can do so much MORE good here.

Will you say, "Maybe that fire isn't as painful for them as it would be for me"? Might be true, but irrelevant - even if it's LESS painful, it's got to be pretty damn painful.

Will you say, "There's overdevelopment here anyway, and we need to reduce the number of houses"? Might be true, but this isn't the way to accomplish that goal.

Will you say, "We're too attached to our material possessions anyway, so I should let theirs burn"? Again, this is not a fair way to accomplish that goal.

Will you say, "It shouldn't be the neighbor's job to put out the fire; we need a better fire department, and less blind charitable giving of water"? Again, could be true, but now's not the time for that debate.

Now, once we deal with the medical emergency of unvaccinated children (and comparable emergencies like famine and genocide, as Alex Benn mentioned), I'm open to hearing arguments that giving to charities like Village Reach is no longer the best way to improve the world. But until then, I think all the other arguments are missing the point.

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