Heart versus Head (or empathy versus consequentialism)

Back in college, a friend once casually observed that I was all head and no heart.  I was devastated.  I remember thinking, if I am all head (an unfeeling, calculative, hyper-rational thinker) then why does this passing and rather inconsequential remark hurt me so much?

As I start this post, I find myself bursting with too many intersecting ideas – if I were to systematically analyze and present those ideas in a coherent way, I would end up with a 1000 page book.  And it would be a ridiculously substandard book in a field that abounds with remarkable works by some of the greatest minds of all time – Kant, Mill, Rawls, and Sen to name but a few.

As an economist I have been trained to think like a consequentialist.  In my mind, the morality of every act can be measured only in terms of the ultimate consequences of the act.  There are of course other ways of judging morality – rather than make calculations about consequences, some prefer to follow a list of rules that dictate what is right (deontology) while some others prefer to make judgments based on whether the actions themselves are borne of virtue (virtue ethics).  There are other views too – Gandhi, for instance, believed that the means and the end are indistinguishable and inseparable.

I think I understand these alternative positions and have great respect for them, but in my mind, even these positions are ultimately supportable only because following rules (deontology) or acting out of virtue (virtue ethics) are smart approaches that help to efficiently achieve the best possible consequences in a world where actually calculating all the consequences (and their respective probabilities) is a mind-boggling task that is paralyzingly difficult.

While thinking intellectually about morality it is impossible for me to ignore the importance of consequences.   However, in my day-to-day life, when I am in a moral dilemma I tend to instinctively let my feelings of empathy dictate my actions.  Only on rare occasions I do succeed in letting consequentialist considerations dominate my actions and even on those occasions I’ve had to make a conscious, extreme, and deliberate effort.

So for me personally, the tussle is between a feeling of empathy originating in the heart and a morally driven calculation of consequences originating in the head.

Let me channel a little bit of Jonathon Haidt here who stresses the socially functional nature of moral thinking.  In short, we have the morals that we espouse because it helps us become members of our group in society.  I think this suggests that empathy is of paramount importance in defining the psychology of our morality and that makes sense evolutionarily too: we are empathetic towards those who belong to our tribe or live in close proximity because we would like to protect shared genes as well as form symbiotic relationships.

But just because empathy is the driving force of our morality does not mean that it should be the driving force of our morality.

After all the verbiage related to theory, let me switch to examples now:

As a kid, when I watched world cup soccer, I always supported the Netherlands because they were a flamboyant team and were simply fascinating to watch.  However, as I grew older, my consequentialist thinking started to kick in: I began supporting teams whose countries would benefit the most from victory.  If a country were in some sort of economic or political crisis, I knew that a football victory would help bring smiles to the depressed society – how then could I support the Netherlands over Nigeria?  Switching my allegiance in soccer was not hard as I usually felt equally empathetic towards both teams (sometimes though, when empathy kicked in, I would support Asian teams over others).

But things became much harder in the recent cricket world cup.  The semifinal was between traditional rivals India and Pakistan.  All my patriotism and empathy lay with the Indian team.  The captain of the Indian team is a friend of one of my close childhood friends.  Though it was heartbreaking to even consider rooting for Pakistan, in my mind I knew that the people of Pakistan needed the victory more.  While India is far from being a happy, developed, trouble-free country, it is in much better shape than crisis-riddled Pakistan.  My consequentialist mind and my empathetic heart refused to come to terms and I remained ambivalent even after India won the match.

But empathy remains the driving force of most of my day-to-day moral decisions.  I am not alone in this tendency to be driven by empathy.  A famous behavioral economics finding called ‘Identifiable Victim Effect’ confirms that potential donors contribute more to a cause if they are told, with the aid of an emotional narrative, the beneficiary’s name, life story, and family background.  If people are instead given numbers and statistics about the cause as a whole, they are likely to donate less!  When potential donors are told both (the emotional narrative and the pertinent statistics), they are likely to contribute less than in the case where they are only told the narrative.  Somehow, hearing the numbers makes us less empathetic and therefore less moral.  Stalin had this right: “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

Empathy could also be part of the reason why terrorist attacks and natural calamities stir stronger feelings of support (we feel a sense of empathy with victims as we realize that we could have been in their shoes) than prolonged famines and starvation (we cannot imagine ourselves as ever being victims of such tragedies).

So the danger with using empathy as our criterion is that we will allocate scarce resources sub-optimally (every economist’s nightmare!).  Rather than spend pennies on micro-nutrients to save thousands of lives we could end up spending thousands on causes that don’t have as much of an impact on saving and improving lives.  Similarly, empathy with a certain group (say fellow citizens) can make us hostile in practice if not in intent towards other groups (say refugees) even though it would probably be more moral to treat all humans as equal.

However, there are also dangers with focusing on consequentialism – 1) the difficulty involved in determining the best course of action in a world full of uncertainty paralyzes us into inaction and 2) when confronted with numbers, we tend to become less empathetic and since empathy drives our morals we become less moral.

Charles Dickens portrayed consequentialists as cold-blooded hypocrites in his book, ‘Hard Times’.  I hated his portrayal but I now understand how risky consequentialism can become if it erodes our moral sensibility.  In a recent study (discussed in a blog post at Crooked Timber), psychologists found that those who use utilitarian (a form of consequentialism) thinking tend to be “emotionally callous and manipulative—traits that most would perceive as not only psychologically unhealthy, but also morally undesirable.”

As an economist, I think that I should continue working with inherently consequentialist models (so as to determine, to the best of my ability, what the consequences of various policy alternatives would be) but I should also be extremely diligent about remaining moral despite confronting numbers all day.

P.S.  I’ll do another post on Rawls sometime – I tend to agree with Rawls in spirit (but not the exact details) but my approach to Rawls involves a consequentialist framework although I believe many people (including perhaps Rawls himself) would disagree with my consequentialist characterization.

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