Thursday, February 26, 2009

J. D. Trout's "The Empathy Gap"

J.D. Trout is a Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, and Adjunct Professor at the Parmly Sensory Sciences Institute.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society, and reported the following:
The Empathy Gap asks, and tries to answer, the question of why good people can look the other way when others are suffering and could be helped so easily. If you turn to page 99 of The Empathy Gap, you will find an important key to that answer in the brisk discussion of the omission bias.

One of our most cherished intuitions is that it is worse to bring about harm (an act) than to let harm occur (an omission). There is a moral difference, we ordinarily suppose, between acts and omissions. Feeling less responsible for omissions, we freely neglect to vote, to sign an organ donor card, and to enroll in a retirement plan. This disregard becomes the norm because humans are creatures of habit. People take the same route to work, read the paper at the same time of day, shower using the same sequence of steps, and so on. But government and culture, of course, have a role in determining what becomes habitual. Australia and England have higher voter turnout than the U.S. But there is an obvious reason for this discrepancy. In the U.S., in order to be counted in an election you have to surmount barriers like voter registration. This is typical when no-action is the default. But it is not the default everywhere. In Australia, you can be fined for neglecting to vote. In England, it is the government’s responsibility to make sure you are registered, not yours. I once asked a political scientist why voting isn’t mandated in the U.S. His response was: “Requiring people to vote just isn’t an American thing.” That’s a default view, to be sure, and one we’ve grown comfortable with. But it isn’t a justification. In the same way that our default is to not sign up to donate organs -- we have to take positive action to do so -- the same is true for voting. Inaction leads to not voting, for which there is no penalty. And you are blamed less, or feel less guilty, than if you take action by voting for the winning candidate, who then drives the country into the ground. Compelling people to vote would be regarded by Americans as just more meddling by a nanny state, not, as in some countries, as supporting or memorializing an obligation of civic participation in the life of our democracy.

Fighting the omission bias can have wonderful consequences. Fatality rates and health improved when we stopped neglecting inoculation. But that amounts to taking action. After all, wellness-promotion is an action, while health neglect is an omission. Decent policies can sustain us when our will or judgment fails. Putting fluoride in the water, providing inoculations, installing seat belts and requiring motorcycle helmets – actions requiring an infrastructure – are often disputed as meddlesome impositions, and threats to our liberty. But they improve, and even save, lives. So this is how good people can neglect those in need: We don’t acknowledge that while we are responsible for our actions, we are also responsible for our decisions. And letting a harm occur when the risk was known is itself a decision; it is a decision to not act. The Empathy Gap proposes policies that would deliver us from complicated decisions when we have little time and even less information to make them. As page 99 puts it: “It is not clear how we arrived at the current allocation of health care resources, but our system didn’t fall from the bottoms of cherubs.” When it comes to caring for ourselves and others, an empathic government will be more vigilant about monitoring our real risks, and less indulgent of our sentimental attachments to our gut, intuitive, folk judgments.
Learn more about the book and author at J.D. Trout's website and his Psychology Today blog, The Greater Good.

--Marshal Zeringue