Can we do more good by taking emotion out of charitable giving?

Philosopher Will MacAskill answers

Rather than taking emotion out of charitable giving altogether, I suggest that we should use emotion to motivate ourselves to be more altruistic, while at the same time relying on reason to guide these altruistic impulses in the direction where they do the most good.

Let’s consider a concrete example. The tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 killed about 15,000 people. By contrast, the Haiti earthquake from 2010 killed about 150,000. If our response to these disasters was driven by reason, we would expect a greater amount of funding to be provided to the latter disaster, which had a much higher death toll and occurred in a much poorer country. But that’s not what happened: the total international aid raised was about the same in each case—about $5 billion. Funding seems to have been allocated in proportion with how emotionally salient these disasters were, rather than on the basis of their scale and severity.

Our response to natural disasters such as these is one of the clearest cases of how, when it comes to charity, most people follow their gut and respond to new events rather than ongoing problems. When a disaster strikes, the emotional centers of our brain flare up: we think—emergency! We forget there is an emergency happening all the time because we’ve grown accustomed to everyday emergencies like disease and poverty and oppression. Because disasters are new and dramatic events, they inspire deeper and more urgent emotions, causing our subconscious to mistakenly assess them as more important or worthy of attention.

Ironically, the law of diminishing returns suggests that, if you feel a strong emotional reaction to a story and want to help, you should probably resist this inclination because there are probably many others like you who are also donating. By all means, you should harness the emotion you feel when a natural disaster strikes, but remind yourself that a similar disaster is happening all the time—and then consider donating to wherever your money will help the most rather than what is getting the most attention.

William MacAskill is an associate professor of philosophy at Lincoln College at the University of Oxford, the author of Doing Good Better, and a co-founder of the effective altruism movement.