The limits of human rationality

One of the canonical utilitarian cases against a deontological system of rights involves a ticking time bomb that can potentially wipe out an entire city and what you would be willing to do to the prisoner that (potentially) knows the bomb's location. The argument, which is still fairly contested, is that torturing that one prisoner is justified - the rights of one cannot be held against the lives of the many.

An editorial from Nick Kristof in the Times suggests that even though that's what some people may think, that's not how they act. More often than not, a single person is actually more important than a group of people, judging by people's willingness to give. The evidence for this hypothesis is as follows:

"In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern."

This seems at once crazy and yet, hardly surprising. In an age where the global warming movement has to be galvanized by photos of penguins and baby polar bears, and where Terry Schiavo can rouse Congress in a way that the soldiers in Iraq never really could, it seems like this study is really just pointing out the freaking obvious.

One has to wonder what would happen if all the people across the world took the principles of the Enlightenment to heart and started acting in a way that would actually be maximally beneficial for the whole, rather than in a way that just... OH MY GOD LOOK AT THAT PUPPY!


  1. Pudge said...



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